Eugene Vodolazkin

A Mosaic Ends

I no longer sense unity in my life, said Laurus. I was Arseny, Ustin, Amvrosy, and I have just now become Laurus. My life was lived by four people who do not resemble one another and they have various bodies and various names. What do I have in common with the light-haired little boy from Rukina Quarter? A memory? But the longer I live, the more my reminiscences seem like an invention. I am ceasing to believe them and they thus lack the power to link me to those people who were me at various times. Life resembles a mosaic that scatters into pieces.

Being a mosaic does not necessarily mean scattering into pieces, answered Elder Innokenty. It is only up close that each separate little stone seems not to be connected to the others. There is something more important in each of them, O Laurus: striving for the one who looks from afar. For the one who is capable of seizing all the small stones at once. It is he who gathers them with his gaze. That, O Laurus, is how it is in your life, too. You have dissolved yourself in God. You disrupted the unity of your life, renouncing your name and your very identity. But in the mosaic of your life there is also something that joins all those separate parts: it is an aspiration for Him. They will gather together again in Him.


Vertical Motion

And so, O Savior, give me at least some sign that I may know my path has not veered into madness, so I may, with that knowledge, walk the most difficult road, walk as long as need be and no longer feel weariness.

What sign do you want and what knowledge? asked an elder standing by the Empty Tomb. Do you not know that any journey harbors danger within itself? Any journey—and if you do not acknowledge this, then why move? So you say faith is not enough for you and you want knowledge, too. But knowledge does not involve spiritual effort; knowledge is obvious. Faith assumes effort. Knowledge is repose and faith is motion.

But were the venerable not aspiring for the harmony of repose? asked Arseny.

They took the route of faith, answered the elder. And their faith was so strong it turned into knowledge.

I want only to know the general direction of the journey, said Arseny. The part that concerns me and Ustina.

But is not Christ a general direction? asked the elder. What other kind of direction do you seek? And how do you even understand the journey anyway? As the vast expanses you left behind? You made it to Jerusalem with your questions, though you could have asked them from the Kirillov Monastery. I am not saying wandering is useless: there is a point to it. Do not become like your beloved Alexander who had a journey but had no goal. And do not be enamored of excessive horizontal motion.

Then what should I be enamored of? asked Arseny.

Vertical motion, answered the elder, pointing above.

In the center of the church’s cupola there gaped a round, black opening reserved for the sky and stars. Stars were visible but they were fading from sight. Arseny understood day was breaking.

Eugene Vodolazkin ‘Laurus’


Disprove the illusion of Death

The monk said nothing and walked on. Arseny and Ambrogio began following behind him, feeling for the uneven floor with their feet. Dawn and summer were sparkling overhead, outside, but only three candles tore into the darkness here. Darkness slipped away from the candles, though rather uncertainly and not very far. It would stay still under lo arches only an arm’s length away and then swirl, ready to close in again. It was already hot outside at this early hour but cool reigned here.

Is it always so cool here? asked Ambrogio.

Here there is never the frost nor the heat that are the manifestation of extremes, answered the monk. Eternity is tranquil and so it is characterized by coolness.

Arseny drew a candle toward the inscription near one of the shrines.

Salutations, O beloved Agapit, Arseny quietly uttered. I had so hoped to meet you.

To whom are you wishing health? asked Ambrogio. This is the Venerable Agapit, an unmercenary physician. Arseny dropped to his knees and pressed his lips to Agapit’s hand. You know, Agapit, all my healing, it is such a strange story… I can’t really explain it to you. Everything was more or less obvious, as long as I was using herbal treatments. I treated and knew God’s help came through the herbs. Well then. Now, though, God’s help comes through me, just me, do you understand? And I am less than my cures, far less, I am not worthy of them, and that makes me feel either frightened or awkward.

You want to say you are worse than herbs, asked the monk.

Arseny raised his eyes to the monk.

It means one must consciously rid oneself of sins, shrugged the monk. And that’s all there is to it. One must be more like God, you know, not expound on things.

