November 20th, 2010, marks the 100 year anniversary of Count Leo Tolstoy’s passing. Considering his international fame as one of the world’s greatest, if not the greatest, writers of realistic fiction it is no surprise that there are planned numerous recognitions of his life and works around the world. But most of them, as it appears from doing a World Wide Web search, center on the two books which brought him his original recognition and fame, “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina”. Tolstoy clearly tells us himself that he wishes to be remembered instead for his moral, ethical and religious writings from his latter years, those being such titles as: ”My Confession” and “What I Believe” (1884); “The Death of Ivan Ilyitch” (1887); “Resurrection” (1899); “Thoughts on God” (1903); “Critique of Dogmatic Theology” (1904); and “On Reason, Faith and Prayer” (1905) to name but a few of his some 90 penned volumes. These eventually got him excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church but in no way kept him from continuing the writing of similar writings. His own personal library at Yasnaya Polyana, now a museum, numbered some 22,000 books. He was a serious student of all of the world’s major religions, both East and West, of the Orient and of the Occident.
In 1893 Tolstoy published “The Kingdom of Go is Within You” which Mahatmas Gandhi read and was inspired by in his non-violent resistance to British colonial rule in India which in turn inspired our Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his civil rights work here in America. That same year, 1893, the World Parliament of Religions met in Chicago at which Swami Vivekananda spoke on Sept. 11th capturing the attention of his audience with his message of loving respect between peoples of all faiths. This became America’s introduction to Hinduism and the resulting media coverage of that event brought Tolstoy’s attention to Vivekananda. Soon after Tolstoy’s 1908 “Letter to a Hindu” was published in several newspapers in India a lively but short correspondence between Gandhi and himself was inspired. In their own time all four of these great men of thought and action were capturing the attention of the world and were having profound affects one upon the other.
My own introduction to Tolstoy was indirect in that I saw a 1937 British made film based on one of his short stories, “Where Love Is, There God Is Also” which he wrote in 1885. That viewing was when I was about seven years old in 1949 or so. I can still remember details of that film as clearly today as if seen only days ago. I was of an atheistic mind at the time, a confirmed atheist even, as I was concerned about world peace and my perception of the different faith communities was that they kept themselves separate from each other and condemned each other. Knowing that was not the way to world peace I had dismissed all religion as false and worthless. World peace was primary to all other of my concerns. In spite of so firmly discounting all religion there was something captivating about Tolstoy’s story crafting. The British film makers had been exceptionally faithful to the essence and impact of the original written version of Tolstoy’s vision. There was something about that story that I wanted it to be real. Once I became a believer when I turned 18 the story came back to me as real as if I had been one or more of the characters in the film. It was not until that transforming moment that I learned that the film was based on a Tolstoy short story. I then became interested in Tolstoy himself and his other writings.
Upon reading his 1908 “Letter to a Hindu” in which he quoted Krishna from the Hindu scriptures those same words from his 1885 short story title jumped out at me: “I tarry awhile from the turmoil and strife of the world. I will beautify and quicken thy life with love and with joy, for the light of the soul is Love. WHERE LOVE IS, there is contentment and peace, and where there is contentment and peace, THERE AM I, ALSO, in their midst.” The “I” speaking here is God, not Krishna, as is the case in all other scriptures. The Prophet Founders of all the Revealed Religions are each the Mouthpieces of our Creator, the One and Same Creator. Replacing “am I” (the “I Am that I Am”) with “is God” and we have the short story title, “Where Love Is, There God Is Also.” This is a universal story; it is not exclusively a Christian story, though it is often read during the Christmas season.
From Tolstoy’s own pen the two books he would most like to be remembered for are, “Wise Thoughts for Every Day: On God, Love, Spirit and Living a Good Life” and “A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul Written and Selected from the World’s Sacred Texts” both of which are only recently available in English. These were Tolstoy’s last major works and he put an enormous amount of effort into these collections over a period of 15 years as stated by Peter Sekirin, the translator of both works. Researching and compiling these daily readings, one for every day of the year, gave Tolstoy a spiritual lift like no other before and once compiled he daily reread them himself the rest of his life for that same ethereal high. He recommends daily meditation readings for all people world wide. Multi-faith daily meditation books are almost common today but best I can figure Tolstoy was a first to compile the likes of them.
His daily reading entry for November 20th, his eventual death day? In “Wise Thoughts for Every Day…” he wrote:
“Everything good, even the smallest good act, takes effort. Nothing can stop you from making an effort to improve your life. Always remember this. We think of work as the things we can see with our eyes: building houses, plowing fields, feeding cattle. However, your only true work is invisible: it is improving your inner spirit.”
Though his selections are often from world scriptures and philosophers more often they are writings from his own thoughts. As I write this article on Veteran’s Day, 2010, I turn to Tolstoy’s selection for November 11th in “A Calendar of Wisdom…”:
“Moral perfection is the impossible goal, but moving to it is the law of human life. Some people say, ‘Man is selfish, greedy, and dissipated, and cannot be kind to other people.’ This is not true. We can be good. Feel in your heart the kind of person you should be; this feeling will give you power. Outer consequences are not in our power to control; it is only possible to make an effort, and inner consequences always follow from our effort.”
On this Veteran’s Day I reflect on my father, Rev. Donald Melvin Sterling, who served in the US Navy during WWII. That fact is the very reason I became so concerned about world peace at so early an age. World peace had become more important to me than the “Faith of my Father’s Holy Faith” because of the hypocrisy I saw in so many so called “believers.” That hypocrisy contradicted the world embracing love they professed. I did not see that contradiction in my father himself but rather in what seemed to me the vast majority of nearly everyone else.
