Leo Tolstoy’s Text by Frank W. Boreham

Leo Tolstoy: September 9, 1828 – November 20, 1910

This dried-up little man sitting on the stone bench in the shade of the cypress tree, looking so very lean, so very small, and so very gray, scarcely strikes you as being in many ways the most notable figure on the world’s horizon. And yet on closer scrutiny you catch a hint of an unplumbed depth with him. “He gives you the impression,” says Maxim Gorky, “of having just arrived from some distant country, where people think and feel differently, and their relations and language are different. He sits in solitude, tired and gray, as though the dust of another earth were on him, and he looks attentively at everything with the look of a foreigner or of a dumb man. His eyes are keen, his glance piercing, his face wrinkled, and his beard white and long. He listens attentively, as though recalling something which he has forgotten or as though waiting for something new and unknown.”

“The kingdom of God!”
“Far from the kingdom of God!”
“Not very far from the kingdom of God!”

This shriveled but impressive old man, drawing near to the end of his long eventful day, is Leo Tolstoy; and, for nearly a generation, Leo Tolstoy has been the most striking and picturesque personality in Europe. “During the last twenty years of his life,” says Mr. George R. Noyes, “he was the best known citizen in the world of thought; his portrait and the general type of his personality were as familiar as those of his antithesis, Prince Bismarck. When he died, no writer remained whose fame even distantly compared with his own. His works had been translated into almost all civilized languages and had been read by millions of men and women, from academicians to peasants and factory laborers. No other author has ever attained during his own lifetime such universal fame as Tolstoy.” “He is the most notable man of letters now living,” wrote Mr. Stead, nearly forty years ago; “there is no Russian so famous; and, outside Russia, there is no literary personality so conspicuous. His novels are read everywhere, in every language; his ideas attract the attention of everybody who thinks. He has been a soldier, a man of the world, a student, a recluse, a visionary, and a reformer. He is at once a great genius, a consummate artist, and a religious apostle.” Every spiritual pilgrimage is worth tracing; but few are more intricate, more involved or more instructive than is his.

Leo Tolstoy was the most persistent and most passionate seeker that the world has ever known. His whole life was a search. Was ever a quest so penetrating and so audacious? He found himself endowed with the mystery of life and he was resolved to know the reason why. Who had sent him into the world? What end was his life designed to compass? What was to become of him after he had succeeded – or failed? In seeking a solution of these riddles he overhauled the universe and ransacked everything in it. He took nothing for granted. He closed his mind against no conclusion, however improbable or however appalling. Every guess that the philosophers had made was worthy of attention; every theory was entitled to painstaking examination. In his daring search, he knocked at the door of heaven and rattled at the gates of hell. He scaled the heights and sounded the depths. Nothing was too exalted, and nothing too debased, for investigation. He sought through boyhood, youth, manhood, and old age. He lived seeking and died seeking; yet, between his earlier seeking and his later seeking, there was an eternity of difference. For, when the silver was creeping into his hair, he came to see that there is virtue in seeking as well as in finding; indeed, that there is greater virtue in seeking than in finding. After he made that notable discovery, he still sought; but he sought with a smile on his face and a song in his heart. He still sought, for he had learned from Pascal that seeking is itself success: “thou wouldst not seek Him if thou had not already found Him.” He still sought, for, strangely enough, he found in the very act of seeking the answer to his lifelong question. Why had he been sent into the world? He had been sent into the world to seek! But perhaps I had better let him state his surprising conclusion in his own way.

Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness: this is Tolstoy’s text. In one of his later works, I find it inscribed on almost every page.

“What is the aim of human life?” he asks, repeating the question that had baffled him for so many years. “What is the aim of human life? Why do I live? Only religion can answer that question. And this is the answer: Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you. Living to ourselves, we seek happiness and do not find it: but seeking first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, we obtain peace, freedom, and joy without seeking them.”

“Look at yourself,” he says again, “and understand who you are, and what you are, and what you live for. The personal good of the individual man, or even of the family or of the State, cannot be the ultimate aim of life. The meaning of human life does not consist in each man’s acquiring his personal and short-lived good at the expense of another. The meaning of your life can only be the fulfilment of His will who, for the attainment of His ends, has sent you into this life. You must understand that your life is not yours, not your property, but His who produced it for His own purposes. The highest possible good can only be yours on condition that you do His will. Therefore, above all else, seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.”

