I was shocked and humbled a few nights ago while reading a short story by Leo Tolstoy. It got me thinking about one of the purposes of reading literature. The story (called Two Old Men) commences with old Effim and Elisha setting off on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. A few weeks into their trek, Elisha, feeling thirsty, approaches a hut to ask for water, assuring Effim that he will catch up on the road later. When there is no response to his knock, Elisha decides to open the door and go in. He finds a family on the point of death due to a famine and sickness. Instead of getting water from them, he must get water for them as they are too weak to draw any themselves. He then goes on to feed them, buy back the lease on their field, and get them a horse and cart.
The thing that came as such an unpleasant surprise to me was my initial reaction to the story: I did not want Elisha to help them and spend all his time and pilgrimage money on them. (How callused is that?) My thoughts mirrored those of Elisha on the fourth evening of his stay with the family. He,
“was in two minds... On the one hand he felt he ought to be going, for he had spent too much time and money as it was; on the other hand he felt sorry for the people.
'There seems to be no end to it,' he said. 'first I only meant to bring them a little water and give them each a slice of bread, and just see where it has landed me. It's a case of redeeming the meadow and the cornfield. And when I have done that I shall have to buy a cow for them, and a horse for the man to cart his sheaves'” (Tolstoy 114).
Such a course seems worse than foolhardy for a poor man in the midst of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to honor God. In the end, all his money is used up and his fellow pilgrim, Effim, is weeks ahead in his journey to Jerusalem. Elisha has no choice but to admit he must turn back home.
“I'm afraid I shall never fulfill my vow [to go to Jerusalem] in this life. I must be thankful it was made to a merciful Master and to one who pardons sinners” (117).
What Elisha doesn't know is that his shining bald head had been seen in Jerusalem at the holiest shrines. His friend Effim is amazed that his lost companion had made it to Jerusalem ahead of him (124). The moral of the story, and the one that I was finally forced to accept after my initial stubbornness, was the one Effim saw months later when he got home and learned: “that the best way to keep one's vows to God and to do His will, is for each man while he lives to show love and do good to others” (130). “Or else while I go to seek the Lord beyond the sea I may lose Him in myself”(115).
I mentioned that this story got me thinking about one of the purposes of literature. I was reluctant to let Elisha do the right thing in the story. Because our wills and desires are so often contrary to doing the right thing, we need all the help we can get in the quest to develop a mindset of godliness. Our lives and imaginations need to be saturated with examples of saintly action. The pragmatic and utilitarian “walk by on the other side of the road” mentality often seems to make sense but it is not the right response. We need examples of godly action to spur us on. These role-models can, hopefully, be found in real life but reading the right literature is also a good way to find heroes who will stir up an enthusiasm for virtue. The writer of Hebrews puts it this way: "Encourage one another daily . . . so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness" (Hebrews 3:13). And again: “let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.... let us encourage one another” (Hebrews 10:24).
We need the encouragement of right-acting role-models, real or fictional, that capture our imagination. Allen Bloom points out the need for heroic role-models who practice the classical and Christian virtues when he insightfully observes that: “The moral education that is today supposed to be the great responsibility of the family cannot exist if it cannot present to the imagination of the young a vision of a moral cosmos and of the rewards and punishments for good and evil, sublime speeches that accompany and interpret deeds, protagonists and antagonists in the drama of moral choice” (Bloom 60). A daily dose of stories like Tolstoy's Two Old Men may be the spur that the imagination needs for “love and good deeds” to be eagerly pursued.
Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, New York. A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster inc. 1988
Leo Tolstoy, Twenty-Three Tales. Trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude. The World's Classics, London, Oxford University Press. 1947.