Thermidor

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Laurus' Orthodoxy

“Time is a flat circle.” So says Russ Cohle in True Detective. For him, as for Nietzsche before him, this observation is a nihilistic conclusion about the ultimately meaningless repetitiveness of life.

In the novel Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin, which follows the life of a Russian Holy Fool and healer in the fifteenth century, the main character—who goes by different names at different junctures of life: Arseny, Ustin, Ambrosius, and ultimately Laurus—also declares that time is a circle. Within the context of the narrative, the meaning of this statement is diametrically opposed to Cohle’s. Rather than the circularity of time being a feature of its meaninglessness, it points to time’s liturgical character and the infusion of eternity into each moment, if we prepare ourselves to receive it.

The cyclical nature of the days, months, and years of the liturgical calendar and the events that are commemorated during it, serves to draw us into God’s eternal present. Christ condescended to enter into time and become time-bound, despite being the eternal, impassible, and immutable Son of God, thereby sanctifying time itself and drawing it up into the stability of the life of God.

The way that this event—of God taking on flesh, of the uncontainable deigning to be contained in the womb of the Holy Virgin, of the eternal taking on time—is revealed and entered into is sacramentally and liturgically. In the understanding of the Church, each event commemorated on the liturgical calendar isn’t merely celebrated and remembered as a past event, rather it is an eternal reality that is made present.

This is why, for instance, we sing on Great and Holy Friday “Today is hung upon a tree, He who hung the earth upon the waters, etc.” Which is common for all of our liturgical language. By the action of the Holy Spirit in the liturgical actions of the Church, Christ makes Himself present to us in the present so that we may partake of His life, rather than simply recall His life.

So what does any of this have to do with Laurus?

A central theme of the novel of is the nature of time. Laurus contemplates and discusses time on many occasions, there are multiple instances of time being intersected at different points, we see prophetic visions of the future that interpenetrate past events, and the novel itself uses both antiquated language and modern idioms (and much in between) to induce the feeling that time is transcended in this world—which is our own.

The ultimate conclusion for Laurus is that time doesn’t really exist. Rather it is a gracious condescension of God to keep our feeble, limited minds from becoming confused (if one event didn’t proceed after another and we were to behold all events at once, it would be a rather confusing jumble.) After receiving the monastic tonsure late in life and living the monastic life for a while, Laurus says, in defiance of Russ cum Nietzche (which is worth quoting in full):

Time no longer moves forward but goes around in circles because it teems with events that go around in circles. And events here, my love, are tied primarily to worship. In the first and third hours of each day, we remember Pilate’s trial of Our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sixth hour it is the Way of the Cross, and in the ninth hour, the suffering on the cross. And that composes the worship cycle for the day. But each day of the week, like a person has its own face and its own dedicated purpose. Monday is dedicated to incorporeal forces, Tuesday to the prophets, Wednesday and Friday to the remembrance of Christ’s death on the cross, and Saturday to prayer for the deceased, and then the main day is dedicated to the resurrection of the Lord. All that, my love, composes the seven-day worship cycle. But the largest of the cycles is annual. It is determined by the sun and moon, to which you are, I hope, closer than all of us here. The great feasts and the saints’ days are tied to the movement of the sun, and the moon tells us about the time for Easter and the holidays that depend on it. I wanted to tell you how long I have already been at the monastery but, you know, somehow I cannot get my thoughts together. Apparently, I can no longer understand this myself. Time, my love, is very shaky here because the cycle is closed and it corresponds to eternity.

Time, with its cycles, begins to correspond to eternity when it is imbued with worship; when it becomes liturgical.

But this is far from the only way that Laurus is a highly Orthodox work. In its simple piety, its lack of irony, its depiction of an enchanted cosmos foreign and hostile to modernity, Vodolazkin evokes much about the Orthodox (and perhaps particularly Russian Orthodox, in character) perspective. This Orthodox—and thus supremely Christian—vision of the world is something that was opaque to some protestant reviewers, who have variously characterized it as "pagan" or "Hindu." Where both Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism have encountered pagan cultures and Christianized them, Protestantism lacks this experience and indeed is bound up with a program of what it sees as "de-paganizing" Christianity, manifested especially in its iconoclastic history and bent.

