Monday, March 26, 2018

The edge of holiness is simply practicing it


The nineteenth century Russian author, Nikolai Leskov, was apparently not an easy man. The friendships he made were often fragile and ended up broken. Part of this brittleness was conditioned by his own sensed 'inferiority'. He had come from a relatively poor background, he lacked a formal education; and, he singularly failed to master the art of the long novel. Yet as a 'self-educated' autodidact, he absorbed expertise in multiple fields and deployed this knowledge to great effect in his multiplicity of works: fictional and non.

He is a master of the short story and of the form that has a narrator introduce a story teller that allows for the immediacy of colloquial report, that gathers you to a place where you listen attentively to an uninterrupted voice.

In "On the Edge of the World", this too allows him to present the first person account of an elderly Orthodox bishop in such a way that the bishop can express potentially heterodox positions that no 'third person' account could admit (under the prevailing conditions of censorship). The bishop's story is one of taking up a bishopric in Siberia as a relatively young man and receiving an education in what was and was not possible in a missionary context.

He learns through the life witness of one of his priests and that of his indigenous guide on a mission expedition (that goes seriously wrong in a blizzard, beautifully and harrowingly told) that nothing can   hurry the demonstrated acceptance of faith and that Christ is available to all without any outward signs. We might want to curtail this timetable and availability for our own purposes - number counting of the legitimate faithful say - but this is our concern (for position and status) not God's.

This is all wonderfully contained within the bishop's humble perception of what is possible given the nature of our humanity, best displayed by his guide who recognises God's presence and refuses baptism and risks his life to save the bishop's. It seeks, gently, to undermine any, more aggressively, evangelical approaches and, for its time, gives a progressive and open view both of shamanism and Buddhism - Christianity's then two perceived competitors. Needless to say, their institutional forms behave no better than the Christian one's being equally obsessed with numbers of adherents and structural power.

No wonder that it is Tolstoy amongst all Russian intellectuals that Leskov most identifies (or, given his character, refuses to actively criticise)!

What matters, for Leskov and his bishop mouthpiece, is not belief but the practice of compassion and forgiveness. We cannot, as Yeats says, refute either the song of sixpence or the saint - either the simplicity or complexity of holiness. It stands before us and ought to undermine any other consideration. The bishop returning from the humbling experience of being rescued by an 'unbeliever' (at the potential cost of their life) seeks subsequently to practice the humility of this expectation - the person may come to a fulness of faith in recognised belief but, more often, they may simply enter by the back door of their own holiness. Only time will tell and the suspicion is that God does not mind!



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