Accidental Poetry: Tolstoy and Me Liturgy of Life Reading Group

I haven’t intentionally written a poem since graduating high school. While I have come to love reading poetry aloud with my family it remains mostly a mysterious art. So it took me by surprise when I was preparing for the Liturgy of Life Reading group and looked down to see several poems on my page.

As I read our latest book Tolstoy’s, The Death of Ivan Ilyich I jotted down phrases and ideas that seemed to characterize each chapter as I went along.  I enjoyed seeing how my highlighted phrases told the story of Ivan’s progression.  Liking what I saw I narrowed the words and phrases down even more to create a simple summary. Unexpectedly  what appeared on my page looked like several simple poems which had originating in Tolstoy’s words and had been edited down by me.

If you are a real poet I don’t know that this process is much to get excited about, but I felt like I had discovered an entirely new way to interact with my reading material and as if I was collaborating with the great mind of Tolstoy on a new project.  I am sharing a few here not because they are great works but rather as an encouragement and a hope that new ways to love learning will sneak up on you. And that this book in particular would challenge you in some new direction.

Chapter 4

It was his own rage killing him,

it was his fault,

edge of destruction


Chapter 6

Constant despair

all is exposed

face to face

staring at death

it could penetrate anything

stare at it and go cold

Chapter 8

Hateful death

dirt disorder



terrified of being alone.

Chapter 9

Tears like a child,



pleasures melted to something disgusting.

Maybe I didn’t live as I should have?

Chapters 10, 11 and 12

What is this?

Life is a series of increasing sufferings.

Have I really been wrong?

all wrong?

Struggling against the black sack,


What is the right thing?

It could still be put right.

Instead of death there was light.


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On Living with Dying Liturgy of Life Reading Group: Reflections on Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich

This week in our reading group we began Tolstoy’s, The Death of Ivan Ilyich.  It shouldn’t surprise us by the title that the book begins with the death of its main character.  We find Ivan Ilyich in his coffin and the funeral about to start.  Meanwhile Tolstoy introduces us to the people in Ivan’s life, his friend’s like Pytor Ivanovich, his wife and family.  Some are grief struck, others are wondering if the funeral will disrupt their game of cards or more importantly if Ivan’s death will affect them financially.
On Living with the dying: Liturgy of Life Reading Group: Reflections on Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich


“Apart from the speculations aroused in each of them by this death, concerning the transfers and possible changes that this death might bring about, the very fact of the death of someone close to them aroused in all who heard about it, as always a feeling of delight that he had died and they hadn’t.

‘There you have it. He’s dead, and I’m not’  was what everyone thought or felt.”


a few pages later . . .


“He had changed a good deal; he was even thinner than be had been when Pytor Ivanovich had last seen him, but, as with all dead bodies, his face had acquired greater beauty, or, more to the point, greater significance, than it had had in life. Its expression seemed to say that what needed to be done had been done, and done properly. More than that, the expression contained a reproach or at least a reminder to the living. The reminder seemed out of place to Pyotr Ivanovich, or at least he felt it didn’t apply to him personally. But an unpleasant feeling came over him, and he crossed himself again, hurriedly- too hurriedly, he thought, the haste was almost indecent- before turning and heading for the door.”


I admit I know the feeling of self preservation that Tolstoy describes, dashing through my mind, too quick to stop, every wave of sympathy is paired with pure selfishness, “at least the shooting wasn’t at my kid’s school,” “at least it wasn’t my husband who died in the car crash,” “at least I don’t have breast cancer.” It seems there is a deeply rooted human impulse to protect oneself from disaster before allowing oneself to share in the grief of another.  And I wonder if it is this very attitude which leaves so many feeling isolated and forgotten during times of sorrow.

In my other reading I’ve been working through a book on the history of Christian Hospitality.  In it the author develops the idea of “cultivating marginality” that is, intentionally developing in ourselves a solidarity and familiarity with those on the margins, whether they are there due to illness or violence or economics.  This idea has deep roots in our Christian heritage.  We have always been a people called to move away from comfortable places. We use  disciplines of fasting and prayer, alms giving and  service of the poor to accomplish it.   We are intentional to align ourselves with discomfort until it becomes a familiar place so that the suffering can find themselves comforted by one who understands grief and be aided in encountering the true Comforter.