This is the essence of Tolstoyism; it represents his teaching in a nutshell. As a result of all his seeking, he found that he was to seek still. He had come into the world to seek. Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness.

“You would not know Leo,” wrote the Countess to a friend, in 1881,” he is so changed. He has become a Christian, and he remains one, so steadfast and true!”

This is the end of the long, long quest. I wonder if we can trace the steps by which he reached that sublime conclusion?

One only searches for a thing of which he feels the need. The first step in a great search is the dawn of the desire. I catch odd, but significant, glimpses of Leo Tolstoy in the days in which the yearning of his heart is beginning to assert itself. He is a little boy – shockingly plain and extremely sensitive about it. At times he is so oppressed by a consciousness of his unattractiveness that he runs away and hides himself in the woods. In the course of one of these solitary expeditions, a startling thought takes possession of him. Perhaps he found a dead bird among the autumn leaves, or a dead squirrel lying, stiff and stark, under a beech tree. At any rate he confronts the fact of death. Everything dies. He must die. What then? It seems to him that the only sensible course is to enjoy the present: the future is clearly beyond our ken. He therefore hurries home; tucks himself cozily in bed; reads exciting novels, and sucks as many sweetmeats as his pocket-money will provide!

I see him again. He is a little older. He and his brother Nicholas – who is six years his senior – are digging a grave on a lonely hillside. But what are they burying? These two youths have formed a society: it is to be called the “Ant-Brothers”: it is to embrace all mankind in a union of sympathy and affection. They have decided to bury a green stick as a kind of charm to celebrate the founding of this sublime society. On that very spot, more than seventy years afterwards, another burial took place. For, when Tolstoy lay dying, he begged that he might be laid to rest where he and Nicholas buried the green stick long years ago. That spot will always represent one of humanity’s most cherished places of pilgrimage.

Then, as the Confession shows, he plunges into the abyss. “I remember,” he says,” that in my twelfth year, a boy, now long since dead, a pupil in the gymnasium, spent a Sunday with us and brought us the news of the last discovery in the gymnasium, namely, that there was no God, and that all we were taught on that subject was a pure invention.” How interested we were! We all eagerly accepted the theory as something particularly attractive and possibly quite true.” Thus he lost God, but it was not a very great loss. For until then, he says, he had believed in God, or rather, he had not denied God; but in what God he so languidly believed he could not have said. Then, for years, like a ship without chart and compass, he drifted at the mercy of every gust that blew.

“I cannot recall these years,” he tells us, “without horror and disgust. I killed men in war; I challenged others to duels in order to kill them; I squandered money at cards; I ill-treated my peasantry; I rioted with loose women; I deceived men. Lying, robbery, adultery, fornication, drunkenness, violence, murder – there was no crime that I left uncommitted; and yet I was considered by my equals as a comparatively moral man.”

And yet, beneath all this, there is something deeper. For, all the time, he honestly desired to be a good and virtuous and useful man; “but every time I tried to express the longings of my heart I was met with contempt and derisive laughter; but, directly I gave my way to the lowest of my passions, I was praised and encouraged.” And so, as Mrs. Creighton says, we see the young Tolstoy, loving pleasure, eager to shine as a man of fashion, indulging freely in the vicious habits of the young men of his day, but with a constant sense of discontent with himself, a constant effort after a higher life. He is always making rules for his life, and always breaking them. The whole story, as Mr. Winstanley points out, shows the agony of a great soul, struggling in the deepest abysses of doubt, astray in a universe where all seems chaotic, dark, and meaningless, with no firm footing anywhere. In a word, Tolstoy is lost! He is lost, but he is seeking; he is seeking, but he is lost!