In Arseny's healing remedies which he learned from his grandfather, in the veneration of relics, in converse with the dead, many modern-minded Christians are likely to see quaint superstition at best. But it is the rationalistic and mechanistic cosmos—often tacitly or explicitly endorsed by Christians, especially in academia, as a necessity for being taken seriously—that is foreign to Christianity. The enchanted cosmos isn't unique to Paganism or Hinduism but is a common trait of traditional religions and cultures. And it is this cosmos which we encounter in Laurus.

One of the most moving scenes of the book is when Arseny (our Laurus) visits the site of the relics of St. Symeon the God-receiver:

Arseny and Ambrogio went to bow to Simeon. As they sank to their knees before his incorruptible relics, Arseny said:

Now lettest thou thy servant departe in peace, acordinge to thy promesse, for myne eyes have sene my salvation. You know, O Simeon, I am not expecting any reward comparable to yours. And my salvation consists of salvation for Ustina and the baby. Take them in your arms as you took the Christ Child and bring them to Him. That is the gist of my entreaty and prayer.

Arseny touched Simeon’s relics with the upper part of his forehead so as not to dampen them with tears. But one tear found its way from his lashes anyway and fell on the relics. Fine, let it abide there, thought Arseny. It will remind the elder of me.

Yet, as moving and Christian as the scene is, one suspects it strikes iconoclastic deniers of the intercessions of the saints as at least strange, if not deeply unsettling. But this is the world of Laurus, and its loss for most modern Christians is something that ought to unsettle us, probably to the point of mourning.

The Orthodox (and thus Christian) character of the book may further be seen in the way it is shot through with the wisdom of the monastic tradition and the desert fathers of the Church. Vodolazkin continuously draws from the deep well of hagiography, short stories, pithy aphorisms, and spiritual teachings in order to form and shape his work. Many story elements have direct correlation with real life saints. Laurus’ entire life spent in repentance on behalf of another is, one must assume, inspired by the life of St. Xenia of Petersburg. Later in the book when he accepts a serious false accusation against himself without objection, this is precisely identical to an event in the life of St. Macarius the Great, down to minute detail.

Lifted straight from the life of St. Basil the Holy Fool for Christ—perhaps the most famous of all such fools, who was significantly also a Russian in the fifteenth century—Laurus kisses the houses of sinners but throws stones at the houses of the pious. Why? Because demons have been expelled from the houses of the pious and cling to the outer corners, which is who he pelts with rocks. While demons are inside the houses of the wretched and the angels have been expelled to the exterior where they weep and pray; Laurus kisses the doors and prays, beseeching them not to abandon their prayer.

When Laurus is traveling to the Holy Land, he encounters a group of tipsy, Polish Roman Catholics, who, because he and his companions are foreigners speaking an unfamiliar tongue, suspect them of being Turks. When they ask Laurus to make the sign of the cross to prove his Christian bona fides, they take his making it “the wrong way” (that is, in the Orthodox manner) as evidence that he is indeed a Turk and should be hanged!

This near miss with death is one of many ways that death is never far from anyone in the novel. It looms as a tangible, immanent reality, as it would have for Russian peasants in the fifteenth century. The anxiousness over death and its occurring often are not the only things that make it an immanent presence; it is death that transforms and shapes characters, that defines lives, that really drives the narrative.

In this aspect of the book, again we see something at the heart of Orthodox Christianity, namely the spiritual discipline of the remembrance of death. Western Christians experience something of that on Ash Wednesday, but for an Orthodox monastic, this is at the heart of your life of repentance. Which is what it became for Laurus. His loved one’s death determined the shape and direction of his whole life. Loving people often on the verge of death, or coping with death, constituted much of his ministry. And ultimately remembering his own death—that he is but dust and that all he is comes by the grace of God—is what enables him to live a life of selfless holiness, without fear of death.

Christ enters time and empties Himself to the point of death, even death on a cross, transfiguring time and death so that they may become vessels and communicators of divine life. If we follow Him and empty ourselves, as many of the saints before us did, and as the fictional Laurus did, the meaninglessness of time can be transformed into a surfeit of meaning, and the ultimate end of death can be transfigured into the very substance of life in Christ.

Editor's note: a previous version of this essay first appeared at On Behalf of All