Ivan Ilych knows more about this than any of us.  He has fought the final battle, he has crossed over from death to life and  faced  head on the reality that fills us with constant dread, that one day we too shall die.  Ultimately those of us living will not know the realities of death until it is our turn. But we have opportunity now to follow in the path of our Christian fathers and mothers and align ourselves with those who suffer, not to turning our faces away in fear or self protection and not to distracting ourselves with entertainment or worries of the world.   Ivan’s knowing face would probably make all of us who live a life trying to flee the realities of death feel uncomfortable because we are intended to live differently, to engage with the marginalized, to sit at the bedside of the dying, to consider the immigrant our friend and in this we will ease the pain of those who suffer and perhaps even prepare ourselves for our own end when it comes.

This post is part of our Reading Group series. Right now are reading Tolstoy’s, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. We would love for you to join us.


For more from Liturgy of Life you can subscribe here for monthly emails, like me on facebook, or join our facebook discussion group. Thanks for reading friends I look forward to connecting with you.


7 Reasons to Join the Liturgy of Life Reading Group A Year on the Body and Spirit

Our bodies have become a political battle ground.  We are rattled with concerns of pornography, sex trafficking, abortion, racism and refugees. And then there are the more subtle issues of divorce, promiscuity, human cloning, and transgenderism just to name a few.  If we call ourselves Christians then the way that we understand our skin and bones and the life that dwells therein informs our conversation in nearly every controversial issue of our day.

If we want to be informed or engage in a thoughtful discussion on any of these issues we must first deal with the body, the human form where these issues are played out, and we must examine what it means for Christ’s body to be broken for our bodies.

Is the body simply a collection of cells, like algae? Is it an inert container for a soul? Or is our physicality essential to our spirit? Is it a source of disdain for not being as strong or thin or capable as it should be?  Are eating and sleeping and having sex pleasures to delight in or are you eager to be free from the body’s sensuous provocations and base impulses? Is Christ dwelling in us a physical reality? Can He really be found in the flesh of our neighbor or a beggar or a child?

Enter in the 2017 Liturgy of Life Reading List. I have no promises that this reading list will answer all of those questions but I do hope it will give us a start. In 2017 we will look at death, care-giving, family, at sexuality, then at the sacredness in all things as experienced through the act of cooking and eating and finally at how our bodies are connected to other bodies through social justice.

We will do this through the lenses of two Catholics, an Anglican, a Russian Orthodox, a Presbyterian and one of our founding church fathers, from texts that were published as recently as 2012 and as distantly as 329.

I have tried to make book choices that are manageable in length and in difficulty (i.e you don’t have to have a college degree to get through this list)  each offering a unique perspective on the body.

As you read along I hope you will be challenged and will end this year with beneficial insights into the realities of body and spirit.  So on to the seven reasons,

1. The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Leo Tolstoy (February)

Don’t be intimidated by the name Tolstoy. This book is short and the style is straightforward. Ivan Ilyich will be our introduction to the body. We will be reading this as we approach lent which is traditionally a time of reflection on our own mortality (I got you excited huh? Betcha can’t wait to start thinking more about dying . . . sorry, but I think in the end it will be good for us).

2. Our Greatest Gift, Henri Nouwen (March)

Nouwen packs big ideas into simple stories. This book will take us from death into care giving and help us to explore the meaning and purpose of our physical life and death.

3. What is A Family?, Edith Schaeffer (April and May)

I’ll admit that Schaeffer’s style can be a bit tedious but Schaeffer, in her unique fashion, will help us look at the family through different lenses. She will transition us from thinking about our individual bodies to our bodies in more complex relationships. Family is our initial and most essential connection to the physicality of others. On the surface she gives advice and perspective on family life but she will also build a bridge to the deeper ideas of our bodies being indwelt with Christ and our ability to minister to the people closest to us through Him.

4. At the Heart of the Gospel, Christopher West (June, July and August)

Three months for this one. It has some deep and essential ideas about the sacramentality of the human experience, specifically in the context of sexuality. I figured since we will be reading it over the summer we will probably move at a slower pace. Of all the books on the list I think this one is the most important to read given the issues facing our modern world. If you don’t happen to be Catholic don’t let West’s multiple references to Catholic documents and officials confuse you, he is digging into some great ideas that have value for all of us.

