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My Journey of Spiritual Reading

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Anna Karenina and the Balance of Life

Last year I decided to read through 3 of the great Russian authors of the last 150 years or so.  (I’m sure there are other great ones but these are the only three I really knew.)  So, I read The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  I read through it and enjoyed it, though I felt like I needed a Prozac prescription while I was reading it.  After completing the first phase of my goal.  I then proceeded to read The Brothers Karamazovby Dostoevsky.  It was another incredible read and another prescription of Prozac.  Darn these Russians!  They have a knack for messiness of everyday life, which can be very depressing sometimes.  However, all is not lost.  There are little slivers of hope and redemption lining the walls of these characters and their adventures.  And faith is a very real and gritty part of that very messiness, as it is in my own life.

So….at my glacial pace of reading (thank you television) it took me about 9 months to complete these books.

Then in December I started the third installment of my Russian journey – it was Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.  You can find a description here.  This was perhaps my favorite of all three.  Of course, the immediate question is: Did I go for the Prozac again?  Well, there is certainly tragedy and the Russian angst that I felt with the other two books.  Anna, the title character, wore me out to the point of exasperation.  She evoked in me anger, repulsion, excitement, disdain, sorrow, remorse, and pity all at once.  She was a character who decided to do what she wanted and to live for no one but herself.

But her story was intersected by another, more hopeful character – Konstantin Levin.  The book could have easily been titled “Konstantin Levin” instead of “Anna Karenina.”  I almost wish it had been.  As the reader follows Anna spiraling down the vortex of her own self-centeredness, the reader also watches Levin ascend to a higher place with each and every chapter.  He is the self-less counterbalance to Anna’s ever-present narcissism.  Though their lives only come together briefly in the book, their stories form the two pillars around which the whole massive tome comes together.

I think the Russians understand the need for a counterbalance.  In the Gulag Archipelago, it was the good people of Russia that withstood the ferocity of tzars and dictators.  In The Brothers Karamazov, it was the humble younger brother Alyosha that served to counter the sensualist older borther Dmitri.  Anna and Levin.  Weight and counter-weight.

This understanding that the universe, and our lives hang in a sort of balance is something that Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, and Dostoevsky all show through their stories as a spiritual principle of life.  My flesh stands in stark contrast to the holiness of God.  My bad love is but an echo of the good and perfect love with which God fills my soul.  My mistreatment of others is counter-weighted by His grace toward me.  Balance.  That is why I think the story could have been called “Konstantin Levin.”  They are both a part of the whole.  The story of Anna Karenina needs the story of Konstantin Levin and it is incomplete without it.  It is a spiritual principle these Russians are so good at showing us.  Good needs bad to show us how good the good really is.  It’s just as true for a story as it is for a life.