By Derick Cranston
In Russian author Leo Tolstoy’s novel “The Awakening,” he tells the story of innocent love between a teenage aristocrat named Nekhludoff and a 14-year-old orphaned servant girl named Maslova.
They are playing a game of hide-and-seek at his family’s estate with some younger children. They hide together behind a bush holding hands and spontaneously kiss each other. Both of them blush and soon join the younger children. Nothing happens between them again, but they both know that their young love for each other has been awakened.
A few years later Nekhludoff comes back after having served as an officer in the military, and he has become “… accustomed to the rough and immoral life of a military man,” writes Tolstoy. He is on leave visiting his family estate and is excited to see his first love. His lustful desire for women, however, has changed his outlook and he soon seduces the still innocent Maslova. She hesitates at first, but cannot help being overcome by her love for him.
After a few days, he leaves for his next military assignment promising to write her and come back and marry her when he finishes his military service. Maslova soon finds she is with child and is quickly banished from Nekhludoff’s family estate because of the scandal of being an unwed mother. The child dies soon afterwards and Nekhludoff never writes and does not come back for her.
She is crushed and can only find employment with various peasant families. Each time she is sexually assaulted because of the unfounded reputation that follows her wherever she goes. She eventually comes to the realization that her self-worth is based on only one thing, so she becomes a prostitute. Her outlook on life becomes jaded and cynical. She is no longer the sweet and innocent girl she once was.
Ten years later Nekhludoff and Maslova’s paths cross again. He is sitting on a jury and she is on trial. He recognizes her and is overcome with guilt and grief. He knows that he is largely responsible for the chain of events which led to her present way of life. The arrogant young aristocrat soon changes his ways, and tries for the remainder of the novel to make it up to her.
He follows her to Siberia where she has been sentenced to hard labor and offers to marry her. She does not accept his proposal. He decides to stay in Siberia and is soon awakened to the horrid conditions that the prisoners live in, and becomes an advocate for them. Maslova becomes a kind and caring person, lovingly tending to the health and spiritual concerns of the other prisoners.
Each one of us has an ugly side and a beautiful side. The ugly side manifests itself in selfishness, arrogance, and times when we have hurt others. Our beautiful side can shine through us when we think of others first, perform acts of kindness and allow God’s love to flow through us. Every one of us has an ugly and beautiful part of who we are. What we allow to be seen can be influenced by many different factors in our life.
Ultimately it is our decision and through the grace of God we can become beautiful moral people. It is up to us, though, to open our hearts to God’s love for us. Although life can treat you unfairly and beat you down, you can still open your heart to the Lord’s amazing grace. Yes, it is very difficult once you have reached a low point in your life, but it is still possible. Sometimes it takes a jarring event in our life, like that which opened the eyes of Nekhludoff. Or it could be an eventual realization which awakened in Maslova the kindness and compassion she still held in the depths of
You too, can awaken to this same realization. You can allow God’s grace to flow through you and touch others in a beautiful way. Look to the light of Christ and experience your own awakening. It is your turn now. Wake up and see the beauty within yourself.
(Derick Cranston is youth minister for St. Mary Parish in Riverside, Holy Trinity Parish in Richmond and St. Joseph Parish in Wellman. He is going through diaconate formation and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)