As the title – A brief look into some of the ways that Tolstoy, a Russian, may have looked at death using my own experience and beliefs.
Normally when I write a blog, If I feel the need to explain my thought process or discuss my ideas, I put such information at the very end, so as to be unintrusive to the blog’s focus. However, in this case I felt that it would be prudent to explain myself from the beginning.
I don’t typically involve my religious beliefs in my acadamic work. I say this despite understanding that like everyone’s different beliefs and worldviews, I am always “colouring” my perspective with what I hold to be true. I do try to do my best and “separate” my faith from my work, but when I see an opportunity to incorporate my beliefs into my work, I do like to take that chance.
Just over a year ago, I was standing in a hospital room with the rest of my family members. The mood was very sombre, my Grandfather was on his deathbed. At 97 years old, it wasn’t anything too unexpected, we had known the day was approaching, his health had deteriorated rapidly. There was a point, where my Grandfather lost all awareness of his surrounds, whatever pains or discomforts he felt in his final hours blinded him to us.
He had made his peace though, a phone call with his beloved sister back home in Greece (an older sister, she soon turns 100) not a few hours before, had ended with him telling her that he was tired. She gave him leave to rest.
The priest had come and had given him his last Communion.
Later that night, hours later, I learnt many new lessons, one of them was to be as ready for death as my Grandfather. Never to run towards it, but rather, when it comes to be prepared with every fibre of my being.
Ivan Ilych was a man who was not prepared. The howling pain that he was subjected would drive any man mad, yet pain alone is not enough to drive a man away from the preparation necessary to make your peace.
I am aware that Tolstoy had become somewhat of a “radical” Christian and had moved away from his Traditional Russian Orthodox roots, yet I still detect much of the Russian and Orthodox ethos within his work. As an Orthodox Christian, death is very much an aspect of my life that weighs upon me. Death is the old enemy, the wages of sin, the last gate that must be passed.
During the story, Ivan’s “friends” attend the funeral, and Tolstoy describes them essentially ignoring everything about the service, they are merely there to observe propriety after all. I feel that this is to their great detriment, the Orthodox Funeral service, in my small opinion, contains some of the most beautiful poetry and the most comforting of messages.
The majority of the service was orated in the 8th Century A.D by a Saint named John of Damascus. Saint John as a still young monk had been called to attend the funeral of a Holy elder, while there, he was recognised (he had some fame as a writer and speaker in Damascus before becoming a monk) and was requested to speak. So he spoke for the dead and he spoke for the living.
The hymns he spoke there do not carry the same poetry in English as they do in Greek, but some of their beauty remains:
“What pleasure in life ever remains unmixed with sorrow? What glory stands on earth unchanged? All are more feeble than a shadow, all more deceptive than dreams. One moment, and death supplants them all. But in the light of your countenance, Oh Christ, and in the sweetness of your beauty, give rest to the one whom you have chosen, as a loving God.”
Speaking for the dead:
“I am an image of your inexpressible glory, though I bear the scars of my transgressions. In your loving kindness, Master, have compassion and cleanse the person you have formed. Grant me the homeland for which I long, and once again make me a citizen of Paradise.”
Perhaps if Ivan Ilych had thought in an earlier time of his life to dwell on these words, spoken and sung at all of the funerals he would have attended, the peace he found at the very end, may not have been so hard fought.
Funeral Service, Sydney: St Andrews Orthodox Press, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia, 2011.
For reference, the hymns used were the First of the Idiomela Hymns for the Dead, and the Third of the Evlogitaria Hymns respectively.
Icon of the Resurrection, perhaps the perfect represenation in art of the defeat of Death. Adam and Eve are being pulled from Death by their arms and Jesus stands on top of the lids of their coffins.