Tolstoy and the Sign of the Cross

by Sergei Romanov

I cross myself because this gesture expresses my faithfulness to the will of

God, admission of my personal sinfulness and desire to set myself free from it.

— Leo Tolstoy. Diary, 1908

The outer aspect of prayer is as necessary as the inner one. Both serve to express a person’s spiritual experience. Christian prayer is traditionally accompanied by visible signs of reverence: bowing one’s head, raising one’s hands to heaven, and kneeling. Movement and gesture add to and deepen the words and assist in inner concentration.

The most important physical expression of prayer is the sign of the cross, which usually accompanies prayer and is a preface to a bow from the waist or a prostration. For Christians, the fullness of the spiritual world is the cross-centered love of Christ for man, of God for the world; therefore, the visible sign of this love, Christ’s cross, is the weapon which is the redemption and union of man with God, the mystery of salvation, completed by Christ the Lord. The sign of the cross is ontological. It bears witness to a different reality, to the existence in this world of another life. It seems that especially this ancient Christian sign, inseparably connected with all that Tolstoy had rejected, should have been totally excluded from his inner experience. But it is here that begins one of the “unsolved mysteries” of his soul, his unresolvable contradictions which elude rational interpretation.

For those familiar with Tolstoy’s life and the tragedy of his estrangement from the Orthodox Church, one would assume that this ancient Christian gesture, linked with everything Tolstoy had renounced, should have been utterly rejected by him.

A man of common sense, in his opinion, cannot accept the deliberate deceit and nonsense which compel him to light candles, to raise his hands in prayer, to kiss pieces of wood, etc., but not once did Tolstoy express the opinion that making the sign of the cross was merely a senseless “waving of hands” during prayer.

The symbols of worship and ritual, in his opinion, hindered true faith, leaving no room for the understanding of actual Christianity, which dwells within. If there are some actions which please God and redeem a person from evil, and they must be expressed by the bowing and raising of hands, asks Tolstoy, then why not use legs or feet? Isn’t a pilgrimage performed by the faithful considered a prayer performed with feet? And if a person works all day for a poor widow, couldn’t this be considered a form of prayer? Tolstoy answers these questions in the affirmative.

More often than not, in his opinion, an artificial barrier of rituals is constructed within young, impressionable minds when much is accepted by trust, but as a person matures and is influenced by the accumulation of knowledge and life experience, he should put all of his childish beliefs to trial by reason, because reason is “the only faultless defense of knowledge.”

In this way, following Tolstoy’s logic, a mature person, especially by the age of “noble gray hair,” should have moved beyond all assumptions and superstitions.

But within Tolstoy himself, despite his theory, totally different changes occurred. In the last years of his life, his attitude to the rites of the Church softened noticeably. As Alexandra Lvovna, Tolstoy’s daughter, remembered, “he became more and more tolerant.” In 1906, during a difficult time for Tolstoy’s wife, Sofia Andreyevna, when she was close to death and had already called for a priest, Tolstoy did not object. He was sincerely glad about her wish and “enthusiastically assisted in fulfilling” it.

His steadfast conviction that true faith does not need “external forms,” in the face of the possible death of the person closest too him and he admitted that, within the religious form, is a spiritual foundation. This brings to mind the literary character in Anna Karenina of Konstantin Levin, the author’s brother-in-spirit, who, during an hour critical for his beloved Kitty, grabbed his own head, repeating, “Lord, have mercy!” All of Levin’s reasonable, doubting consciousness was instantly “flung from his soul like ashes” and his unbelieving mind prayed for the help of the One, in Whose hands he “sensed himself and his own soul.” As the saying goes: “The deeper the sorrow, the closer God is.” And He who is above life and death, Who is Himself merciful Love, responds to the prayer of the supplicant.

Notwithstanding the final formulation of his teachings, when Tolstoy was confident that he had solved all of the “great questions of life,” his son, Lev Lvovovich, observed that his father was often afflicted by doubts and “sought moral and religious support not only within himself, but externally.” He noticed a remarkable warming in the views of his father:

Once he spent the evening not far from the servants’ rooms, the door of which was open. It was the eve of a great feast, and lampadas were warmly burning before the flower-covered icons. Father met me on the staircase. “Where are you going?” he asked, as usual. I answered and he added, “I was just in the servants’ rooms. The icons are decorated and the lampadas are burning. Do you know what I think? In this is the whole poetry of religion.” I understand what had occurred in his soul. He thirsted for that poetry, which he had been deprived of. He envied earlier times, and the humble soul of the common folk, who had faith and happiness.”

Perhaps Tolstoy understood that all human accomplishment, all of the creative beauty of religion, is not an accident, that it all emerges from an earthly passion for Heaven, from a surrender to God, from spiritual completeness, from a pure and loving heart. Love is a synonym for God; there cannot be anything unclean in it. Even the least perfect and poorly expressed manifestation of love draws to itself what is higher and more creative. “As we become accustomed to crossing ourselves, saying the words of prayer,” wrote Tolstoy, “so we should and must become accustomed to love....” Love widens the senses, transforms them into words, into song, into the beauty of flowing prayer.

