Love is the crisis of our work.
When the watcher speaks of love
he is not speaking of history, not
of past and future, but of the love
in which all time has moved, in which
all things were, and are, and are to be,
the love that is before the beginning,
that is beyond the end, that is
entirely present as the flower of day.
Like Christians, birch trees take communion. Beneath a grove of birches lives an extensive network of fungi, which have evolved over the eons in symbiotic relationship with the roots of trees and other plants. Russula, Laccaria, Cortinarius, and other species are essential to the flourishing of plants of all kinds. Through these fungal networks, one tree can send its nutrients to another, less healthy tree, even a tree of a different species. Birches have been known to give of themselves to the firs to eat: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). These fungi act as the priests of the forest and field, allowing the plants above to commune with one another.
People are like trees. They are never as independent as they seem above ground, and they rely on hidden connections to other individuals of the species for nourishment. From a biological standpoint (a standpoint which is never just biological), it begins with the touch of the father, mother, and their newborn baby, and this is something that extends throughout life. We are always in need of the touch of another, whether that be the touch of a hand, or the touch of a word, a gaze, an attentiveness, a simple acknowledgement. These energize us and give us vitality.
Without this, we grow anxious. This is partly because with others, we are freed somewhat from the drag of passing time. Anxiety belongs to time: it dwells on the pain of the past, the fear of what is to come, and moments that fall away. When we are with others, we grow free from the bonds of time’s passage. In some sense this is what we are after in all our truly social activities. “A good time occurs,” as the theologian Robert Farrar Capon writes, “precisely when we lose track of what time it is.” Under quarantine, the anxiety of time becomes pronounced, because the flow of our normal life is interrupted, our projects and aims halted, and our uneasiness about where we are headed has the chance to show itself.
The remarkable novel Laurus by the Russian author Eugene Vodolazkin points us toward another way. Laurus (first published in 2013; translated into English by Lisa C. Hayden in 2015) tells the story of a medieval plague doctor named Arseny, whose life shows us how our lives overflow into one another, and how suffering and trouble can be an occasion for approaching our highest happiness: communion.
Like a mycorrhizal fungus, Arseny transfers vitality and health into his patients. When summoned by a wealthy prince to heal his ailing wife and daughter, the young doctor administers remedies, cleans and expresses the pustules on the skin, and bathes the sick. Finally, as they struggle through the night, at the crisis of their disease, he administers the remedy he considers most important. He stays by the bedside, holds their hands, and prays, and prays, and prays. In the morning, exhausted, he informs the prince with a quiet joy that the woman and girl have turned a corner, and will grow well. The prince’s warm tears flow upon Arseny’s neck.
This sort of scene recurs throughout the life of Arseny, but Laurus begins not with his ministry, but with his sin. (The plot is fully revealed in what follows.) The young Arseny is raised by his grandfather, Christopher, an herbalist who instructs him in the healing arts. After Christopher passes away, Arseny steps into his role as the village doctor. His hours are filled with visits from anxious and suffering people who want healing, yes, but as much as anything the touch of Arseny’s reassuring hand and his compassionate gaze.
One autumn, however, Arseny receives a patient unlike any other, a fearful and sickly girl driven from her plague-wracked town. He takes her in, and what begins as the compassion of the healer soon becomes the romance of two hormonal people growing into adulthood. Arseny is aware that sex with her outside of marriage is a very grave sin (this, you understand, is the view of the Orthodox Church), but he grows greedy for Ustina, and stays away from the sacraments (confession, communion, and marriage) out of fear.
In time, one thing leads to another, and Ustina becomes pregnant. Afraid of losing his life with Ustina were the town to find out that they were living in sin, Arseny closes himself off to the world and refuses to seek a midwife. The childbirth goes horribly wrong. Arseny’s medical knowledge is no match for the calamity that unfolds, and he must witness the painful death of mother and son alike.
“You have a difficult journey, for the story of your love is only beginning.”
Out of the pit of grief, guilt, and despair that follows, the Elder Nikandr offers Arseny his only hope. Now that Arseny has taken the life of his beloved, “give her your own,” Nikandr counsels simply. “You have a difficult journey, for the story of your love is only beginning. Everything, O Arseny, will now depend on the strength of your love. And, of course, on the strength of your prayers too.”
The arc of the book follows the arc of Christian history itself as described by Irenaeus, the second-century bishop of Lyons. For Irenaeus, the way to think about the history of the world was through the lens of “recapitulation.” The gospel is a retelling of the Genesis story. In the first iteration, with Adam, mankind chooses isolation and selfishness over friendship, communion, and love. The gospel is the story of the second Adam, Jesus, who makes a new choice: sacrifice over selfishness, to die for his friends rather than to turn against them and against God. In so doing, he opens up the path of communion again to man. Taking all the world’s suffering and sin upon himself, the divine scapegoat subverts all of man’s selfishness and violence by a perfect act of love. This is a revelation of the inner life of God, as Joseph Ratzinger once wrote, which is the perfect communion at the heart of all things.