5. The Supper of the Lamb, Robert Farrar Capon (September and October)

In some ways this is the lightest but also the most tedious read especially if you don’t share Farrar’s love of cooking. It is 98% cooking and 2% theology. And yet the 2% wouldn’t mean anything if it wasn’t for the 98%. This book could have been written about any type of work, more than being about cooking (though it really is mostly about cooking) it is about the value of paying attention. When we put forth the energy to work with care, whatever interaction we are having with the world leads us to experience God.

6. On Social Justice, St. Basil the Great (November)

This book was written only 300 years after Christ walked the earth in the days when the Church was still newly established. It is perhaps the founding document on Christian social justice. You will be amazed at how readable and also how applicable this book is to our modern life. If Christ in us then we are truly His hands and our work is to extend Him to the rest of the world.

Well I couldn’t come up with a 7th, but still I’d love to have you reading along.

We will plan on kicking off the first book in the beginning of February and I’ll be posting about twice per month specific to our current read.

To follow along in discussion make sure to check in out our facebook discussion group.

Looking forward to hearing from you.


linking up with some other quick takes today, check them out.


On the Religion of Time-Saving Thoughts on Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle


The Religion of Time Saving, Thoughts on Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Liturgy of Life


My husband woke us while it was still dark. We threw a few bags in the truck and cranked the windows down. Soon our nostrils were tingling with the scent of salt air. By moonlight we lowered our new purchase, a 1973 Boston Whaler, into the water. Our daughter leapt into her life jacket and we boarded. A brown pelican escorted us out to the Laguna Madre.  On the bay we cut the engine and the momentary silence was replaced with the shouts of gulls arguing over their breakfast and the splashes of jumping fish.  Wide awake now in the damp breeze we watched eagerly as the sun painted the sky.

There is nothing more typical than a sunrise. It happens predictably every day and yet each one is unique and not even the greatest artist can create an image that compares to the majesty of the real thing.  Always fleeting.  Always sacred. Always worth cherishing.

.    .    .

We have been reading Barbara Kingsolver’s, Animal Vegetable Miracle, in the Liturgy of Life Reading Group and she has me thinking about my time and how I spend it. Each day seems to go faster than the one before it. Each night brings a new list of what I have failed to finish.  Life is a race and I desperately need to catch up.


“If we were to find a common religion for contemporary America, we would do well to call it, The Religion of Time-Saving.  We are as a people over-committed, and spread thin.  We complain about the pace and yet every new gadget that promises it will help us save time seems to fail us. We spend our days racing from one obligation to the next spending most of our time hurrying through miserable tasks so that at some point we get to spend a few minutes doing what we enjoy.”


The sunset tells a different story. It is a story that is most easily discovered when slow down enough to watch a plant grow, or take the time to harvest our own apples and make them into sauce for the winter.


Kingsolver says,  “All that hurry can blur the truth that life is a zero-sum equation. Every minute I save will get used on something else, possibly no more sublime than staring at the newel post trying to remember what I just ran upstairs for. On the other hand, attending to the task in front of me-even a quotidian chore-might make it into part of a good day, rather than just a rock in the road to someplace else.”


She goes on to describe the life of one of her farmer friends,

“He uses draft animals instead of a tractor. Doesn’t it take an eternity to turn a whole field with a horse driven plow? The answer, he says, is yes. Eternal is the right from of mind. “When I’m out there cultivating the corn with a good team in the quiet of the afternoon, watching the birds in the hedgerows, oh my goodness, I could just keep going all day. Kids from the city come out here and ask, ‘What do you do for fun around here? I tell them, ‘I cultivate.’ “


As long as we live our days will start with a sunrise, and in us, each day, our Creator is painting a life saturated with His glory, a reflection of His very self, one that is astoundingly beautiful yet will always pale in comparison to the fullness of who He is.  Every sunrise is an invitation to a sacred life that is at the same time novel and mundane.   Always fleeting.  Always sacred. Always worth cherishing. Now we only need to figure out how to accept it.




This post was inspired by my current read, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver as part of the Liturgy of Life Reading Group series. We would love for you to join us.


For more from Liturgy of Life you can subscribe here for monthly emails, like me on facebook, or join our facebook discussion group. Thanks for reading friends I look forward to connecting with you.