The three men walked on and were met by ever more new saints. The saints were not exactly moving or even speaking, but the silence and immobility of the dead were not absolute. There was, under the ground, a motion that was not completely usual, and a particular sort of voices rang out without disturbing the sternness and repose. The saints spoke using words from psalms and lines from the lives of saints that Arseny remembered well from childhood. they drew the candles closer, shadows shifted along dried faces and brown, half-bent hands. The saints seemed to raise their heads, smile, and beckon, barely perceptibly, with their hands.

A city of saints, whispered Ambrogio, following the play of the shadow. They present us the illusion of life.

No, objected Arseny, also in a whisper. They disprove the illusion of death.

–Eugene Vodolazkin ‘Laurus’


Holy Fool

A tremendous mystical novel: ‘Laurus’ by Eugene Vodolazkin.

As he arrived home, Arseny wiped away his tears and told Ustina (his dead youthful wife, dying from a miscarriage he blames himself for—the death years in the past):

And so you see my love, what is happening.  I have not spoken to you, my love, for several months and I have no excuse.  Instead of atoning for my sin, I am ever more mired in it.  How can I pray for your atonement before God, my poor girl, when I myself am sinking into the abyss?  It would not be so regrettable, you know, if I alone were to be lost forever, but who will atone for thee and the babe?  I am the only one here who prays fervently for you and that is the sole reason that I still do not despair.

That is what Arseny said to Ustina.  He gathered Christofer’s manuscripts (his grandfather’s) in a bag, showed it to Ustina, and added:

Here is the bag with Christofer’s manuscripts, essentially the most treasured thing I have.  I would take it and go wherever I feel like, away from my renown (fame as a healer of the plague in Belozersk).  My renown has overcome me: it is driving me into the ground and preventing me from conversing with Him.  I would leave here, my love, but the prince of this city will not release me, though the main thing that keeps me here is Kseniya and Silvester.  They would be happy to pray with me for you and the baby but they do not understand that only I can do that.  I am the only one on this earth who is still united to you and it is as if you continue to live through me.  But Kseniya thinks I am destroying the living in the name of the dead and wants to pray for you as if you were dead, though I happen to know you are alive, only in a different way


The coldness seem to intensify when the moon appeared.  Arseny (wandering away from Belozersk, Kseniya, and Silvester) thought the moon itself was pouring out the silvery cold that was spreading across the land.  He took pity upon his chilly body for a while but the pity left him when he suddenly remembered his body for a while but the pity left him when he suddenly remembered his body was defiled by another’s clothes and lice.  This was no longer his body.  It belonged to the lice, the person who previously wore his clothes, and, finally, the cold.  But not to him.

As if I were dwelling in the body of another, thought Arseny.

However sympathy one might have for another’s body, its pain cannot be perceived as one’s own.  Arseny knew that, having helped infirmed bodies.  Though he had lived in the pains of others in order to ease it, he could never fathom all its depths.  And now the matter at hand concerned a body he did not even sympathize with very much.  A body that, for the most part, he despised.


He takes me for a holy fool, Arseny told Ustina.

And who else could you be taken for? Said Foma, surprised.  Just take a look at yourself, O Arseny.  You really are a holy fool, for thou hath chosen a life for yourself that is wild and disparaged by people.

And he knows my christened name.

Foma began laughing.

How could I not when it is written all over every christened person’s face?  Of course it is more complicated to guess about Ustin but you yourself are informing everybody about him.  So go ahead and holyfool it, dear friend, don’t be shy, otherwise they’ll all get to you with reverence in the long run.  There deference is not compatible with your goals.  Remember how things were in Belozersk (comfort,  wealth, and fame).  Do you need that?

Who is this who knows my secrets?  Arseny turned to Foma.

Who are you?  Who?

A prick wearing one shoe, answered Foma.  You are asking about things of secondary importance.  But I will tell you the main thing.  Go back to Zavelichye, the part of town beyond the Velikaya River, where the John the Baptist Convent stands on the future Komsomol Square.  I suspect you have already spent the night at the convent cemetery.  Stay there and believe me: Ustina could have been in that convent.  I think she just never got that far.  Though you made it here.  Pray for her and yourself.  Be her and yourself simultaneously.  Be outrageous.  Being pious is easy and pleasant, go ahead and make yourself hated.  Don’t let the Pskovians sleep: they are lazy and incurious.  Amen.