  1. In his extremity, he sees three possible means of escape.He can hark back to his childish philosophy – the philosophy of the sweetmeats and the novels. Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die! He can drown thought in delirious enjoyments.
  2. He can commit suicide. The thought so fascinated him that, for years, he had all ropes hidden from his sight and refused to carry a gun lest the sudden temptation should be too strong for him.
  3. He could become, at least externally, religious. “Tolstoy sought, passionately and despairingly, to gain his faith; he conformed to all the ceremonial requirements of the Greek Church; prayed morning and evening; fasted and prepared for the Communion; he took a pleasure in sacrificing his bodily comfort by kneeling and by rising to attend early service; he took pleasure, too, in mortifying his intellectual pride by forcing himself to believe doctrines which he had formerly condemned.”

Tolstoy was fifty when, very abruptly, the light broke upon him. “My whole life,” he says, “underwent a sudden transformation. Everything was completely changed.” It was, he tells us, as if he had long been adrift in an open boat, lost on a waste of waters, and had all at once sighted the shore.

At fifty, Tolstoy was a man of world-wide fame. He had achieved distinction as a novelist; was extremely wealthy; and, physically, was immensely strong. He had a beautiful estate, devoted servants, congenial friends, and was happy in his home, in his wife, and in his family. But the old craving was still there, and his greatest satisfaction lay in exchanging spiritual experiences with the peasants about the farm. Monks, priests, and theologians had failed to help him; but there was something about the fervent faith of these ploughmen and drovers that profoundly appealed to him. Professor William James and Mr. G.H. Perris both liken Tolstoy to Bunyan. The spiritual analogy is very close. The light came to Bunyan through listening to the conversation of four poor women sitting in the sun; the mind of Tolstoy was illumined by the conversation of his peasantry. But, stimulating as was the talk of the peasants, it was in an hour of solitude that the crisis came. He is in the woods, alone. “I was thinking of only one thing,” he says, “I was seeking after God. Long ago I should have killed myself had I not cherished a dim hope of one day finding Him.” That reflection threw open the gates of salvation. For if, as it seemed to him now, he had only really lived when he had been seeking God, then God must have been with him all the time! “Thou wouldst not have sought Him,” said Pascal, “if thou had not already found Him! Tolstoy was dazzled by excess of light. “What more do I seek?” a voice seemed to cry within him. “This is He – He without whom there is no life! To know God and to live are one! God is life! Live to seek God and life will not be without Him!”

“My God, I thank Thee!” he cried; swallowed down the sobs that arose; and brushed away with both hands the tears that filled his eyes.

“One is bewildered,” says Mr. Arthur C. Turberville, “by the constant changefulness of Tolstoy’s life up to this point. His was a heart that knew no rest. He tried everything, yet nothing for long. From the moment of the great change, however, he never deviated. All that he had previously dreamed of goodness, purity, peace, and love, flashed upon him with all the force of a revelation from the picture of Jesus in the gospels. Christ made his aspirations tangible.”

From that hour he set himself, with all the intensity of his being, to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and to call upon others to do the same. The words were continually upon his lips and they trickled more easily than any others from his pen.

Seek first!

I once preached on the text in New Zealand. As I concluded, an old lady of seventy-two rose from her seat and, in the presence of the whole congregation, came and kneeled at the rail at my feet. “I’ve left it very late,” she said, during the singing of the hymn, “but when you kept saying: Seek first! Seek first! Seek first! I couldn’t wait a moment longer. Do you think I’ve left it too long?” For fifteen years after that she maintained a wonderful ministry in that congregation, pleading with the young men and maidens not to repeat her sad mistake.

Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you.

And so Tolstoy sought and found – and sought still. He died a joyous seeker. “He remains,” says Mr. A.C. Benson, “he remains one of the most impressive figures of the century. As a writer he was a man of amazing genius, and yet this was by no means the best or even the greatest part of him. He may be described as one of the most typical human beings that ever lived, because in his spirit the temptations and basenesses of humanity and its virtues and grandeurs, all at a white-hot intensity of passion, waged a ceaseless strife. Few indeed are like him, yet few can read his writings without feeling in some degree or other his likeness to themselves. It is this that gives him a surpassing fascination, that he is a sinner close to the heart of the sinful world doomed to death, and yet a passionate seeker after God: proud and defiant, and yet with a deep sincerity desiring to serve the law of Christ.” Yes that is it: a sinner close to the heart of the sinful world, he calls all men everywhere to seek first the Kingdom; and the wise will lose not a moment in responding to that earnest and insistent call.

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