Monday, March 3, 2008

Poets at the Gates

The Elder Barsanuphius of Optina on creative intellectuals:
The majority of our best artists and writers can be compared with people who have come to church when the service has already begun and the church is full of people. Such people stand at the entrance – it's difficult to go in, and they don't even make an effort to do so. Something or other carries over to them from the Divine services: the Cherubic Hymn, or We Praise Thee... Thus they have stood and stood, without having been in the church itself. So also are artists and poets at the gates of the Kingdom of Heaven – they have stood there, but have not entered; and meanwhile, so many means have been given to them for their entrance therein. Their souls, like dynamite, have flared up at the slightest spark, but unfortunately they did not fan this spark, and it went out.
What a striking image! This does not mean, however, that the Elder Barsanuphius was opposed to literature. Indeed, we read that the Elder "always resorted to literary examples" in his talks with educated lay people, including frequent reference to Pushkin and Gogol, among many others. It was in fact the Elder Barsanuphius who was sent to receive Tolstoy's repentance before the latter's death (very possibly at the request of Tolstoy himself). He was refused admittance by Tolstoy's "handlers."

One could even say that the Elder's method of interpreting these authors, like that of the Fathers, involved a movement from the "literal" to the "spiritual" meaning of the text. In his biography we read: "Often, in a few phrases, he would disclose the essence of a phenomenon and set up landmarks, always brining the 'reader's' worldly idea closer to the spiritual, unnoticeably drawing his listener to purely spiritual questions. Thus, having unexpectedly brought up the subject of Lermontov (when speaking with a poet who was concerned purely with love themes), he revealed a new aspect of the text, far more profound than it was according to the author's design."

But the Elder Barsanuphius' original point remains: even the world's greatest artists have remained just outside the gates of the Church, rather like those ancient philosophers whose images we sometimes see in the narthex of a church. They might help people reach the gates of the Church, but it remains for grace to pull such seekers in.

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