This little story is from Tolstoy’s War and Peace. (Spoiler alert: Don’t read any further if you plan to read the book!) It is about Easter so I thought I would share it here.
Natasha loved to dance and sing, and run barefoot across the grounds of her father’s vast estate. She would accompany her brother on wolf hunts, much to the annoyance of the old boys in the hunting club. And during the long winter nights she and her friends went for rides in their three horse sleigh across the vast, empty steppe, illuminated only by the moon. In short, Natasha loved life. And when Prince Andrey came into her life, she was pretty sure she loved him too. He was known to be a brave officer and a good lord whose reforms made life much easier for his serfs. In short, Prince Andrey was the most eligible bachelor in the land. Natasha was thrilled when he asked her to marry him. It seemed like a perfect match. Everyone thought so. News of their engagement became the gossip of all of Russia. But before they could marry, Prince Andrey was forced to travel abroad for a year. He promised Natasha that the would be married when he returned if she would still have him.
During his absence, Natasha went to St. Petersburg with her father and her friend, Sonya. This was her first time in the city. She thought the opera was absurd with its extravagant costumes and fake smiles. But she was easily swayed by the opinions of others and unconsciously she began to conform to their expectations. Natasha also became aware of the attention of a certain Anatole Kuragin who was undoubtedly the most handsome man she had ever met. Anatole played her like a violin and Natasha was captured. Prince Andrey seemed like a distant mirage when she looked into the passionate eyes of Anatole. She agreed to run off with him but before she could get away, her faithful friend, Sonya, discovered the plot. Horrified at the idea, Sonya pled with Natasha not to go through with it. How could she fall for that awful man! But Natasha had made up her mind. In desperation, Sonya betrayed everything to Agrafena, the strong willed matriarch who was their host in St. Petersberg. Agrafena sent her servants to intercept Anatole at the arranged meeting place and Anatole barely got away with his life. Natasha’s secret love affair was published to the world.
But even then, Natasha remained defiant. She was certain that Anatole would find a way to come for her. It was only when she discovered that Anatole was already secretly married to a Polish girl – a forced marriage – that Natasha began to see Anatole for what he was. And it only got worse. There were rumors that Anatole had maintained an incestuous relationship with his sister – rumors that were probably true. Anatole was both stupid and a coward and everyone seemed to have known it except Natasha. Her defiance turned to complete brokenness. When Prince Andrey returned, she begged him to forgive her but he refused to speak with her and returned all of her letters.
Natasha lay sick in bed for weeks. The words of Agrafena replayed over and over again in her mind, “You have disgraced yourself like the lowest wench!” Her father paid for the very best doctors and paid outrageous sums for the medicine they prescribed but Natasha was wasting away, her spirit crushed.
She did not merely shun every external form of amusement – balls, skating, concerts, and theatres – but she never even laughed without the sound of tears behind her laughter. She could not sing. As soon as she began to laugh or attempted to sing all by herself, tears choked her: tears of remorse; tears of regret for that time of pure happiness that could never return; tears of vexation that she should so wantonly have ruined her young life, that might have been so happy. Laughter and singing especially seemed to her like scoffing at her grief. She never even thought of desiring admiration; she had no impulse of vanity to restrain.
When the week of Lent came around, Agrafena asked Natasha if she would accompany her to the 3 AM service at a distant chapel. No one would see her there. And there Natasha began to pray.
She listened to the words of the service, and tried to follow and understand them. When she did understand them, all the shades of her personal feeling blended with her prayer; when she did not understand, it was still sweeter for her to think that the desire to understand all was pride, that she could not comprehend all; that she had but to believe and giver herself up to God, Who was, she felt, at those moments guiding her soul. She crossed herself, bowed to the ground, and when she did not follow, simply prayed to God to forgive her everything, everything, and to have mercy on her, in horror at her own vileness. The prayer into which she threw herself heart and soul was the prayer of repentance…. It was only at her prayers that she felt able to think calmly and clearly either of Prince Andrey or of Anatole, with a sense that her feelings for them were as nothing compared with her feeling of worship and awe of God… the joy of “communication,” as Agrafena Ivanovna liked to call taking the Communion, seemed to her so great that she fancied she could not live till that blissful Sunday [Easter].
But the happy day did come. And when on that memorable Sunday Natasha returned from the Sacrament wearing a white muslin dress, for the first time for many months she felt at peace, and not oppressed by the life that lay before her.
The countess and the doctors didn’t understand what happened to Natasha. They thought that is was the powders the doctors had prescribed.
The doctor came that day to see Natasha, and gave directions for the powders to be continued that he had begun prescribing a fortnight ago. “She must certainly go on taking them morning and evening,” he said, with visible and simple-hearted satisfaction at the success of his treatment. “Please, don’t forget them. You may set your mind at rest, countess,” the doctor said playfully, as he deftly received the gold in the hollow of his palm. “She will soon be singing and dancing again. The last medicine has done her great, great good. She is very much better.” The countess looked at her finger-nails and spat, to avert the ill-omen of such words, as with a cheerful face she went back to the drawing room.
But it wasn’t the powders. Natasha had learned how to forgive and be forgiven.
Tolstoy alludes to one of the central themes of the Bible. Natasha is as innocent as Eve before she falls for Anatole. But when Anatole captures her heart, she becomes unyielding and cruel. We hardly believe that it is the same girl we met with earlier in the novel. Our reaction is one of horror because we already know what a bad character Anatole is. Run away Natasha! And that was exactly the message of the prophets and apostles who saw beyond appearances to the spiritual reality that lies at the center of all life.
“Who has heard the like of this? The virgin Israel has done a very horrible thing.” (Jer 18:13)
Israel has forsaken the fount of living waters and hewed out cisterns for themselves that do not hold water.
The words of Agrafena tore at Natasha’s soul.
So I will be to them like a Lion, Like a Leopard I will lurk beside the way. I will fall upon them like a bear robber of her cubs, I will tear open their breast, And there I will devour them like a lion, As a wild beast would rend them. (Hosea 13:4-8)
Natasha’s parents sent for the best doctors in St Petersburg but the doctors do not have the power to heal the soul.
“Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?”
Why then has the health of the daughter of my people not been restored?
Natasha begins to recover only when she learns to pray. And it was only through the encouragement of Agrafena, whose words had seemed so cruel.
Come let us return to the Lord; For he has torn, that He may heal us; He has stricken, and he will bind us up. After two days He will revive us; On the third day He will raise us up, That we may live before Him. Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord; His going forth is sure as the dawn; He will come to us as the showers; As the spring rains that water the earth. (Hosea 5:16-6:3)
The third day became the eighth day. Resurrection Sunday arrived. Natasha takes the sacrament believing that the atoning sacrifice of Christ has taken away her sin and that, in Christ, she too is raised up to a new life. When Natasha leaves the church she is wearing a white dress and for the first time she is smiling and laughing again. Spring has arrived, and a gentle rain waters the earth.
Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel! Again you shall adorn yourself with tambourines and shall go forth in the dance of the merrymakers. Jer. 31:4
Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. And there I will give her her vineyards and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt. (Hos 2:14-15)
May we also find the peace and joy that comes from knowing Christ, our atoning sacrifice.