Foma drew his arm back and hit Arseny in the face.  Arseny silently looked at him, feeling the blood flow from his nose and run down his chin and neck.  Foma embraced Arseny and his face got bloody, too.  Foma said:

By giving yourself to Ustina, you are, I know, exhausting your body, but disowning your body is only half of it.  As it happens, my friend, that can lead to pride.

What else can I do? Though Arseny.

Do more, Foma whispered right into Arseny’s ear.  Disown your identity.  You have already taken the first step by calling yourself Ustin.  So now disown yourself completely.

Hoiy Fool

1 Corinthians 3:18: Let no one deceive himself.  When any one of you thinks he is wise in this world, he must first be foolish; then he will be wise.


Sunday within Lent

Saint Panteleimon the martyr and healer.

In the entry room, Silvester looked at Arseny, questioning.  Arseny knew that look very well but had not seen it before on a child.  He could not fathom what he should say to a child who wore that look. 

Things look bad, you know (Arseny turned away).  I feel pained that I cannot save her.

But you saved the princess, said the boy.  Save her, too. 

Everything is in God’s hand. 

You know, for God, it would be such an easy thing to heal her.  It is very simple, Arseny.  Let us pray to Him together. 

Let us.  But I do not want you to blame Him if she dies anyway.  Remember: she is likely to die. 

You want us to ask Him but not believe that He will grant this for us? 

Arseny kissed the boy on the forehead. 

No.  Of course not. 

Arseny made a bed for Silvester in the entryway and said, you will sleep here. 

Yes, but we will pray first, said Silvester. 

Arseny went to the room and brought out the icons of the Savior, His Virgin Mother, and the great martyr and healer Panteleimon.  He took to dippers off a shelf and put the icons in their place.  He and the boy knelt.  They prayed for a long time.  When Arseny finished reciting prayers to the Savior, Silvester tugged at his sleeve. 

Wait, I want to say it in my own words.  (He pressed his forehead to the floor, which made his voice sound more muffled.)  Lord, let my mother live.  I need nothing else in the world.  At all.  I will give thanks to you for centuries.  You know, after all, that if she dies I will be left all alone.  (He looked out from under his arm at the savior.)  With no help. 

Silvester did not fear for himself when he informed the Savior of these possible consequences: he thought of his mother and chose the weightiest argument in favor of her return to health.  He hoped he could not be refused.  And Arseny saw that.  He believed the Savior saw it, too. 

Then they prayed to the Mother of God.  Arseny glanced back when he did not hear Silvester’s voice.  Still kneeling, Silvester slept, leaning against a storage chest.  Arseny carefully carried him to the bed and prayed, now alone, to the healer Panteleimon.  At around midnight, he went in to begin taking care of Kesniya.  Eugene Vodolazkin ‘Laurus’

A review of the novel from The American Conservative by Rob Dreher

Last night, after midnight, I read the last lines of Laurus, a newly translated Russian novel by Eugene Vodolazkin, and thought it surely must be the most perfect ending ever. There is no way it could have ended any more perfectly or profoundly. And then I did what I have done nearly every time I’ve put this astonishing novel down over the last few days: I picked up my chotki (prayer rope) and prayed, as I was first taught to do in an Orthodox parish in the Russian tradition.

What kind of novel makes you want to enter into contemplative prayer after reading from its pages? I’ve never heard of one. But Laurus is that kind of novel. It induces an awareness of the radical enchantment of the world, and of the grandeur of the soul’s journey through this life toward God. It is so strange and mystical and … well, to call a novel “holy” is too much, but Laurus conjures on every page an awareness of holiness that is without precedence in my experience as a reader. Holiness illuminates this novel like an icon lamp.

