Sometimes it takes a nonbeliever to speak truth to believers. This time it comes from the “not even religious” George Jonas in Canada’s National Post: Searching for one-size-fits-all religion. Amidst calls from some Roman Catholics that the new Pope toe their own line rather than lead them into truth, Jonas mentions the minor character Helene Bezuhov in Leo Tolstoy’s famous novel, War and Peace.
Exquisitely drawn, like all of Tolstoy’s creations, once you make the Countess Bezuhov’s acquaintance, you can’t quite forget her. Helene is married to Pierre Bezuhov, one of the leading characters in the novel, but she doesn’t feel suited to him and hopes to contract a more agreeable marriage. Maybe even two marriages. She contemplates marrying an older prince first, and then, after he dies, perhaps saying yes to a much younger applicant.
Helene is beautiful. Her arms and shoulders are the marvel of Moscow. She doesn’t lack rich and socially prominent suitors, but she belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church. Divorce being unthinkable in that church at that time—during the Napoleonic wars—she converts to Roman Catholicism. Rome doesn’t permit divorce as such either, but the Pope can sometimes annul a marriage.
“According to her understanding,” writes Tolstoy, describing Helene, “the whole point of any religion was merely to provide recognized forms of propriety as a background for the satisfaction of human desires.” Then Tolstoy continues: “I imagine, (says Helene to her new Jesuit confessor) that having espoused the true faith I cannot be bound by any obligations laid upon me by a false religion.”
Helene would be reassured to know that her heritage lives on. Her standard is held up by men and women who, having acquired the liberty to do as they please, now demand religion to also applaud their moral choices. They want their churches, their priests, even the very Vicar of God, to approve and endorse what they do, or else they threaten him with irrelevance. God Himself becomes irrelevant unless he can be used to rubber stamp human desires—because, as Tolstoy points out, that’s what God is for, at least as far as Helene Bezuhov is concerned. That’s how it was in 1812 and that’s how it is in 2013.
If, on the other hand, genuine religion concerns the little matter of what is true and how we are to live in light of that truth, then whether that truth is relevant to and confirms our desires is beside the point. The martyrs of the church undoubtedly preferred to avoid suffering and keep their lives, but they chose instead to accept their lot for the cause of Christ. Accordingly, we remember and celebrate their lives as signposts pointing to the coming kingdom.
In a world where so many of our brothers and sisters are still on the receiving end of persecution, martyrdom never loses its relevance, sad to say. Therefore, if we love God with all our hearts and glory in our salvation in Jesus Christ, we will do well to look to the likes of St. Stephen the Protomartyr and St. Polycarp of Smyrna rather than to the Helene Bezuhovs of this world.