Arseny’s whole life of service and healing belongs to this recapitulation. Even so, as he grows gray and old, troubled by all the pain he has seen as a doctor and as a friend, he is plagued with doubts. Where is this all heading, what has been the point of this endeavor? In Jerusalem, outside of the Tomb of Christ, an elder counsels Arseny not to pay too much attention to the horizontal motion of his life. It does not do to dwell on regrets of the past and anxieties of the future. To what, Arseny asks, ought I pay attention, then? “Vertical motion,” replies the elder as he points to the stars and the breaking day.
Arseny retreats to a monastic life in the forest and takes the name Laurus, in recognition of the medicinal evergreens surrounding him. In his waning days, another young girl in distress wanders into his dwelling, just as the little Ustina had done. This girl, Anastasia, is with child. She explains to Laurus that the people of the town had tried to burn her alive when they discovered her to be pregnant with a child of unknown parentage. Laurus has pity on her, takes her in, and promises to deliver her baby.
In time, the villagers find out where Anastasia has gone, and they come to Laurus’s dwelling to kill her, just as she is nearing the time of birth. Here Laurus encounters again the original sin of his life, when through pride and greed he allowed Ustina and his son to die. Now, having in the intervening years opened his soul to that love that is Christ, he recapitulates and makes a new choice, taking the blame for Anastasia’s pregnancy in front of all the people. Laurus, the renowned holy man and healer, becomes, in the eyes of everyone, just a dirty old man. He is not so much better than us, the people think. They leave Anastasia and Laurus in disgust and return to the town.
Not long after, Anastasia’s labor begins. She shrieks in pain and horror at the difficult birth. Laurus holds her hand, saying, “I am here, my love, and we are together.” He absorbs her pain “drop after drop.” In tears, he finally delivers her healthy boy. Calm and at rest, he swaddles the baby and leans his weary back against a tree. As Anastasia sleeps from exhaustion, Laurus dies with the babe in his arms – a last vertical motion.
The interruption of our lives by this pandemic is an opportunity for us to seek vertical motion, to attempt to leave behind the pain of memory and the anxiety of the future, and endeavor to live in the present, looking upwards at the hope that is Love.
The way to get there, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton said, is to no longer place our hope in the horizontal activity of getting and spending, and to engage instead in a new activity, which consists of giving our lives away. “The mature man realizes that his life affirms itself most, not in acquiring things for himself, but in giving his time, his strength, his intelligence, and his love to others,” Merton writes. “The living drive, the vital satisfaction, by ‘ending’ its trend to self-satisfaction, and redirecting itself to and for others, transcends itself.” This is what I take vertical motion to mean. To give our life away is to participate in love, and love stands above time.
To give our life away is to participate in love, and love stands above time.
Contemplative love is a union, a communion, with the beloved, above the process and sequence that defines our horizontal motion. Unlike our other activities, it is all at once; it is simply presence, it is simply union. In this life, our various activities of love can participate in that reposeful union. When we talk with someone we love, we are really contemplating them, and in their words, we are learning more of them and finding more to love. In serving others, we are affirming and strengthening that union, and participating in the Union at the heart of the world.
This is what happens to Laurus, and it is why the final chapter of his story is called “The Book of Repose.” In growing nearer to love, in growing into communion with men and with God, Laurus comes to his rest.
In being partially halted in our horizontal endeavors by this pandemic, we are able to engage in vertical ones. All of the actions of love, whether they be service or simple enjoyment, are vertical actions. This is so very evident in the medical workers who, like Arseny, endanger themselves to heal and comfort. It is evident in those who try to cheer up their neighbors, in those who donate their plasma, in those who do the necessary work to keep society going. It can be evident in us, too, whatever our station. It can be found in our work, if it is done in love. It can be found in a simple smile given to a family member or a phone call to a friend, in giving away our wealth to less fortunate neighbors or in simple acts of household service – in all of these we can engage in the vertical motion that leads to rest, and which even now has the character of rest.
The pandemic, which interrupts our time and cuts off many of our connections to our human family, is an opportunity to recognize that the substance of our life is precisely in the communion toward which this vertical motion moves. Like Laurus, like the simple roots of the forest, like the Logos at the heart of Creation, we can pour ourselves out into others. In so doing, we may find the real meaning of our work here.