One of my favorite characters in fiction is Konstantin Dmitrich Levin in Leo Tolstoy’s great novel Anna Karenina. Levin is an intelligent young aristocrat with a powerful conscience and a strong thirst for truth. He abandons the Orthodox Christianity of his childhood and seeks an answer to the meaning of life. He finds none. For himself (and everyone else) he foresees only “suffering, death, and eternal oblivion.” His intellectual despair deepens so badly that he hides ropes and guns, fearing that he will take his own life.
One day a peasant tells him about a friend, “He’s an upright old man. He lives for the soul. He remembers God.” The words strike Levin powerfully and cause a rethinking. He perceives a vast difference between his thinking and his life. His thinking was a tormented search for ideas that might give meaning to his existence. Meanwhile he has fallen in love and married a woman who loves him very much. He actively manages a large estate. He’s responsible for the well-being of his brother, sister, and an extended family. His son is born. He is busy with a wide circle of friends. He takes on civic responsibilities.
How ironic, Levin says. He thinks that life is meaningless, but the life that he actually lives is busy, productive, and satisfying. What did this mean? he asks. “It meant that his life was good, but his thinking was bad.” His reasoning tells him that life is a pitiless struggle for survival that rewards selfishness and power. But he doesn’t really believe that, and he certainly doesn’t live that way. In his everyday life he lives for an ideal of the good. Like the peasant’s friend, “he lives for the soul. He remembers God.”
Levin may be just a character in a novel (though I’m told that he’s a lot like Tolstoy), but I love him because his story shows how God can be found when we look at life as we actually live it. This is something Ignatius taught us how to do in the Daily Examen. I rely on it. It’s hard for me to think my way to God. It’s much better to pay attention to how I really live.