Typically when we sit down with a short story, we can be very tempted to fly through it for the purpose of just "checking" it off of our list. So, as I sat down to read Anton Chekhov's "The Student" this morning - being a terribly slow reader - I had to remind myself that speeding through it isn't the goal. As George Costanza so eloquently states,
Finishing an entire book doesn't prove anything.
So, I slowed down. Finishing it for finishing's sake doesn't offer anything except a passing grade for elementary classes. However, engaging it, sitting under it, enjoying it - these are the challenges many readers face today.
After I consciously reminding myself to do these things, I began to see silly objects, like the dismal field that the Student had to journey across, start to take form, and even exude life. Now, if you're unfamiliar with Chekhov, all you need to know is that everything - each character, item, etc. - is written with specific intentionality toward building to the story's purpose. So, hermeneutically, I think I was right in line.
Aside from the beautiful writing, and its rich content, something else from the story struck me: the fire. As our hero is heading back home, traveling through the empty nothingness of his land, Chekhov paints
His fingers were numb, and his face was burned by the wind. It seemed to him that this sudden onset of cold violated the order and harmony of everything, that nature itself felt dismayed, and therefore the evening darkness fell more quickly than it should. It was deserted around him and somehow especially gloomy.
He carries on to convey that the only light the Student could see was a dim flickering of light from his home, some two miles off. Having to carry on, however, those extra two miles, Chekhov writes, "And he did not want to go home."
Now, this can very well be the case with many of us who lose perspective. We get so overwhelmed by the encroaching darkness around us, that we lose hope, as the hero did. However, the author carries on to address that once inside, he sees the warmth of a small fire, which has his people drawn close to it. As he moves in amongst them, he chimes "In the same way the apostle Peter warmed himself by a fire on a cold night." Here, a shift happens.
Intriguingly, they begin listening to his discussion of the Gospel, and the similarities it still has to us this many centuries later. However, he paused, looked outside of the fire, toward the darkness, and, interestingly enough, "convulsively shook" his head. Returning back, now, he focused on sharing the whole of the story that he had previously begun. With more and more intent, they listened, hanging on every word, when, upon his conclusion, a listener lamented as Peter did when he denied Christ the third time.
At this moment Chekhov writes that our hero noticed the fire's peacefulness - a stark contrast to his previous outlook. Chekhov then explains:
...it was not because [the Student] was able to tell it movingly, but because Peter was close to her and she was interested with her whole being in what had happened in Peter's soul.
Seeing the Gospel begin to take root as it did, the hero was said to have
...joy suddenly stirred in his soul, and he even stopped for a moment to catch his breath. The past, he thought is connected with the present in an unbroken chain of events flowing one out of the other. And it seemed to him that he had just seen both ends of the chain: he touched one end, and the other moved.
As Rembrandt's The Philosopher in Meditation teaches us, we can too easily rush into creating our own faux warmth and light in hope of pushing back the cold, sterile darkness (as the servant in the bottom right does), or, we can sit and consider the greater Light of God which engulfs us in peace with His timely revelations (like the philosopher on the left seems to be doing).
As you are with your friends and family this Christmas, don't get overworked by the literal and logistical so much that you lose sight. These things stress us all out far too often. But instead, take a moment, look outside your immediate context, and rest in the greater story unfolding.
As our hero from "The Student" then departs from the home, Chekhov writes
he... looked [back] at his native village and to the west, where a narrow strip of cold, crimson sunset shone, he kept thinking how the truth and beauty that had guided human life there in the garden and in the high priest's courtyard, went on unbroken to this day...
Christ is and will always be at work.