Discussion Questions: The Death of Ivan Ilyich Liturgy of Life Reading Group

Liturgy of Life Reading Group
This happened! The first physical meeting of the Liturgy of Life Reading Group. We had a small but mighty gathering and we are looking forward to more. If you are thinking about a book club consider gathering a few friends to read along with the Liturgy of Life Reading Group.


For those of you who are reading along in Tolstoy’s, The Death of Ivan Ilyich with the Liturgy of Life Reading Group, I wanted to share the questions we used in our discussion.  Please share your thoughts in the comments.


1. Is the moment of Ivan’s death a triumph or a failure? For example, he declares: “Death is finished. It is no more.” Is this a positive or negative statement?
2. Discuss the significance of the title. If the work professes to be about Ivan’s death, why is it almost entirely dedicated to Ivan’s life?
3. Is Gerasim a type of Christ? What do we learn about caring for the dying from him?
4. What did you think of the black bag as a symbol?
5. What has been/is/should be the Christian response to an illness that can not be cured?

6. How does our society view/treat those at the end of life is this consistent with the Christian faith?
6. Do you think Ivan would have reached the same conclusion at the end of his life if it had not been for the suffering that came with his dying? Is suffering good? Is it bad?
7. How does this story inform our approach to suffering among the living? Among those who are in their last days? Do you think the last days of someone’s life can be meaningful/valuable even if they involve suffering? Does this inform our response to the movement towards physician assisted suicide?
8. Was Ivan’s suffering primarily physical, spiritual or emotional? What about in your own experience or in watching others, what type of suffering is most significant or is this an impossible separation?
9. How does suffering when it does not result in death affect our spiritual life? What should the Christian response be to suffering?



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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.


When Night Comes

When Night Comes Liturty of Life Reading Group The Cloister Walk

I met Gerty during my second year of residency. She sat across from me in the exam room, her wig slightly off center. Words poured from her mouth.  From the bits of rambling speech I gathered that she was pregnant and here for her first prenatal exam. She was 44 years old, she said and this baby was her last chance.

Over time I learned that Gerty had five children all which were removed by CPS years ago, one was grown and lived in Austin, she had spoken to her on the phone a few months ago. Previous to this pregnancy she had been on and off some pretty hefty anti-psychotics which she balanced out with occasional street drugs. Now she was clean and she could prove it.

Gerty was alone in the world except for the women who shared her room at the shelter. But she had enrolled herself in  parenting and breastfeeding classes at the pregnancy support center and  by attending she earned points to buy baby supplies. She worked closely with her case worker, often bringing me papers  to sign as she tried to get into a program that would give her a space where she could raise her baby.

Gerty was always in a rush, and usually late after catching three different buses to arrive at the clinic.  Invariably she came with a story and the whole staff lit up when we saw her leaning on her elbow at the check-in window, rambling about her latest escapade.  She was a high risk pregnancy and she knew it so we saw her often.  I grew to love her with an affection that I rarely developed with my patients.

.    .    .

She was 38 weeks along, her C section was scheduled for one week from that day. She came in because she felt like something was wrong. I asked my nurse to set her up on the monitor (you know one of those miserable contraptions with giant elastic belts strapped across your stomach) while I finished up with my patient.

After a few minutes I walked into the room and startled to see the monitor beeping and flashing saying no heart beat was detected, Gerty’s wig was sitting even more crooked and her words spilled out faster than usual.  I was certain it was a problem with our machine, we had just seen her for a check up last week and she was doing fine.  So I removed the monitor and  started listening myself. I pressed my doppler probe into every corner of her swollen abdomen and tried to keep up some reassuring small talk.

Still no heartbeat. I was sure  the error was mine so I walked her to our ultra sound room where we could get a better look.  I left her in the hands of our radiology tech so I could check in with my waiting patients while they began her exam. The reality of what was coming hadn’t settled in.

After a few minutes they called me out of the room.

There was no heartbeat.

I was a young doctor, still early in my training. I had been through this with other patients, but never alone, and never with one that I held so dear. And I was pregnant, for the first time, due just a few weeks after Gerty. In her I saw my nightmares coming true.

Trembling I entered the room.

I told her she had lost the baby.

I watched her world collapse.

Then I held her, literally held her in one place as she as she flailed hysterically, begging me to say it wasn’t true.

She was still wailing when they strapped her to the stretcher and she went screaming down the hall to the ambulance.  There was no one to call.

I finished seeing my patients and rushed to the hospital. Gerty  had already undergone her C-Section by the time I arrived. I found her in the recovery room holding her baby boy, dressed in a little blue outfit. He was limp and cold but he was beautiful. She didn’t have a wig on and her soft curls made her look younger.  She held him, cried and kissed him. “I had so many nice things ready for you,” she said.

And I sat with her and I held him too.

She bore her loss with the grace of someone who has come to expect nothing of the world.  She loved her baby and told his story over and over. She had no visitors, but the hospital staff gladly took turns sitting at her bedside. Gerty said how grateful she was to know  we cared.

She stayed in the hospital 3 days. The hospital chaplain conducted a service.

  .     .     .

This week we are finishing up The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris in the Liturgy of Life Reading Group.

In it she recounts a story of a monk who founded a hospice for AIDS patients. She quotes him talking of one of his patients,

“But I was in awe of how he functioned, how he never lost his sense of humor, his capacity to enjoy things. I couldn’t imagine myself functioning that way with what he had to bear. You can’t pity someone you’re in awe of.”

And when I read that I thought of Gerty and wanted to share her story with you.

Gerty gave me  courage to face my own pregnancy. The kind of courage that is found only in those who live through what for most of us exists only in nightmares.

I am still proud of Gerty. I am proud of how brave she had been for her baby, of how hard she had worked to be the mom she knew she could be, of how honestly she grieved,  of how confidently she held her little baby’s body.   I could never hope to do better.
She never came for her follow up. I imagine Gerty, alone once more, returned to her cycles of drugs and psychosis, to life on the streets.

Norris ends her book with a chapter called Night.

“The night will come with its great equalizers, sleep and death. It will pass over us, and bring us forth again to light. . .

She talks of how we face this reality, the despair of death and the hope of eternal life,

“between shedding our self-consciousness and taking on a new awareness, between the awesome fears that shrink us and the capacity for love that enlarges us beyond measure, between the need for vigilance in the face of danger, and the trust that allows us to sleep. Night comes . . and we turn our lives over to God.”


Thanks to those of you that have been part of The Liturgy of Life Reading Group. This week we finish The Cloister Walk and in another week we will start Edith Schaeffer’s, The Hidden Art of Homemaking. We would love to hear from you or have you join our group and read and ponder along with us. Thanks for being here.

Just a note, whenever I share stories of patients, details are always changed to protect their privacy.