There are times when I just cannot believe what I get myself into. Latest example: I joined a reading group and committed to reading War and Peace over the summer at a pace of 150 pages or so per week. As if I don’t have enough to read with teaching two brand new courses during the next academic year, as well as the 24-7 demands of running a big academic program that never stop, blah, blah, blah. Actually, I’m having a lot of fun rediscovering Tolstoy through this 1350 page novel that I have not read since my undergraduate days. The philosopher in me prefers Dostoevsky’s depth, darkness, and weirdness, but the reader and novel lover in me resonates with Tolstoy. It’s just that I’m not getting anything else done. I’m reading Tolstoy on the elliptical machine at the gym, Tolstoy on campus when I should be writing important emails and attending important meetings, Tolstoy at home when I should be staying current with “The Voice” and “Mad Men.” On my silent retreat this coming week, during which I’m planning to write at least eighty-three new essays for my blog, I’m sure I’ll be reading Tolstoy instead.
When I read a great work of literature, and they don’t come any greater than War and Peace, I always find myself resonating with a particular character, more or the less the character I would be if I were to jump into the novel. About five hundred pages into War and Peace (a chapter or so past the Introduction, in other words), that character is Prince Andrei Nikolaevich Bolkonsky. I find Natasha, the main female character, annoying and Pierre, the main male character, needs a good kick in the ass, but I get Andrei. This morning on the stationary bicycle at the gym, Andrei went through an experience so familiar to me that it was scary. As a young twenty-something Andrei joined the Russian army as an officer and fought against the forces of Napoleon at Austerlitz. Wounded in battle and presumed dead, Andrei finds his way home to his family just in time for his wife to die in giving birth to their first child. Now, two years later, Andrei is depressed, cynical, and finding it difficult to find joy or meaning in anything. Travelling in early spring to one of his estates, Pyotr his footman comments on the beauty of the April morning, the flowers, and the new leaves on the birch trees. Andrei’s attention is drawn instead to a stand of stagnant fir trees, then to an apparently dead oak tree. “With its huge ungainly limbs sprawling unsymmetrically, and its gnarled hands and fingers, it stood an aged, stern, and scornful monster among the smiling birch-trees.”
“Spring, love, happiness!” this oak seems to say. “Are you not weary of that stupid, meaningless, constantly repeated fraud? Always the same, and always a fraud! There is no spring, no sun, no happiness! Look at those cramped dead firs, ever the same, and at me too, sticking out my broken and barked fingers just where they have grown, whether from my back or my sides: as they have grown so I stand, and I do not believe in your hopes and your lies.”
And Andrei’s mood and recent experiences are confirmed. “Let others—the young—yield afresh to that fraud, but we know life, our life is finished!”
Andrei’s oak reminds me of another oak, the massive one a hundred feet or so outside the front door of my Collegeville Institute apartment door where I spent four sabbatical months a few years ago. I arrived in the middle of a Minnesota winter; although I am not prone to depression as Andrei was, I realize in retrospect that I carried deep within me a spiritual malaise and ennui that had been festering for years. My Collegeville oak looked as I felt inwardly that January—bare, cold, snow-covered, with few signs of life. Over the succeeding weeks, this oak became an inescapable presence in my life (it was the first thing I saw as I stepped out of my front door) and a metaphor for what was happening to me.
As the snow piled up, then slowly melted over the first couple of months, I found an accompanying inner thaw occurring, facilitated by the warmth of daily forays into the liturgy of the hours with the monks at St. John’s Abbey a half mile or so up the road. One March morning as I stumbled back from the common area at the Institute with my morning Keurig coffee in tow, I walked up on a dozen or so deer hanging out under the oak. They apparently had also been there right under my nose ten minutes earlier as I emerged from my apartment half-asleep and oblivious to the world on my way to the common area. As they noticed me noticing them, they gave me their unique white-assed salute as they sauntered away. Signs of spring under the oak, which was still naked.
As April came and other trees budded into their springtime growth, my oak remained apparently lifeless. Then one morning as I walked past it taking my usual shortcut to the road up to the Abbey for 7:00 morning prayer, I noticed that on the ends of its lowest and smallest twigs signs of new growth were first emerging. “So you’re alive after all, huh?” I muttered as I continued on, the same observation I had been making more and more frequently about myself as deeper and deeper spaces cracked open after a lifetime of neglect. I regularly took pictures from my front doorstep to track the oak’s emergence into life and wrote essays to track my parallel inner emergence.
As the oak grew into full-blown spring splendor over the succeeding weeks, it more and more became my daily touchstone. “Hey there,” I would say as I walked by three or four times a day coming or going, and I imagined that if I were able to live in tree time rather than human time, I would have heard a deep, rumbling, ponderous, Tolkien Ent-like “Hey yourself” in return. The oak’s stability and lack of hurry became my own goal as I practiced slowing down and plugging into the rhythms of the newly discovered energies within me.
Four years later, when I think of Collegeville the first image that invariably comes to mind is my oak. Growth, stability, silence, fortitude, rootedness—it represents all of the things that I hope to have carried at least a bit from my months in Minnesota. On the half-dozen or so return visits I have made, a visit to the oak with more pictures has always been a “must-do.” I have never been at Collegeville during the autumn, so I do not know what Minnesota foliage is like nor what colors the oak wears in late September and early October. I was raised in northern Vermont, the fall foliage capital of the universe, and in my imagination I see the oak garbed in brilliant orange, my favorite fall foliage color. Yellow or red would be okay, but I’ll bet it’s orange.
After Andrei encounters his oak tree in War and Peace, he spends several days inspecting his large land holdings, and then heads back toward his home outside of Moscow. Looking for the oak where he remembered first seeing it, he is at first confused.
Without recognizing it he looked with admiration at the very oak he sought. The old oak, quite transfigured, spreading out a canopy of sappy dark-green foliage, stood rapt and slightly trembling in the rays of the evening sun. Neither gnarled fingers nor old scars nor old doubts and sorrows were in evidence now. Through the hard century-old bark, even where there were no twigs, leaves had sprouted such as one could hardly believe the old veteran could have produced.
“’Yes, it is the same oak,’ thought Prince Andrei, and all at once he was seized by an unreasoning spring-time feeling of joy and renewal.” Over the next eight hundred and fifty pages, I’m sure that Andrei will grapple more than once with depression and sorrow. But an encounter with what Isaiah would have called an “oak of righteousness” has changed him for good. I know exactly how you feel, Andrei.
They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor.