Wednesday, March 23, 2011

On Tolstoy, Forgiveness, and the Waffle House

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)
A while back I found myself at a local Waffle House, filling a little time between appointments with my orthopedist and my ophthalmologist.  Life is like that for me these days, requiring far more visits to medical facilities than I ever would have imagined.

That morning I was visiting the surgeon who had patched together the remnants of a knee that took the brunt of an ungraceful descent down the stairway in my home. That nasty surgery left me with a couple of months spent mostly in a recliner, my foot elevated and my ego bruised.

Later that day I was at the eye doctor, demonstrating once again that I could not make out the bottom row in the vision test. Never mind that I had long ago memorized the darn thing, although that knowledge seems a bit useless.

For some reason these medical appointments are often followed by visits to Denny's or IHOPs or such--the comfort foods, the brassy waitresses, the bottomless coffee pots, and the morning paper. On this occasion it was the Waffle House I visited. I learned a little history from the greasy menu--there is a Waffle House Museum in Decatur, Georgia at the site of the first restaurant opened in 1955. That was interesting to know, but hardly life-changing.

But never did I imagine that in the midst of the maple syrup, the buttered waffle, and the black coffee I would run into Leo Tolstoy. He came by way of a story in the New York Times which I was reading on my iPhone. I see a lot of irony in the circuitous route that connected me to Tolstoy that morning, but that is not the point of my musings today.

Waffle House Museum
The piece in the Times dealt with an effort underway in Russia to rehabilitate Tolstoy's reputation on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his death. It seems that although he is fondly remembered among literary types, and is an important figure in Russian history, he is not beloved by the Russian Orthodox Church. A century ago the  church had excommunicated and blacklisted him because they believed he had supported the rise of the Bolsheviks.

Clearly Tolstoy had radical views and was a favorite of Lenin. But even those who abhorred his politics had to acknowledge that War and Peace and Anna Karenina, among others, were such a worthy contribution to the world's literature that he could be forgiven his political myopia. And so, a decade ago Tolstoy's great-great grandson wrote to the church requesting that Tolstoy's 1901 excommunication be "revisited." There was no response.

As the centennial approached the effort was joined by the literary establishment and a most remarkable request ensued. The president of the Russian Book Union wrote to the church and in effect asked for forgiveness on behalf of Tolstoy, something Tolstoy himself had never requested. The church's response, while praising his books and other literary accomplishments, noted that Tolstoy had never made peace with the church nor renounced his "tragic spiritual error" and as a result his excommunication could not be lifted. They did say that those who held him in high regard would be allowed to offer "sincere, humble prayer for his soul." (The full text of the letters are well worth reading and can be found here.)

At this point the waitress at the Waffle House asked if I would like my coffee refilled.  I did.

Russian intellectuals were appalled by the church's response:
“It’s as if in the 20th century the church did not survive persecution that made Tolstoy’s criticisms look like childish prattle,” wrote the literary critic Pavel V. Basinsky, whose new book examines Tolstoy’s final days. “It’s as if we have found ourselves in the situation that we were in at the beginning of the last century.”
As the waitress two booths over hollered "Two eggs over easy, hash browns, and bacon extra crispy," I shook my head in agreement and chuckled at the silly rigidity and narrow interpretations of those church officials unable to migrate to the modern age.  I poured a little maple syrup on what remained of my waffle.

And then a little chill rippled through my body.

I stared at the words. I wrote that statement by the Secretary of the Patriarchal Cultural Council of the Russian Orthodox Church, I thought, lukewarm coffee gurgling in my throat. Not that statement, of course. I had never upheld the excommunication of Leo Tolstoy. Never even knew about it.

But my entire career was spent in various roles in a faith community, eight of them as its president. In that moment in the booth of the restaurant du jour I started to wonder how many times had I written policies or responded to inquiries in a manner that leaned on custom or comfort or precedent but ignored the Waffle House test.

Does it make sense to the world as we know it, as it has become over time? Does it honor the past without being bound to it? Does it stifle or does it breathe with new life?

 My mind raced.

A few days ago I stopped by the Waffle House again after seeing the doctor. A little bladder problem if you must know. I had some things I have been wondering about since my last encounter with Tolstoy. Many things. I needed to know what he thought.  That same waitress was yelling something about link sausages. No Tolstoy though.

Maybe I'll check at Denny's, just in case.