I suffer through a paradox here at Boston College, the cause of which is the constant analysis of theological questions at one remove from praxis.
This paradox challenges me to hold fast to clear boundaries set around moral truths, but also demands flexibility in human relationships according to the model of Christ. It finds expression in an interior protest against what I perceive to be an overemphasis on institutional sin at the expense of a poorly embraced examination of personal fault. And it warns me of the need for right discernment between the two extremes of superstition and rationalism.
It seems as if I am always looking for a middle road in the midst of this paradox, one on which I will experience a radical journey with Christ that is not of my own making, and is true. Where can I find such a road?
A good start for unpacking this question is Leo Tolstoy’s wonderful short novel entitled, Father Sergius. This story traces the life of a promising young prince driven by a humiliating personal offense into a bold decision that would affect the rest of his life.
Shortly before his wedding date, Stepan Kasatsky learns that his fiancé has dallied with the Tsar, to whom he had vowed utter loyalty. In response to his beloved’s offence, Kasatsky abandons his wealth, his girl, and his worldly ambitions to enter a monastery. His strange objective is to use his vocation as a way of spiritually ascending to a place above those who hold a superior rank in the world. This motive is accurately identified by his sister who recognizes his values as her own. In Kasatsky’s bizarre choice, she identifies not an act of virtue but one of contempt. Tolstoy thus prepares the reader for the monk’s failure through the establishment of an interior flaw.
Despite improper motives, the man ordained as Father Sergius is sincere in his religious commitment, and his efforts seem rewarded midway through the story when he gains miraculous healing powers. The devil’s tricks are everywhere, however, and the priest continues to discipline his sinful inclinations severely and immediately, even cutting off his own finger when a temptress presents herself with clear intention. Although his efforts yield some impressive results (e.g. the aforementioned jezebel reforms and enters the convent), the priest is disappointed when his rigor fails to quell temptation. Tortured by self-doubt, he wonders why true holiness is so elusive, and toward the end of the story, having fought his inclinations for many years, he yields to his greatest weakness and lies down with a woman.
What he does next speaks to the point of this essay. The priest neither accepts himself as “more human” on account of his sin, nor endeavors to further discipline his passions as the sole task of his life. Rather he again chucks it all and sets out in search of a girl named Pashenka whom he remembers from earlier days as one he’d mocked with other boys of his station. She is described in her childhood by Tolstoy as a simple person, “a thin little girl with large mild eyes and a timid pathetic face.” She was easy prey to the mean but refined young men who once made her pretend to swim on the floor.
By now the invisibly formative and genuinely effective elements of a religious vocation are working their magic on Father Sergius. Pashenka becomes a symbol of the priest’s redemption, and his shame in relation to his earlier treatment of her – a pain sharper than that which is related to his sexual transgression – places him squarely in the throes of a true conversion. When he finds her, Pashenka’s life is as sad as he expects. She has lost her fortune. She is widowed after having lived life with a man who drank too much and beat her. She continues to labor in order to assist relatives who are sick, and perhaps (but not by her admission) also lazy.
Tolstoy, who was himself an aristocrat in search of a deeper faith (see pictures below), now goes to work painting his ideal of the Christian disciple. Pashenka is understanding – her husband’s drinking was “a sickness.” She is generous – her contribution to pilgrims who pass by her door is directly an image of the widow with only two mites. She is grateful – “How I used to dislike music,” she says, “but how useful it is to me now!' She is discretely religious – she “keeps the fasts”, but with great humility she tells the priest who once treated her as a fool that she “lack(s) real religious feeling.”
Father Sergius, who now confesses to be no more than “Stepan Kasatsky – a great and lost sinner,” identifies in Pashenka that which human beings most desire in the Kingdom of God. Pashenka is poor on almost all measures, but in forgiveness she has abundant wealth, and through it she grants her old tormentor access to the middle road on which she has patiently walked with Christ her whole life.