“He takes her pain into his hands.”

Wanting to pay attention—in that deepest way that Simone Weil calls us to —I have been reading a novel by Eugene Vodolazkin, set in 15th-century Russia, always an ambitious empire, too often an arrogant empire.

While born in Kiev (contemporary Ukraine), Vodolazkin lives in St. Petersburg (contemporary Russia); the winner of the Solzhenitsyn Prize in 2019, in his novels he writes about the world that was somehow both and beyond, a world that once was and still is. And because history is always messy, peoples and places push-and-shove, generation by generation, one of the truest truths of the universe, written into our human life under the sun—and there are wounds of all kinds, some very personal and some very political.

Laurus is about a healer, a man who learned from his grandfather the ways and means of medicine before the modern world. Even though their work was born of herbs and plants, and not chemicals and surgeries like in our very sophisticated time, they knew and they didn’t know. What was clear was that God had given him a gift of healing, mysteriously more through his hands even more than with his herbs.

The tale is a pilgrimage, from his boyhood to his death, day after day and year after year offering the hands of his heart to those who groaned and suffered, and with that gift, the eyes to see when healing was possible, and when it wasn’t—and always his insights were trusted, his judgments honored, the practiced physician he was, the wise man he was.

In this week of awful hours in which the world is weeping—Uvalde and Ukraine most on many minds—the image of taking the wounds into ourselves, holding them with hope, has caught my heart. Knowing what we know, how are to respond? The most difficult and perennial of all questions, it is specially so in our very mediated moment in history, in our info-glut culture knowing so much about everyone everywhere, often at the expense of embodied neighbors, incarnate as they are in the days of our lives.

The story is a story, not more and not less, a window into what it means to be holy and human. As I finished, I knew that I was being called again into the imitation of Christ, to see and hear and feel the world as God does… mourning when he mourns, which is the heart of the truest vocation, born of the weight of love it must be.

And in the final pages, seeing, hearing, feeling, the healer “takes her pain into his hands,” seeing himself implicated for love’s sake in the way the world is and ought to be. As different as we are in centuries and cultures, it is the calling that gives coherence to our lives.

Steven Garber is the Senior Fellow for Vocation and the Common Good for the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust. A teacher of many people in many places, he continues to serve as a consultant to colleges and corporations, facilitating both individual and institutional vocation. A husband, a father and a grandfather, a he has long lived in Washington DC, living a life among family, friends, and flowers.

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