A Student’s Thoughts on “The Student” – Maya Reinfeldt

There’s nothing quite so touching as a passionate piece of writing that fervently expresses the innermost workings of the author’s soul. From a childhood lost in Narnia and Harry Potter to a college career devoted to hefty classics like War and Peace, I’ve always relied on literature to shape, challenge, and inform my views on the world. It’s only natural, then, that my understanding of my Eastern Orthodox faith was formed mainly through engaging with the works of the Russian greats: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov. Most recently, I was deeply struck by a short story of Chekhov’s, the prominent playwright and author. In his short story “The Student”, he manages to portray such a vivid, hopeful faith that it reinvigorated my own relationship with religion (and made me cry a little, too).

“The Student” begins with Ivan Velikopolsky, a seminary student in rural Russia, making his way home through miserable weather, feeling thoroughly hopeless at the state of human suffering in Russian peasant life. He stops to warm himself at a fire, to which two poor women are tending, mother and daughter. Ivan finds himself telling them the story of the Apostle Peter on a similarly despondent night, and of Peter’s immeasurable grief after he denies knowing Jesus. Touched profoundly by the idea of Peter’s suffering, the mother begins to weep, surprising Ivan. On his way home, Ivan experiences an epiphany, and rather than paraphrasing, I’ll share Chekhov’s striking description of this emotional revelation:

“And all at once he felt a stirring of joy in his soul and even paused for a moment to catch his breath. The past, he thought, is tied to the present in an unbroken chain of events flowing one out of the other. And he felt he had just seen both ends of that chain: he had touched one end and the other had moved.

And when ferrying across the river and later climbing the hill he gazed at his native village and to the west of it, where a narrow strip of cold, crimson twilight still shone, he kept thinking of how the truth and beauty guiding human life back there in the garden and the high priest’s courtyard carried on unceasingly to this day and had in all likelihood and at all times been the essence of human life and everything on earth, and a feeling of youth, health, strength—he was only twenty-two—and an ineffably sweet anticipation of happiness, unknown and mysterious, gradually took possession of him, and life appeared wondrous, marvelous, and filled with lofty meaning.”

For Ivan, the fact that Peter’s story, something that happened millennia ago, could elicit such a genuine emotional reaction in two simple peasant women of his day was a direct sign of some holy force connecting people across time and space. To me, there is something so profoundly beautiful and comforting about the idea that all of humanity is linked across the ages through truth and beauty, which are the essence of human life. Regardless of your faith, it is wonderful to imagine that humans, with all of their complexity yet all of their beauty, have and will be around for ages, and that there is something great bringing us together, simply by nature of our existence as human beings. For me, this profound connection organically implies the existence of a benevolent higher power able to unify its creations on an ascendant level; this, to me, is God. Nonetheless, Chekhov doesn’t attempt to proselytize, explain the deep feeling of faith he expresses, or assign a purpose to the beautiful existence of humanity which he describes through Ivan. He simply leaves the reader feeling similarly wondrous, full of lofty meaning.

Having grappled with some difficult and frightening questions in my faith recently, as a result of the all-too-often tragic state of the world, this piece was nothing short of a breath of fresh air. It was a chance to bring new life to my relationship not only with God, but with humanity as a whole.

Questions for interfaith fellows: did the excerpt from Chekhov’s piece resonate with you at all? If not, is there a work of literature that does effectively reflect your faith that you’d like to share? Do you agree that there is something larger linking all of humanity together across time and space? I’m looking forward to engaging with your thoughts.

5 thoughts on “A Student’s Thoughts on “The Student” – Maya Reinfeldt”

  1. My embrace of Catholicism after years of atheism was predicated on Russian literature. I read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment as a senior in high school and there was a line that struck me when I read it. After realizing that he can still find redemption after murdering two women in cold blood, Raskolnikov shouts, “This is life!” It was a simple little line, but it chilled me. I quickly read through most of Dostoevsky’s other works along with Tolstoy’s, which offered a much more spiritual and less reasoned argument. It is odd that Russian Orthodox writers impact me more than any Catholic authors – especially since Dostoevsky’s Slavophile mindset railed against Catholicism. Still, there is something about those novels that got to me better than any priest or writer could. I have not read much by Chekhov, but he is surely on my list.

  2. Hi Maya —

    Thanks for sharing this beautiful story, and your own thoughtful feelings.

    This past weekend, my brothers and I dug through a few family history books, and did some family tree mapping on Ancestry.com. I felt an overwhelming sense of interconnectedness to humanity and our world, similarly to what you touch on in your piece. While at first tough to put myself in the shoes of my ancestors who immigrated here, it felt comforting to know that if they could overcome struggles and challenges, I can too. My family members have rallied against diseases, pandemics, droughts, famines, and I use that as motivation as I enter this dark winter.

  3. Hi Maya,

    I want to add that non-religious people also have looked for and found this connection of people across space and time in the secular humanist movement, albeit in a somewhat different form. It is something of which I have noticed hints in my academic study of other religions, too.

  4. Maya,
    This piece is so relevant for today’s world. We need to be connected to other humans, if not – we will be pulled into the hopelessness of the world. I have also heard a similar description of human interconnectedness used with a metaphor of a woven tapestry, where every human soul is a colored thread adding to God’s ultimate work of art! Thank you for the article!

  5. Hi Maya! Thanks for sharing this excerpt and your reflections on it! I did really connect to what he was saying about interconnectedness especially once I went and read the entirety of the piece. It reminded me of a conversation I have with a friend not too long ago. However, I do have to disagree which your conclusion that humans “have and will be around for ages.” I don’t necessarily believe that we have ages left, or more than we are guaranteed to be around for ages. If we take our responsibility seriously for the preservation and advancement of our existence then I agree that we have just begun the story of humanity. We could survive for millions of years reaching heights of human achievement and flourishing that are as of yet unimaginable to us. However, this could just be me inflating the importance of my generation, but that doesn’t seem like the most probable path for us as a species. Currently, we are facing a real turning point in our history, and one direction leads to extinction.

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