I heard an interesting story this week. It goes as follows: in Moscow there was once a beautiful cathedral, a remnant from the earliest days of the country’s Orthodox heritage. When the Soviets took over they dynamited the cathedral to make room for a magnificent statue of Lenin. But upon beginning it’s construction, they found that the foundation was constantly flooded, drowned in the overflow from a nearby river. They tried again and again. But nothing worked.
Speaking of Russia, I’ve been reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Well, not reading exactly. I listen to a free recording while I jog. The narrator has a thick Russian accent and I usually run when it’s bitterly cold outside. It’s a depressing way to begin one’s day. On the other hand, things only get better from there.
I’ve heard it said that when the Soviet regime tried to purge the country Christianity they almost succeeded. But they overlooked Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. So the candle kept burning. My facade of educational etiquette forces me, upon hearing this, to nod along knowingly, with an air of pretentiousness while sipping my drink. But what I want to say- what I hold back from spewing at first impulse- is: “why the hell would that matter?”
I must remember that the smallest of flames can still light a fire.
So I was listening to Dostoevsky on my run this morning. I hugged the shoulder of the street as I rounded a bend. The snow banks are still several feet high and closed me in. They are ugly and old. Dirt has browned the snow like a banana that’s no longer ripe; and the rest of creation cheers on rising temperatures like spectators in the colosseum.
But on this morning I noticed an apple core nestled into the embankment. There was no other trash around. Just the core. It had established its own indentation within the embankment. The seed was exposed and the remainder of the fruit was visibly shriveled, curving in on itself like newspaper in the fire.
I find, at times, that it is easy to feel as though I do not belong. At parties, I often look around a crowded room and feel like Pluto on the edge of the Solar System. Somedays I’ll just stare at my wife; feeling like an intruder in another man’s romance. None of this is anyone’s wrong doing, mind you. Loneliness is simply the common bond among humanity.
For instance, I recently learned that Tolstoy was often estranged from his immediate family. At the age of 82, Tolstoy died alone. He left his home in the middle of the night and walked to a train station, took a train south and was eventually found sitting on a bench. He died of pneumonia before doctors could do anything. He left behind journals, one of the entries reads: “It is not that one wants something, but (rather) is miserably dissatisfied and one does not know with what. It seems it is with life, one longs to die.”1
That’s the cruel thing about life- isn’t it? We know pleasure only in contrast to pain, love only with reference to loss, charity only when compared with gluttony. Ultimately we know ourselves only in relation to God. And if we are the apple core alternating between rotting and freezing in the snow bank, then God must be a shiny BMW who doesn’t even pass by because his is a nicer road, separate from our charmless state.
After a few years, the Soviets abandoned efforts to build Lenin’s statue. The area became a large public swimming pool. It was commonly used by the Christians in Moscow to baptize new believers.
In a way, we are all cathedrals, blown to smithereens by the ‘others’ of the world among whom we (apparently) don’t belong. We are an apple core, tossed to the side of a dirty backroad. We are an old man, slumped and lonely, dying on a bench.
And all this makes it necessary to tell a story as the Russians told them -brutal, honest, despicable and mundane- abandoned on the side of the road. It is necessary to tell an honest story; one that is stripped to its core, it’s beauty terribly abused, but settled into its role in the world all the more. It is necessary to tell a story that embraces the splinters of life. But we must also remember to tell a story that contains the comedy of an empty grave and the eternal irony of a perfect man on a cross.
I see no alternative. We must tell this story.
When I returned from my run, there was no vodka on the table, but instead a bowl of apples. I took one.
In conclusion, I’m told that today the Russian cathedral has been rebuilt.