Gary's Faith Walk leads back to Russia
Pilgrimage: a journey or search of spiritual or moral significance, generally to a shrine or location of importance to a person’s faith or beliefs.
I began my journey with a paperback copy of Anna Karenina and the latest biography of Leo Tolstoy stuffed in my backpack. By local commuter train, I headed south out of Moscow toward the city of Tula. Then, in a short taxi ride, I arrived at Yasnaya Polyana, the estate where Tolstoy lived and wrote for most of his 82 years.
Spiritual authors suggest a pilgrimage has three essential parts: leaving home, entering into a time of liminal space and time of retreat, and returning home in a new way.
I certainly had the leaving home part down! Seven thousand air miles from the Inland Northwest, surrounded by the language and culture of Russia, the taxi’s radio blaring popular rock tunes from Moscow —“Toto, we’re not in Sandpoint anymore!”
A liminal space relates to a sensory threshold, an intermediate place, often barely perceptible. Indeed, as I entered the 1,000 acre grounds of the estate I felt a movement back in time. In only a few short steps, I was transported to the closing decades of the 19th century and Tolstoy’s external life in this place. Broad walkways lined by towering birches now golden in late fall. Draft horses grazing amidst the trees in the fruit orchards. Geese skittering and honking through mud puddles. The smell of manure and straw piled outside the low slung barn. And, across the lake, the imagined houses of the hundreds of peasants who once tilled the soil and harvested the grain to make Yasnaya Polyana profitable for Count Tolstoy and his family.
Amidst this space the “time of retreat” were the hours of ambling through birch forests, sitting quietly on wooden benches, enjoying borsch made fresh from the season’s beet crop, and reading both novel and biography. Throughout, I reflected on the physical and the spiritual life of this extraordinary man.
If “returning home in a new way” is the key element of pilgrimage, then I am truly in a new place. Most persons who know the name of Leo Tolstoy do so through his novels War and Peace, Anna Karenina, or The Death of Ivan Ilyitch. I was one of those persons. But now I have also come to know the winding spiritual journey of his life. This journey included his own “creed” based on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount; his treatise calling for individuals to live a moral life regardless of family, society, and government; and, his ongoing dialogue with religious and philosophical guides whether they were Evangelicals, Quakers, Shakers, or Buddhists.
Now, days after returning from Russia, what is the “spiritual or moral significance” of visiting this “shrine” that is Yasnaya Polyana? At its core, it is my deepened understanding that this walk I am on is indeed a journey. A week, a month, a year, even a decade do not mark the boundaries of spiritual journey. For me, the honest answer is the journey lasts a lifetime. And what of the questions of life’s meaning, one’s relationship with God, and relationships with others? My understanding today is that the clarity of last year’s answers are not the answers for this year and ought not to be the answers of next year. And I have been retaught the lessons of learning from the wisdom literature of the world and to question the dogma which so constrains much of faith tradition in the world today.
And to think it all began with a simple train ticket, a paperback novel, and a biography. The journey continues.