A simple strange novel reviewed well.  The Russian influence continues to pervade my life.  Visiting the Lakewood Library, accompanied by the significant other, we happenstanced upon a musical show of a Russian folk musician, Oleg Kruglyakov, playing his balalaika.  The delightful man of simple charming disposition astounded with his skill upon the peasant three stringed instrument.  Wonderfully entertained, we sat mesmerized by the stories of Russia, the instrument, and the background of the songs Oleg played. The show complimented the powerful sacred performance of The Passion of John we witnessed the previous evening by the Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hasll.  Unfortunately, Oleg’s piano partner from Cleveland Heights was not there for the afternoon performance, although he did have taped accompaniment with her.  I spoke with the amiable man after the performance, sharing my new found love of Russian smoked salmon with him.  He vows to visit the Cleveland Heights Russian deli and meet his countrymen I praised so highly.  Enjoy the video, this man is a treasure, embodying the simple, while profound, heartwarming depth I am encountering in the novel Laurus.


Saturday afternoon

Saturday morning relaxing, bed lounging reading: Archbishop Charles Chaput’s ‘Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World’ and Eugene Vodolazkin’s ‘Laurus’, while holding close upon the covers a short collection on Silence from a conference held by Camaldolese Hermits in Bloomingdale, Ohio.  A scriptural quote from the back of the hermit book: The Lord is good to those who expect Him, to the soul that seeketh Him.  It is good to wait in silence for the salvation of the Lord.  It is good for a man to bear the yoke in his youth.  Let him sit in solitude and silence, when He has laid it upon him.  Let him put his mouth to the dust.  There may yet be hope.  Lamentations 3:25-29.  The Laurus novel is a strange Russian story of a young boy growing in medieval times.  Prone to superstition, a lack of scientific knowledge, religious misunderstanding, as well as religious fervor, a keen mind, and pestilence, the orphan boy is raised and taught by his grandfather, a healer familiar with herbs and traditional ways of confronting physical ailments.  The grandfather is advised by an elder monk to take up his abode next to the local cemetery.  Due to the plague and an abundance of empty homes, the obedient grandfather/healer lays claim to a comfortable home bordering the cemetery, a rail fence the only thing between the home and the resting place of the deceased.  Advancing in companionship, love, and learning, the boy loses his grandfather as he grows into his teenage years.  Without his grandfather, the boy understands he is alone in the world, grappling while accepting.  Neighbors—patients and friends, offer the boy their home, yet he refuses, comprehending he could never abandon his grandfather’s home for it has become his home.  It is his grounding point upon the earth.  There is no place else he could go.  He instinctively and efficiently takes over his grandfather’s role as a healer, making a reputation for himself for having comforting hands, the ability to lay his hands upon people and ease their burdens.  I am locked into the novel at place where the solitary boy growing into a man has gotten himself stuck in a serious conundrum.  A ragged fellow orphan entered his world.  One night, desperate eyes emerged from the dark forest begging for food.  The boy offered the soft voice the comfort of his home, as well as food, yet the girl’s voice refused, warning him her village was wiped out by the plague.  She explained she was not worthy to enter anyone’s home, and even more if others learned she entered his home it would be condemned.  She warned him if others knew who she was she would be killed and her body burned.  She begged the boy to leave the food beyond the edge of his fire so she could retrieve it unseen and disappear.  The boy immediately walked to the girl and brought her to his fire, recognizing she was a small famished red head child.  He took the girl into his home, allowing her to bath, and afterwards feeding her, unable to take himself away from her once she fell asleep with food remaining before her.  Putting her to bed upon a wooden bench, the boy sat with the sleeping girl, and while sleeping she brought him into her embrace.  The boy fell asleep next to her, waking to the moist touch of tears.  Awake, the girl was staring at him, crying.  Blushing, he tried to remove himself from her, yet she protested, telling him he was all she had.  Fearfully, the boy would take the girl into his grandfather’s home, hiding her from everyone lest they discover her origin.  An unrelenting panic subtly overwhelmed his waking moments that he would lose his girl.  He shunned the church, the receiving of communion, becoming distant and absent minded in his duties as a healer, convinced he could not share with anyone the love of his life.  I have reached a point in the simple fictional story in which the girl has become pregnant, urging the boy to take her as his wife.  The boy declares he loves her above all things, that she is already his wife.  For the first time, the girl challenges him, declaring that his secret and possessive love is not enough.  She wanted to be his wife before God, the church, and all people.  The Russian story blends in well with my recent immersion within Russian culture, now evolving with the branching out of the Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr, immersed within his film ‘The Turin Horse’, a strange tale breaking off from the incident of Nietzsche falling into madness after an encounter with a peasant man beating his horse.  The film is a brutal tale of existence, a metaphysical blustery visual meditation on the harshness of life for a father and his obedient daughter.  The father is the owner and thrasher of the horse that ignited the curse of madness onto Nietzsche.  The story reflected upon my mind the Biblical old woman raising her grandson who Elijah came upon begging food.  “As surely as the LORD your God lives,” she replied, “I don’t have any bread–only a handful of flour in a jar and a little olive oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it–and die.”  Elijah would compassionately be moved, endlessly filling the woman’s jars with bread and oil, saving her son.  The reading time and musing time comes conveniently through the blessing of no work for two days.  Following a Saturday early morning Mass and Holy Hour at St Dominic.  A prayer from the session:

O Eucharist, source of charity made present at every Mass, form me into your image and into the image of your saints.
Open in my soul, “in spirit and truth,” a real and unfathomable love that seeks to grasp your sacrifice.
May I see in your sacrifice love, and may I respond to it in love.
May I not only know love, but may I begin to love as you love.
May I walk along the path of love that you have set before me, the path of progress, of development, of deep and strong growth.
May I see in your Eucharistic presence my most authentic and deepest Christian vocation of perfecting the image and likeness I was meant to be like, the image and likeness of you O Lord.
Help me to be a sign of unity and a bond of charity in a world so hostile, cold, and distant.
O sacrament of love, help me to fulfill the commandment of love of God and neighbor.
O Eucharist, source of charity made present at every Mass, form me into your image and the image of your saints.

The woman orchestrating the Holy Hour establishes herself as a blessing; a distant, silent, beautiful woman providing companionship.  Her smile and nod of the head is properly invigorating, a sharing worthy to look forward to once a week.  It is enough.  I left work last night feeling confident, humble and proud.  I received an hourly raise of seventy-five cents last week, retroactive to the start of the year.  Providing nourishing pride, I am comprehending I am worth the money, standing behind my performance and who I am.  Something transforms inside, grace providing, allowing a strength within the lack of clarity regarding the future.  The significant other, although the term is used respectively and tenderly, is returning as a companion.  I am proud of her.  Over the last two weeks she conducted a Master Cleanse, fasting for ten plus days, demonstrating discipline and the corresponding consequences.  Furthermore, a brutal honesty emerged allowing a bottoming out, a confrontation of a momentous personal shortcoming demanding reparation.  Without the acknowledgement of hitting a bottom, we are only prone to fall deeper into another bottom.  There are always bottoms beneath every bottom.  We can spend a lifetime descending to lower and lower bottoms.  The only thing bottomless is death.  I am honored to assist in her immense progress, inspired by her acquired devotion to Our Lady Undoer of Knots.  A comforting companion, able to share in enriching entertainment, she has attained tickets through her employment for the Cleveland Orchestra tonight at Severance Hall, a performance of Bach’s ‘St John Passion’, with a preceding lecture on the work.  Our first experience at Severance Hall proved a meditative splendor with the enjoyment of the choral and musical piece ‘Sabet Mater’.  I expect nothing the less this evening.  Regarding companionship, the erroneous thought was placed before me that my recent struggle was to be a means of stagnation and the continuation of destructive ways.  Unable to even confront, weary of debating on levels that continually prove fruitless, I trust in patience and the grace of love to penetrate unknown regions.  Where there has been a shattering of trust, commitment, and devotion, the wreckage and ruin are only emptiness calling for the imagination to dally within nonsense.  I will only receive frustration pursuing.  When there was never the formation of trust, commitment, and devotion—a selfish void filling—when such holy things were properly laid before one, when these virtues were never advanced upon, rejected and refused, it is only obvious a delusion and inability to receive grace exist.  Regarding the latest, when there is such a misconception of truth, a severe lack of insight, a clear demonstration one cannot be open and willing—desiring to see through the eyes of God, then everything seems futile, an inevitable clash awaiting.  When grace is not providing understanding, sincerity is not enough.

Bella Tarr ‘The Turin Horse’