Memento Mori

Day 288 of A Year of War and Peace

evati sú, in piede: la via é lunga e ‘l cammino é malvagio.” These are the words of the poet Virgil, Dante’s spectral escort throughout the realms of the dead. His admonitory command concludes his tour of hell and heralds the awful ascension of Mount Purgatory. One might assume that hell is where the way is long and the road not easy. There, after all, we find the province of punishment where the lustful are perpetually swept about a sinister squall, gluttonous prone shades lay flayed while wallowing in putrefaction, and an unforgivingly frozen lake traps the treacherous. That’s not the hard part though. The hard part is the climb up Purgatory where souls are cleansed and made fit for paradise. Likewise, the most difficult part of Pierre Bezukhov’s journey is his forced march across wintertime Russia where he, like the denizens of purgatory, must suffer to earn the reward of spiritual growth.

One way to read this chapter is to contrast Pierre’s current suffering with his former life of wealth and plenty. Whereas before he lived in freedom among the largest estates in all of Russia, today we find him in captivity sharing a shed with commoners. Formerly his material wants were all satisfied. Currently he cannot even secure a decent pair of shoes. Before he traded witticisms with the sharpest of the Russian intelligentsia. Today he is subject to the dictates of French officers possessed by a mysterious force that drives men to kill. He can only wait and endure.

All this is only the beginning. Greater contrasts with his former life await him on his hard winter’s walk. Before he gets started on that terrible journey, however, fate offers Pierre an object of meditation in the form of a dead man the marching prisoners find slumped against a church’s palings. That man, his lifeless face now smothered in soot, must once have had a life like Pierre. He too suffered and rallied, sorrowed and rejoiced. All this, like the earthly deeds of Dante’s shades, is now reduced to nothing.

DAILY MEDITATION

Should prosperity befall thee, rejoice not, and should abasement come upon thee, grieve not, for both shall pass away and be no more.

Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words

This is the two hundred and eighty eighth installment in a daily, yearlong, chapter-by-chapter reading devotional and meditation on Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. For more information on this project please read the introduction to the series here.

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