From Tolstoy’s diary, which he kept most of his life we read for 24 January, 1909: “Yasnaya Polyana […] I’ve just been reading FELLOWSHIP. It contains many good things. The Behai (Baha’i Faith) are very interesting. When I was out walking today I thought about two things: THE WISDOM OF CHILDREN, and about education – about the fact that as I was persuaded when young to direct all my energy to the bravado of hunting and war, so children can be persuaded to direct all their energy to the struggle against themselves, to the increase of love.”
We dare not discount The Wisdom of Children. As a child I saw the harm done in exclusive claims of truth but I did not feel free to express that insight to either adults or my peers. Thus I kept it to myself and, jokingly now, saw that I had become a “holier than thou atheist.” The answer is to learn enough respect for each other to hear each other’s inner most thoughts without condemnation, even with the youngest of children.
Only then can we build the non-violent world people like Tolstoy, Vivekananda, Gandhi and King hoped for and worked for.
Besides reading regularly from Confucian, Zoroastrian, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian and Moslem texts and scriptures Tolstoy discovered late in his life the then still relatively new Revelation of Baha’u’llah, the Baha’i Faith, with its beginnings in 1844 in the Babi Faith. This was destined to happen as he had committed himself to seek out the wisdom of the world, near and far, new and ancient. In fact it was in 1844 at age 16 that he became a student of oriental languages. His encounter with the Baha’i Writings came much later, being in 1894. His interest in world religions was well known far and wide and a few early Baha’is either sent him Baha’i pamphlets or books or brought these to him in person. In 1902 Abdu’l-Baha, son of Baha’u’llah, Interpretor and Perfect Exemplar of the Faith, sent Mirza Aziz’u’llah Jadhdhab Khurasani to meet Count Leo Tolstoy and to bring him this message: “Act that your name may leave a good memory in the world of religion. Many philosophers have come, each one raising a flag, let us say five meters high. You have raised a flag ten meters high; immerse yourself in the ocean of unity, so that you may remain confirmed eternally.”
During that 1902 visit Tolstoy was asked what his opinion was concerning Baha’u’llah. With raised hands he replied: “How could I deny Him? […] Obviously this Cause will conquer the whole world. I myself have already accepted Muhammad.” Then he added: “Send me more writings.” These statements did not, however, necessarily mean that he was declaring himself a member of the Baha’i Faith nor that he had converted to Islam. More than likely he did understand though that Baha’is accept all the Prophet Founders of all the major world religions as being inspired by the One and Same Universal Creator of all that is. He just was not quite ready to give this new faith his total embrace. As he studied it more he continued to like and agree with its teachings but on occasion found something he disagreed with and tried to discount it. Those moments never lasted long as he soon took up the further study of its Writings again and would make statements like: “Very profound. I know no other so profound.” This vacillation continued thru his remaining eight years with each swing seeming to bring him closer to perhaps full acceptance. Of his own personal opinions he held them very strongly, sometimes too strongly. I believe he had sometimes become overly proud of his own power of reason and intellect and thus contradicting some of his own advice to others and to himself. Had he lived but only a few years longer and met a few more committed Baha’is he may well have declared himself a Baha’i, a faith committed to unity of thought and action within its own community, something not always easy to achieve or maintain but nonetheless understood by followers of Baha’u’llah as the only path to world peace and to the well being of all its people.
I like to think that Leo’s spirit sat with me in that theatre seat when I watched “Where Love Is, God Is” in my childhood with his knowing that I would eventually find the Baha’i Faith myself and embrace it. I believe he has embraced it in the next world. We live with our own convictions, me with mine, others with their own and there is no argument that can be made of it.
As much as I feel to remember most every detail of that film seen some 60 years ago now I would still dearly love to see it again and share it with those closest to me in my life today. A long search for a copy of the film eventually tracked down perhaps the only remaining copy of it, now in the British Film Institute National Library & Archives in London. Only problem is this 1937 film is a 35mm nitrate print held in archival master status. It is too fragile to be viewed and a telecine transfer is very expensive which can only be undertaken on behalf of educational bodies with legitimate links to the material. It would be my hope that an interest to view again this film is not only personal with me but of enough greater interest to have one of the Tolstoy educational organizations take on the funding of this delicate and expensive transfer.
Speaking of films there is a new one about Tolstoy’s final two years, “The Last Station”, with Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy, released just last year. Helen Mirren plays his wife, Sophia. I recommend it for its message that behind every great man there is an equally great woman. Helen Mirren plays that part superbly. Perhaps both Sophia and Helen knew that the Baha’i Faith is all about equality between women and men and about the unity of all of humanity more than Count Leo Tolstoy knew this himself.
In closing here is one more page selection from “Wise Thoughts for Every Day” dated November 6th under the heading of Universal Love: “If you do not love people, your whole life becomes complex and difficult. If you begin to love people, everything in your life will become clear and easy. Without love, a person feels surrounded by enemies. Love unites him with all living creatures of the world, past, present, and future, and love unites him with God. The activity of people who do not understand the true meaning of life is always directed at the struggle of existence, acquiring more wealth and pleasure, and not at getting rid of their sufferings and preparing for eternal life. The more people are busy with this in their daily lives, the less time they will have for the only true pleasure man has, love. On day, somehow, we will stop the fighting, wars, and executions and start loving one another. Eventually that time will come because what originally was put into our souls was not hatred for others but love. Let us do everything we can to make this time arrive as soon as possible.”
May we all remember Count Leo Tolstoy as someone who inspired us to do our own independent search after truth and once found to make it real and to live it to its fullest.
David Neyman Sterling
Saint Paul, Minnesota
November 11th, 2010