The return of Tolstoy to Orthodox prayers (in his last years he regularly said the prayers “Lord, and Master of my life” and “O Heavenly King, O Comforter”) is the return of the artist to beauty. The crystals of spiritual beauty which had been polished for centuries could not but attract the sensitive artist. This was a return to form as well, to that “outward form” which he might find rude, but which he could not avoid sensing in his favorite poems, the work of Tyuchev and Fet, and in the simple, laconic peasants’ speech, in the prayers of praise read before the decorated icons.

But the most unexpected news was that he was not just praying, but he was making the sign of the cross over himself during prayer. Once, Tolstoy asked his son-in-law Michael Sukhotin if he prayed. He answered that he prayed in the evenings, but often performed prayer “like a memorized habit, without feeling or thought.” As if he had expected that kind of answer, Tolstoy immediately made his position clear: “Oh, it doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter. What’s important is that you do pray every day; that’s very good. It is totally different from going to church. There the people would say ‘what a good person – he remembered the Nativity of the Mother of God and went to church!’ But to pray to God by yourself, to cross yourself, to address Him when no one knows what you have said to Him, what you have asked, is a different thing altogether. I pray every day.”

Sukhotin was shocked: the author of Resurrection crosses himself and reads Orthodox prayers! What is this? The habits kept from childhood, or a new spiritual revolution? But there had been no radical change in his views; every year, something emerged from his pen which was new, bright and unique. Outwardly, Tolstoy remained the same: proud, angry, and rebellious. But what seemed mysterious to his “dark,” ideology-driven followers was quite understandable to his domestic circle.

On December 8, 1908, Sofia Andreyevna made an interesting entry in her diary: “I would like to write down that which I have accidentally overheard. Chertkov [leader of the ‘Tolstoyan’ movement], who visits us every day, came into Lev Nikolayevich’s room last night and spoke with him concerning the sign of the cross. Involuntarily, from the hallway I overheard their conversation. L.N. said that he sometimes by habit does the sign of the cross, that is, if his soul is not praying in that minute, then his body is making a visible sign of prayer. Chertkov answered: it might happen that, while dying or suffering intensely, Lev Nikolayevich will cross himself and those surrounding will think that he has converted or would like to return to Orthodoxy; but to prevent this, Chertkov would write down in his notebook every word Lev Nikolayevich would say from now on.

What a limited creature Chertkov was, and what a narrow point of view he had! He was not even interested in the psychology of Lev Nikolayevich’s soul at the time, when, alone, by himself and before God, he made the sign of the cross, which had been made over him by his mother, and grandmother, and father, and aunt, and even his little daughter Tanya, when she could come to say good night to her father, quickly moving her tiny hand, babbling: ‘To make a little cross on my papa.’ Chertkov only wants to write down, to collect information, to make photographs, but nothing else.”

Chertkov, of course, understood what the conversation was really about. Both in his diaries and in his letters Tolstoy did not hide that he had preserved in himself Orthodox “superstition,” and in his most intimate minutes of communication with God he turned to that “primitive expression” of his closeness with Him. Sofya Andreyevna, with her female intuition and inner experience, was able to perfectly comprehend the spiritual suffering of her husband and also to regard Chertkov’s thought processes as overly simplistic. “What for the mind is covered with darkness, for the heart is visible from afar,” a poet has said correctly. Would it really be possible for the words in a notebook to be an adequate expression of a human being’s world – a world, full of aspirations and efforts, full of life and rich in a variety of opinions and attitudes? Could a higher source, which the heart in its fulness recognizes, with its sensory and extra-sensory perceptions, be comprehended by cold rationality? The reformer from Yasnaya Polyana could not entirely free himself from “naive superstitions” and purge his former faith from his heart, just as he could not radically change the Christian way of thinking instilled in his soul by God-loving aunties with their patriarchal mode of existence.

“It may be that while I am dying, my hand will make the sign of the cross.... Even now, I sometimes cross myself. Often, when I sit down to work, with this gesture I invoke within myself a tender religious mood which is connected with the gesture since childhood,” Tolstoy wrote to one of his correspondents three years prior to his death. That far-from-unconscious childish gesture forced him to return to that “happy, irretrievable time” when the young Nikolenka secretly watched the prayer of “the great peasant Grisha.” Grisha was a holy fool who sometimes wandered about Tolstoy’s parent’s estate and even entered the mansion itself and “gave little icons to those he took a fancy to.” He recalled his first confession, when his young soul was filled with a feeling of blessed awe, and the times when, facing ancient icons, his childish lips murmured the words of prayer repeating them after his dear papa.

He grieved for the lost “paradise of childhood,” for that golden time, when everything was perceived as a miracle, when with naive directness, his soul responded to the call of God and glimpsed the eternity of God, which set him aflame.

In the last hours of the writer’s life at the Astapovo train station, darkened by illness, extreme weakness and delirium, Tolstoy wasn’t able to consciously cross himself. It was done for him by his faithful spouse, who was allowed to see him only at the very end. Sitting by his pillow, through her tears, Sofia Andreyevna asked him to forgive her. She prayed and was the only one of all of those who were present to make the sign of cross over her dear one. ❖

Since 1989 Sergei Romanov has been on the staff of the Leo Tolstoy Museum at Yasnaya Polyana in Russia. Currently he is writing a book, Leo Tolstoy Praying. The translation of this article from Russian is by the author, assisted by Jillian Parker. (Note: On page 28, see the news story: “Tolstoy’s Excommunication Still Controversial.”)

❖ IN COMMUNION / Feast of St. Ephrem the Syrian / Winter 2011/ Issue 59