One of the finest books addressing the issue of how a man comes face to face with this loss of his own omnipotence and is brought to a moment of conversion as a result is The Death of Ivan Illych by Leo Tolstoy. The reader is brought face to face with a man who lives the life expected of him, but is unhappy in spite of this fact. He has an accident in his home which results in a medical condition which ultimately takes his life.
Throughout his adult life, Ivan searches for happiness among various “things”: his new apartment, furniture, career, etc.. St. Augustine of Hippo tells us “You have made for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.”2 His statement conveys the Christian message that our happiness cannot be found in anything aside from God Himself. At the end of his life, which will be addressed later, Ivan comes to this realization.
In an effort to receive some comfort and a cure, Ivan goes to various doctors. After receiving no comfort from previous doctor visits, another physician comes to his home. The doctor is preoccupied with the fact that he himself feels cold and rather disinterestedly asks Ivan how he is doing. Ivan tells him that the pain has not subsided and he is looking to the doctor for help. The physician says, “You sick people are always carrying on like this.”3 Medicine does not have all the answers and the doctor’s lack of compassion speaks to Ivan’s disconnectedness from the world around him. Once again, Ivan’s hope for happiness has been thwarted.
The only person who offers Ivan any sort of compassion is his servant, Gerasim. Gerasim, a Christ-like figure, is there to meet Ivan’s needs as best as he can. Ivan cannot understand why Gerasim is willing to do so much for him. Gerasim’s response is, “It would be a different thing if you were not sick, but as it is, why should I not do a little extra work?”4 In his “Prayer of Generosity”, St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) speaks to this very issue when he writes that we should sacrifice ourselves without thought of any reward, save the knowledge that we have done God’s will.
In chapter twelve, Ivan faces his own mortality directly while on his deathbed. One hour before his death, his son enters Ivan’s room and kisses his hand while crying. At that very moment Ivan Illyich fell through and saw the light, and it was revealed to him that his life had not been what it should have been but that he could rectify the situation.5 This is a wonderful example of a conversion experience. While death may not a pleasant experience, it can be a grace-filled time. This is the message of hope presented in the New Testament. Death is not the end; it is not even the beginning of the end. It is, in fact, the end of the beginning. It is the culmination of the soul’s life-long journey to return to its Creator.
This chapter is a beautiful metaphor for the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ death was a very painful experience for Him personally as well as His disciples; however, He did receive consolation from the women at the Cross (as Ivan received consolation from his son). In this regard, Ivan’s suffering can be understood to be redemptive. As a result of his process of dying, Ivan began to see that the life he had been living contained no truth. However, on his deathbed, he was able to experience a conversion after receiving grace from Him who is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”
1Cassell, Eric The Healer’s Art (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995), p. 30
2 Hippo, Augustine The Confessions [Book 1, Chap. 1] (NY: New City Press, 1999)