Playing Tennis with Tolstoy (Luke 17, 20-21; 18.16-17)
Jeremy Rutledge, Circular Congregational Church
August 14, 2016
When I stepped onto the court, I didn’t think of any of the traditional greats. King, Navratilova, McEnroe. None of them came to mind. I set my bag down with a smile. Unzipped the racket from its cover. Uncapped the tube of tennis balls. Stuffed a couple in my pockets and carried another to the baseline. I bounced it a time or two, getting the feel of the hard court, drawing a deep breath of morning air. And I thought of Russian literature.
Late in life Leo Tolstoy took up tennis. After decades of wrestling with existential questions, and during a period of what seemed to be deep discouragement, he picked up a racket. Earlier in life, Tolstoy had made fun of the game. He considered it a bourgeois distraction, a waste of hours that could never be regained. He had no time for it, not when he was after the meaning of life, the purpose of existence. But late in life, having arrived at no clear conclusion, he walked to the baseline himself. Bounced a ball a time or two. And served.
There’s a lovely old photograph of him on the court, likely taken by his wife. In it, the great Russian novelist stands ready to play in dark wool trousers and a white, long-sleeved shirt. His gray beard falls across his chest and his eyes are tight with concentration. Just behind him stands his doubles partner, another man obscured by Tolstoy’s body; across the court are two women in high-collared dresses who wait to return serve. It’s a serious looking photograph, but by all accounts Tolstoy was anything but serious when he played. He runs around like a little boy, his friends observed. He plays with abandon. He moves with surprising spryness. What’s got into him?
So it was Tolstoy I was thinking of as I tossed the ball into the air and brought the racket around. Muscle memory recalled my tennis teacher’s instruction. It was all form and concentration. Eye on the ball. Hit it cleanly. Follow through. Then feet moving. Wait for the return. Square up. Breathe. And so on. I began to delight in the simple playing of the game the way Tolstoy did. Soon I was running like a little boy myself. Delighting in getting out of my mind and into my body. For playing tennis is more physics than metaphysics; its questions are for the here and now. No time to fret about the future when a ball hits the line and you are dashing to get to it. In between rallies, at a water break, I imagined what such an exercise might have meant to Tolstoy.
According to Maria Popova of the Brainpickings blog, Tolstoy had reached a crisis near the end of life. The literary fame he had achieved felt hollow. The decades of intellectual searching had left him without clarity. The faith of his childhood had vanished. And his quest after life’s meaning had left him deeply worried that there was no real answer at all; that life was a kind of cruel joke that ended too quickly without any redemption or resolution. A heaviness weighed on Tolstoy and he began to despair. It also appears that he may have suffered with serious depression, about which little was known at the time.
In his book, A Confession, Tolstoy wrote of the problem he was trying to solve. “Without fail,” he said, “everyone forms some relationship to the universe, since a rational being cannot live in the world without having some kind of relationship to it.” Religion, according to Tolstoy, was that relationship to the universe, and morality was a way of living that followed from that relationship. Put another way, as Tolstoy tried to work out how he related to the whole, he was trying to work out his religion. He wanted it to mean something.
He remembered that as a child his life was filled with sensual meanings. And in his autobiographical work, Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, he wrote so beautifully that no reader could be left unmoved. In particular, he remembered falling asleep, the voice of his mother, the touch of her hand, his feelings of safety and contentment. Then he asked, “Will the freshness, unconcern, need for love and strength of faith you possess as a child ever return? What time could have been better. . .?”
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became grown, I put away childish things, says the old letter to the church at Corinth. But Tolstoy had hoped to go the other way. Having found himself late in life, he wanted to pick up the childlike again; to find and to feel the rich beauty and meaning in the ordinary. But he wasn’t sure it could be regained. At least he couldn’t think his way to a solution.
