On the mind of the Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Jung-Chul Lee

Aug 5, 2022

“If you have peace in your heart, thousands of people find their healing around you.” —St. Seraphim of Sarov

A minor miracle happened while I was on vacation the last two weeks—I read a novel. I suspect some of you may not understand why that’s a minor miracle, and there’s probably more to the thaumaturgical nature of this event than I have time (and you have the patience) to explore here. But at the very least, be assured that as a single dad with two energetic boys, such an event required nothing short of divine intervention.

The novel is called Laurus. Its author, Eugene Vodolazkin, won two of the biggest literary prizes in Russia for the work. Simply put, as someone who (used to, before the aforementioned energetic boys) read a lot, this was the best book I have read in a long, long time—maybe, ever.

It’s breathtaking use of language is among the reasons I found Laurus so enchanting. If not the best book I’ve ever read, I think I can say it is the most beautifully written. It is, on the one hand, a sweeping epic, filled with sparkling prose that often feels something more like poetry. At times, especially in the book’s first hundred pages, this makes it a slow read—one finds themself lingering on the elegance of certain phrases, not wanting to leave them. And yet somehow, at the very same time, it is compulsively readable, filled with simple charm, wit, and humor. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

One of the reasons we read novels is that they allow us, in the space of a few hundred pages, to watch a person—a self—in the process of being constructed. And this, we generally find, helps us process our own stories of growth and self-discovery. But one of the unique gifts of Russian novels, especially Russian Christian novels of the 19th and 20th centuries, is that they narrate journeys of “self-discovery” that are very different than the ones we’re used to hearing. They’re not anxious or aggressive journeys, which lead their subjects to a place where they feel more secure, more enlightened, more sexy, or more powerful. Rather, the so-called “heroes” of these novels—of the great novels of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, for example—are often ironic, in that the end of their journeys make them appear more like failures, more out of place in the eyes of the world. And yet, it is precisely through this angularity that they open up space for those around them to find life and hope.

It’s not giving away (too) much about Laurus to say that the event, at its beginning, that propels the novel forward is the failure of the protagonist—Arseny, who is a kind of traditional, spiritual healer––to heal his very own beloved. The story of the novel is, essentially, the journey Arseny goes on to reinvent himself—not on his own behalf, but to give room for this lost other person, and so atone for this failure. At the midpoint of the novel, Arseny does this by becoming what is called (in Russian) a yuródivyy (юродивый), or a “holy fool.” And as Arseny learns to take on the role of a “holy fool,” he is given this instruction:

Be her and be yourself simultaneously. Be outrageous. Being pious is easy and pleasant. Go ahead and make yourself hated. Don’t let the people of this town sleep. They’re lazy and incurious. Amen.

In other words, Arseny is told that in opening up space to take on the unfinished life of the person he loved and lost—that in that, he will find himself. He will find himself in giving room to the dead, the frustrated, and the one who has been crushed by suffering.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams—who some of us have been getting to know in our book groups over the past year—often describes the paths of “self-actualization” that many Westerners embark upon as a kind of “spraying out.” In other words, as Williams puts it, they are ways of asserting oneself, of expanding one’s own boundaries, the way some animals lay claim to a bush or a fire hydrant by leaving their scent on it. By contrast, real reinvention—reinvention that matters, according to Williams—is a kind of “letting go”—a kind of self-denial, or self-stripping—a “self-becoming” by not being the kind of self you might expect to be. Disown your identity, another holy fool advises Arseny. Disown yourself completely.

As Arseny continues in his journeys, he goes on and on reinventing himself in a way that consistently gives more and more space to others. And this, even more than his herbal remedies, is how he brings healing to those around him. By refusing to close in on himself, by refusing to defend himself, he goes through a kind of flowering—a kind of maturing—that is, in the end, what changes the landscape around him.

And in so doing, Arseny (and this novel) presses us with a question: What sort of stories are we writing for ourselves? Are our pens directed toward creating narratives in which we become the sort of heroes or giants or saints that we would like to be? Or are they the stories of those who became willing to offer up more and more room within ourselves, so that the lives of others might come alive in us and around us?