One of the most powerful stories ever told is that of the Passion of the Christ, particularly as it appears in the Gospel According to Luke. Here we have Jesus, having suffered all manner of insult and physical abuse, sentenced by a Roman official to die by means of crucifixion. He is raised upon his cross and made to suffer a cruel death under the punishing Judean sun. Alongside him are two criminals each also hanging from a cross. One of these criminals derides Jesus, jesting that if Jesus is truly the Messiah then surely he should save himself. The other criminal confesses his guilt and asks that Jesus remember him. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replies, “today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Just as Jesus is at his lowest, most vulnerable point — when by all rights he should have been thinking only about himself—his thoughts and deeds are instead guided by the virtues of selflessness, compassion, love, and forgiveness. It is, in short, his abstract ministry made into concrete example.
It is an example of Christian virtue that has been passed down throughout the ages from the hill of Calvary, into Assyria, Antioch, Alexandria, Palestine, Chalcedon, Rome, Byzantium, Muscovy, and, eventually, into the Bolkonsky home in Russia where it finds a receptive and nurturing home in the heart of Marya Bolkonskaya. Today she applies these virtues to the peasants of Bogucharovo.
Marya is suffering greatly. Her beloved father has just died. Her only sibling, Andrei, is away at war. She is alone for the first time in her life so her grief is accompanied only by fear and trepidation. At first she freezes. She leaves the pleas that she flee unheeded. Then, as she realizes that she must flee, she is told that she can’t. She is told there are no horses. She is told there are no carriages. She is also told that the peasants who would normally provide the labor to prepare for travel cannot do so because they are starving.
And here is where Marya’s lifetime of Christian prayer and meditation manifests. She’s suffering. She could act selfishly and demand, on pain of death, that the peasants get to work. Instead, she orders Dron to open the “landlord’s grain” and to offer the people whatever they need.
Part of what has always attracted me to War and Peace is its accurate portrayal of a broken world full of miserable suffering and its exploration, through characters such as Marya Bolkonskaya, of how best to live in such a world. Marya’s charitable deeds in today’s chapter provide one model.
Resolve to be a good man in every act you do.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations