Leonard Sweet, Leo Tolstoy and Anna Karenina. Really?

Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I didn’t expect to encounter a connection between Leonard Sweet, Leo Tolstoy and a character in the book Anna Karenina on Facebook this morning, but social networking is often an exercise in serendipity, isn’t it? One of Leonard Sweet‘s intriguing status updates on Facebook today was this statement  :

insects crawl; fish swim; birds fly; animals run; humans pray.

Several comments were posted in reply on Dr. Sweet’s timeline, but one that was particularly thoughtful was from Derek W. White : “Redemption is when preying humans become praying humans.” This was given a thumbs up by many readers.

There was one brief question in response to the post, also: “Comment pray vs. prey?” This triggered an avalanche of thoughts about the book Anna Karenina that friend, Tracey Finck, and I have been reading together for several months.

In this marvelous classic, Tolstoy   has something to say about  “pray vs. prey”, I believe.   Konstantin Dmitrievitch, also known as Levin, is one of the main characters in AK. His story and that of his wife,  Kitty, runs concurrently with the story of Anna and her lover, Vronsky. Levin is consumed with big questions: ” Is there a God? Why are we here, and how are we to live? If in fact we decide life is worth living, how do we live successfully? How should we treat our neighbors and those below us in society as we try to succeed in life? Upon what information should we depend for guidance in these things?” Through various situations we observe Levin grappling with his thoughts, and because of Tolstoy’s astonishing skill as a writer, we experience the good and bad times  of 19th century Russian life with Levin and  Kitty.

In the final pages of the book, we struggle with Levin as he tries to cope with the reality that during his wife’s long and difficult labor, he called out to God several times for mercy, a God in whom Levin had previously asserted that he did not have faith. From the time of the birth of his child, he constantly ruminates on his inconsistency and is deeply perplexed by it. He does not give in to despair over the troubling event, though. The responsibilities of being  a husband, father and a landowner demand his attention, and he answers the demands by being physically involved in the labor of farming. But farming  also brings forward great life-questions. From beginning to end in the book, the land, its  potential and profitability, and the people who work it and their cares, always present situations that display whether or not the land owners and workers deal righteously with each other. Now at the end of the book, it is harvest time once again, and  Levin works alongside the peasants whom he pays to care for his land. One of them is named Fyodor.   Fyodor and Levin address fair dealings between landowners and workers in the following conversation:

Fyodor came from a village at some distance from the one in which Levin had once allotted land to his cooperative association.  Now it had been let to a former house porter.

Levin talked to Fyodor about this land and asked whether Platon, a well-to-do peasant of good character belonging to the same village, would not take the land for the coming year.

“It’s a high rent; it wouldn’t pay Platon, Konstantin Dmitrievitch (Levin),” answered the peasant, picking the ears off his sweat-drenched shirt.

“But how does Kirillov make it pay?”

“Mituh!” (so the peasant called the house porter, in a tone of contempt), “you may be sure he’ll make it pay, Konstantin Dmitrievitch!  He’ll get his share, however he has to squeeze to get it!  He’s no mercy on a Christian.  But Uncle Fokanitch” (so he called the old peasant Platon), “do you suppose he’d flay the skin off a man?  Where there’s debt, he’ll let anyone off.  And he’ll not wring the last penny out.  He’s a man too.”

“But why will he let anyone off?”

“Oh, well, of course, folks are different.  One man lives for his own wants and nothing else, like Mituh, he only thinks of filling his belly, but Fokanitch is a righteous man.  He lives for his soul.  He does not forget God.”

“How thinks of God?  How does he live for his soul?” Levin almost shouted.

“Why, to be sure, in truth, in God’s way.  Folks are different. Take you now, you wouldn’t wrong a man….”

“Yes, yes, good-bye!” said Levin, breathless with excitement, and turning round he took his stick and walked quickly away towards home.  At the peasant’s words that Fokanitch lived for his soul, in truth, in God’s way, undefined but significant ideas seemed to burst out as though they had been locked up, and all striving towards one goal, they thronged whirling through his head, blinding him with their light.

Here I think is an answer to the question “pray vs. prey?” on  Leonard Sweet’s Facebook status. Tolstoy goes on to say this through Levin:

Where could I have got it? (The answer to his perplexing questions)  By reason could I have arrived at knowing that I must love my neighbor and not oppress him?  I was told that in my childhood, and I believed it gladly, for they told me what was already in my soul.  But who discovered it?  Not reason.  Reason discovered the struggle for existence, and the law that requires us to oppress all who hinder the satisfaction of our desires.  That is the deduction of reason.  But loving one’s neighbor reason could never discover, because it’s irrational.”

As in the conversation between Fyodor and Levin, Jesus shows us the way of life in the kingdom of God through this revealed truth: we are to love our neighbors, not prey on them. Additionally, we are to pray to God not just to bless our friends and family, but also “Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you.” Luke 6:27. That is not rational, but it is “thinking in God’s way” as Fyodor says. It is righteous living, and it’s an example of how redemption turns preying humans into praying humans, as Derek W. White said; a phenomenon that numbers of others, including Leo Tolstoy, Leonard Sweet and many Facebook friends,  have found to be the best way of living with the difficulties of daily life.

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