It’s a problem for so many of us, especially in the West. Our theological and philosophical projects are fraught with thinking. I stand guilty as charged with my man Leo. Because for most of my life I have believed in salvation by bibliography, I have hid in the world of ideas, I have spent 45 years thinking my way through meaning and meaninglessness with many teachers, including old Russians I never met. And I spent a good deal of my life in the construction and deconstruction of arguments, becoming skillful at it, and for a time thinking it really mattered. To some extent, I suppose it does. I would never trade all the exercises in clear and rigorous thinking. But the thinking itself never offered a way out of the conundrum. Just a deeper way in. One book led to another, the stacks of the libraries too deep to get through in a lifetime. The only way out was by being, by doing, maybe even by playing.
In her book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, Krista Tippett includes a chapter called “Flesh.” In it, she writes of the wisdom that is found in embodied experience. Not simply the mental work or the life of the mind, but the physical work and the life of the body. “We are matter,” Tippett says, “kindred with ocean and tree and sky. We are flesh and blood and bone. To sink into that is a relief, a homecoming.” She follows with a lengthy discussion of how we might develop a deeper mindfulness of our bodies as ourselves in the wonder of the present moment. Thinking is good, she encourages us. But not at the expense of being. We should not get lost in our minds and miss all the dimensions of lived experience. Our bodies tell certain truths, she says, that our minds deny. Among these truths, that we are “fluid, evanescent, evolving in every cell. . .never perfect.” Which is what children know. Which is what Tolstoy was struggling to find again. He just needed to stop thinking about it.
Jesus was once questioned by the religious leaders of his day. They asked when the kingdom of God would come, and he answered, “The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: neither shall they say, Lo here! or lo there! for behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” This saying, one of Tolstoy’s favorites, is recorded in Luke Chapter 17, one chapter before Jesus said something else about children. “Suffer little children to come unto me. . .for of such is the kingdom. . .Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein.” They’re related in Luke’s account: the kingdom is all around, and little children can see it and enter in. And they’re related in Tolstoy’s trouble: thinking about it won’t get you there so much as living and moving and being will. Which brings us back to the court.
It seems to me that if Tolstoy ever did have moments of true religion they may have been on the tennis court. Because it was there that he was expressing his relationship to the universe in the most natural, childlike way. He ran like a boy. He played with abandon. He moved spryly and unselfconsciously. And there he stopped worrying for a moment about his life’s meaning and simply participated in it. The cure for his melancholy was life itself.
It sounds like such a simple lesson, but it isn’t. For we all spend so much time in our minds. Working through philosophical problems or perhaps drawing up grocery lists. Rushing from one work or home project to the next. Listening to the constant stream of news on television, radio, and mobile devices. It’s enough to leave us fraught and anxious, stuck in our minds. Or to send us back to the tennis court.
When I stepped off the court, I was no longer thinking of anything. I was just feeling. Cheeks flushed. Hair damp. Hand blackened by grip tape. I returned the tennis balls to their tube. Zipped the racket into its case. Drank cold water from the bottle. I felt like a boy again. Enlivened and enraptured by the world and by my good fortune to be a part of it. Whatever the kingdom is, I thought, it isn’t far away. Neither shall they say, Lo! here or, lo! there. It is within. It is all around. Any child can tell you that. Or any old Russian with a racket. I thanked him for the reminder.
 See Gerald Marzorati, “Why Tolstoy Took Up Tennis,” The New Yorker, May 16, 2016, accessed online at http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/why-tolstoy-took-up-tennis.
 See Maria Popova, “Leo Tolstoy on Finding Meaning in a Meaningless World” at Brainpickings, June 3, 2014, accessed online at https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/06/03/tolstoy-confession/.
 Leo Tolstoy, A Confession and Other Religious Writings, trans. Jane Kentish (New York: Penguin Classics, 1987), 137.
 Leo Tolstoy, Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, trans. Judson Rosengrant (New York: Penguin Classics, 2012), 56.
 Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living (New York: Penguin Press, 2016), 57.
 Ibid., 67.
 Luke 17.20b-21, The English Bible.
 Luke 18.16b-17, The English Bible.