There’s a moment in Anna Karenina in which a frustrated Anna turns to her husband. She had been very sick, but she’s better now. During her sickness, over what they thought was her deathbed, her lover and her husband reached out and clasped hands. The urgency of her illness brought about reconciliation. Karenin, the wronged husband, let go of his moral outrage and forgave both Vronsky and Anna.
Tears ensued. Grace shone forth. All felt the bliss.
At the moment I’m thinking of, Anna, back from the brink of death is annoyed over the very thing she so longed for. Her husband has forgiven her. But, as she says, “I didn’t die and now I know I have to live with your forgiveness!”
He is stunned and so are we. For in that moment comes such truth.
I recently read Colm Toibin’s Testament of Mary, a bold and lyrical novella from Mary’s imagined point of view. (Yes, that Mary.) In it, she meets Lazarus—after his resurrection from four days dead—and finds him frail, lonely, adrift. She imagines asking him about “the cave full of souls where he had been,” but the moment passes, and she watches him “alone, utterly isolated…reaching deep into himself for some soft energy which had been left to him and which kept him awake, his sisters said both day and night.”
In this scene, the reborn Lazarus doesn’t speak. He needs physical assistance from his sisters to walk, even to eat small pieces of bread soaked in water. “If he had come back to life,” Mary tells us, “it was merely to say a last farewell to it.” The picture she paints is not of a vital rebirth but of a kind of in-between wandering.
Toibin is writing twenty-first century fiction, of course, not setting down a contemporaneous account of the events. Neither were the writers of the gospel of John, in which Lazarus’s raising appears. Yes, Toibin takes liberties, but he’s not the first to do so.
In this novel, Mary flees the crucifixion; she prays not to Yahweh but to Artemis; she views with contempt the evangelists who track her down. These evangelists, unnamed in Toibin’s book (John? Luke?), want her to agree to their version of events; they pursue her, in the words of Mary Gordon’s review in the New York Times, with “the lurking shadowy presence of Stalin’s secret police.”
And yet this Mary—fierce, bereft—won’t see it their way, won’t agree with their version of her son’s death, won’t shift from her view that the crucifixion “was not worth it.”
None of this discredits resurrection or forgiveness. That’s not Tolstoy’s point, or Toibin’s. But I do think the questions they raise are ones that we (or at least I) don’t think about enough: What happens next? How does resurrection stay fresh, stay new? Once we’ve been unbound, how do we keep from getting all bound up again? Isn’t resurrection complete, whole, radical? How can it age or get stale?
Who hasn’t felt the dashing of hope, the slippage of love, the ease with which even the most radical transformation can slip away? Yes, the two grasped hands—husband’s and lover’s—over the dying woman’s body compel us. Our own raised hearts fill us with life and energy.
And after a week or two, six months or two years, we find ourselves like Anna, having to live with it. I don’t know about you, but I find that sometimes I lose the light that grace can bestow. Even the brightest of ecstasies fades.
And then I find myself thinking, again, of Tolstoy. Anna’s dead now, this time for real, under the wheels of a train, but the novel hasn’t ended. Tolstoy closes not with her death but with Levin, who’s had his moment of thinking himself changed forever. He’s told himself, after a moment of grace, that he’ll never argue with his wife again or quarrel with his friends.
“Everything,” he tells himself, “will be different.” And then, three brief paragraphs later, he snaps at the coachman.
Sometime in the late 1990s, a friend gave me a book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, by Jack Kornfield. Its central idea—that enlightenment is not an end goal but another moment in time—seems both cold-water realism and reliable comfort.
We want to emerge from the tomb intact and healed. We want to feel the balm of forgiveness and never think a petty thought again. We have the ecstatic moment, we light our Vigil candle, we watch the Easter sunrise, we capture the blooming iris on our iPhone wallpaper. That’s it!
And it is, but only in part. Next comes the living into.