Book Review “Laurus” by Eugene Vodolazkin

*  WARNING …  proceed with caution … SPOILER ALERT *

Several days ago I finished reading the book Laurus* written about a 15th century monk who lived his life as a healer, trying to redeem the life of his young love and her baby, both of whom died in childbirth, without the benefit of confession, and having been living sinfully outside of marriage. The main character  starts life as an orphan named Arseny and has learned the gift of healing from his grandfather, long dead. Because he is ashamed that he has hidden the young woman in his home secretly, he does not want to call for a midwife when her time comes, thinking he will be able to deliver her. But instead, both she and the baby boy die. Arseny, overcome with guilt, vows to live Ustina’s unlived life for her, for it is only in life that we are able to make reparation for our sins. And so he plans to do good for all of his days and to scourge himself , whom he despises in order to gain redemption for Ustina and the baby. Throughout his life, he stays true to his word and endures much hardship and suffering. Sometimes it seems that his life is one long dark night of the soul. He oftens questions himself and his direction in life, never knowing if he is proceeding as he should. Always, he is faithful to Ustina, speaking to her, telling her that he is working to save her soul and asking for her advice. But she never answers, and Arseny takes this as a sign that further, more rigorous effort is required. He does this by giving away all he owns, including any food that is given him and by scourging himself in various, often brutal ways. As his reputation as a healer and a holy man begins to grow, and his works are considered miraculous and works of God, his deep humility never wavers, and he considers himself most unworthy. Nearing the end of his life, he asks the parish priest that his body be dragged through the streets in one last act of humiliation to his body; and so this is religiously performed by a holy trinity including an abbot, a bishop and an archbishop sent to accompany Laurus into his next life:

“They kneel and soundlessly pray. They take the ends of the rope in their hands, kiss them, and stand up straight. Cross themselves in unison. The hems of their robes and the ends of their beards flap in unity….Their gazes are directed above…”

10,000 people who have been touched by the life of this holy man are on their knees in shock and sorrow as he is dragged through the town where he was born one last time. Laurus’ goodness and mercy had transformed this once ordinary man into a saint for the ages.

+ + +

The transformative power of suffering was the major theme of this novel. But suffering without humility is wasted, and so humility assumed an equal role here. In the beginning, Arseny erred, as most young people do, on two fronts: youthful hubris and loss of control to new love/lust. In today’s world, we almost consider these things a rite of passage, but in Arseny’s world with the the resulting outcome, they became the devastation of three lives. I would argue that Arseny took on the Herculean task of reparation for three souls and gave everything, even the mortification of his body beyond death. I wept for him, and I continue to weep.

Laurus suffered silently and without complaint. He did not defend himself when falsely accused. For long periods of time he felt speech unnecessary and lived silently by himself. Time began to shimmer and skip for him. His life unfurled itself in a particular direction, and then returned to where it began. He traveled a spiral path, climbing ever higher to God, yet all the time feeling he was an abject sinner and lost. Perhaps there is hope for us (me) here. If a man such as this can be clothed in the schema** and all his life feel worthless and confused and lost, yet keep doing good and praying then that is all that any of us can do in this life, and perhaps we are not so lost, after all.


*Arseny undergoes several name changes in the novel which is the tradition when one is ordained as a monk. As one is elevated to a new rank or order, one’s name is changed again. The last name he receives, Laurus is one that accompanies his receipt of the schema, the highest degree of asceticism in Eastern Christianity.

**for more information on the process of tonsure and schema, please consult the following:

This novel is loosely based on the life of St Cyril of the White Lake, who did indeed live during that time period. To see images and read about the real St Cyril, or to purchase the book, see the links below:

St Cyril of the White Lake with View of the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery,…

“Venerable Cyril, the Abbot of White Lake”,…

“Laurus” by Eugene Vodolazkin


About Olga Dytyniak

artist, librarian poet, byzantine icon painter, perennial student. Join me on
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, byzantine Catholics, God, goodness in the world, goodness of God, Orthodox Christianity, Russia and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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