“His Earthly Oil Lamp, Laurus”: A Theological Reflection on Eugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus
Eugene Vodolazkin’s masterful novel Laurus is a tour de force of literary imagination and theological reflection. In a style reminiscent of Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov and imbued with as much tragic conviction as Nikolai Leskov’s Cathedral Folk, Laurus stands out as a modern-day masterwork of Russian literature. The novel is full of mystical, sacramental, and eschatological imagery. Vodolazkin marries the mundane to the sacred in a beautiful tapestry of man’s fallenness and God’s redemptive plan. The main character, called at various times and in multiple places, Arseny, Ustin, Amvrosy, and finally Laurus, is a beautiful reminder of what sanctity looks like in the midst of tragedy. He is at once relatable and entirely otherworldly. Laurus stands at the intersection between the life we have all lived; full of sin, tragedy, pain, triumph, holiness, and the final telos of man’s existence. Laurus is the very personification of what it means to be an Easter people because he lives a life of constant pilgrimage, “a sojourner in a foreign land” (Exod 2:22) living in the tension between the here-and-now and the yet-to-come.
Vodolazkin deftly navigates the narrative through time and space, across continents and centuries, without leaving the reader confused or dislocated. The novel takes place in late medieval Russia—a time of superstition, deep faith, and adversity. The mystical, and yet mundane character of Ambrogio, a fellow pilgrim and companion of Arseny (Laurus), is given the gift of foresight. Ambrogio sees deep into the future and yet, as a character, is fascinated with the end of the world. Ambrogio, and his late medieval contemporaries, are convinced that the world will end in the seven thousandth year since the creation of the world. They expect the end of all things and agonize over their preparedness (or lack thereof). Yet, amid this eschatological preoccupation, we see the growing serenity of Arseny. His life plays before him in a series of episodes, flashbacks, and flash-forwards, all propelling his hope for redemption. Arseny sees both hope and despair before him and, with the patience and resolve of a saint, seeks to live in humility and devotion.
The narrative itself, with its masterful bending of time and space, sings with sacramental glory. The world around Arseny is full of God’s purpose and beauty, continually speaking of salvation and hope in times of despair. The character arcs are a beautiful blending of tragedy and triumph. The story begins with Arseny as a youth in the time of plague. He goes to live with his grandfather, the wise and elderly Christofer. There, in the warmth of his grandfather’s home, Arseny learns the art of healing and herbal medicine. Vodolazkin makes it clear that, in the face of modern scientific surety, the Christian must distinguish healing from medical cures. Healing incorporates both soul and body. Arseny frequently called by many a ‘great doctor” or the “Doctor of All Rus” for his medicinal talents and experience, is shown throughout the novel, as being a vehicle of profound spiritual healing as much as he is of any physical ailment. Towards the end of the book, Laurus is called God’s “earthly oil lamp”—a profound allusion to the character’s ability to reflect the grace of Christ. Laurus embodies, in a tragic and beautiful progression, the meaning found in Our Lord’s words in St Matthew’s Gospel (Matt. 5:14-16). Arseny’s life becomes one of light, of divine reflection, and profound grace.
Arseny is called, as a young man, to the bedside of his pregnant love, Ustina. Here, early in his story, we see his budding experience and his healing gifts fail him. Ustina and the baby are lost and, in this tragedy, Arseny sets upon his journey towards redemption. He spends much of the narrative attempting to atone for the loss of Ustina, and willingly endures trial after trial for the sake of saving the soul of his beloved. Arseny takes upon himself the burdens of all those he heals and offers them up on behalf of others in a beautifully Eucharistic way.
The book opens and closes, in relative style, with the pangs of childbirth. Laurus, once praised and touted as a healer, a holy fool, a mystic, a saint, and a monk, is accused by a young, pregnant woman of being the father of her child. The aged Laurus (Arseny) comes to the aid of this woman who is isolated and in need of healing. He accepts the lie of the woman in the face of an angry village to keep her safe and assist in the delivery of her child. Laurus, fighting back his anxiety and fear, successfully concludes his earthly life in the most appropriate manner. He comforts, supports, and brings healing to a woman, not unlike Ustina, in her time of need.
Laurus’ final moments are spent in the same manner as his time with the dying Ustina. This time, he sees the woman and her child safe through childbirth and sits at their sleeping bedside where he gives up the ghost. Here, in the moment of Laurus’ victory, we are shown a beautiful moment of symbolism. It is in the tragedy of Ustina’s death that Laurus begins his understanding of life. And it is in his final moments of life that he is prepared for death—a death which is, in itself, a rising to a new life in Christ.
The young woman, seeing the kindness and holiness of the monk, ventures into the village and tells the truth. Everyone acknowledges their shame in condemning Laurus and thousands attend his funeral, including many monks, priests, and bishops. The final page of the book gives a glimpse into the truth of man’s experience: a stranger to the area asks why the people have mistreated Laurus his whole life only to weep and lament his passing. The local blacksmith replies that the man fails to understand the way of things and after the stranger retorts “do you yourselves understand it”, the blacksmith answers “Do we?….of course we, too, do not understand.”
Vodolazkin captures the depth of human inconsistency. He sees the truth of man’s contradiction, yet, he also considers that man knows holiness when he sees it. The people who interact with Laurus are always fickle, prideful, ungrateful, and changeable (as we all can be). Yet, in Laurus we see the impact of Christ in the life of the Christian. Unlike many, Laurus devotes his entire life to redemption. He weathers storm after storm of suffering in the hope of his own healing. He is unjustly condemned, beaten, mistreated, and misunderstood. Yet, he maintains his devotion to the reality of salvation. It would be easy to call Laurus the Christ figure of the book. However, it is through Laurus and his journey towards redemption that we see Christ himself as the animating force behind Laurus’ beautiful life. Christ covers Laurus, lives within Laurus, and acts through Laurus for the healing of His people.
What significance does this concept of divine reflection have for the everyday Christian? Are we content with being the fickle villagers? Are we prepared to live the life of Christ, in all its suffering and glory? The answer, so masterfully presented by Vodolazkin, is seen in the simplicity of devotion, answered in the beauty of humility, and manifested in the life of grace. Laurus, with his God-given gifts, is greater than the sum of his parts, not because of his merit or abilities, but because his whole life is devoted to the other. His entire life is a sacrifice that revolves around its center: Christ. The life of sanctity is simultaneously mysterious and straightforward. It is the moment-by-moment choice to choose God and his plan over and against our own will. We must become, like Laurus, God’s vessel, imperfect and broken, yet used in the most striking of ways. Laurus is, as we all should be, “His earthly oil lamp” shining with the glow of God’s presence and living in the light of His Glory.
Creighton McElveen is a postulant in the Diocese of the Eastern United States in the Anglican Province of America. He holds a B.A. in Intellectual History from Kennesaw State University and a M.A. in Theology from St. Joseph’s College of Maine. His thesis is titled “Henri de Lubac and the Debate on Nature and Grace: The Natural Desire for the Supernatural as Hermeneutic of Being”. His interests include Anglo-Catholic History, Nouvelle Théologie, Liturgics, Scholasticism, and Philosophical Theology. Creighton also loves art, poetry, and pipe smoking. He is a member of The Society of Mary, Guild of All Souls, and the Society of King Charles the Martyr. He is also a member of the American Academy of Religion.