By Marlo Safi
Marlo Safi is a senior contributor at Crisis. She previously served as a Collegiate Network fellow with National Review. Her writing has also appeared in The American Conservative, The Spectator USA, and The University Bookman, among others. She writes from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
After years of literary success and popular acclaim, Leo Tolstoy became dissatisfied with the complacency of the intelligentsia in what it had accepted as life’s meaning (or lack thereof)—in a word, he was suicidal. He had become convinced that no answer to his existential questions could be found in the “chemical compositions of the stars” or “the movement of the sun toward the constellation Hercules.” He writes of this existential crisis in his 1882 Confessions, a mid-life reflection of his purpose. Tolstoy explains that if the nihilist is to be believed—i.e., if man is merely a conglomeration of particles soon to be reduced to a stench and food for worms—it would be impossible to go on living. Suicide would be the only rational response.
What saved him was God. Tolstoy describes an internal illumination, a truth emerging inside him as he found a meaning in life that had previously not fit into the calculus of rationalism.
Confessions isn’t as renowned as Anna Karenina, but it was formative for Andrea Bocelli. The Italian tenor recently toured the United States, attracting a bevy of American fans who packed themselves into stadiums in order to experience the world-renowned vocalist live. Recently, I was among the throng in Columbus, Ohio.
A photo reel of Bocelli’s meetings with the last three popes played on the screen behind him. The concert was especially evocative in the days leading up to Christmas, and fans came dressed in their deep seasonal shades, velvets, and plaids. This is the man who sang Ave Maria with such ethereal heft and Puccini’s Angel di Dio with providence. Yet that makes it only more difficult to believe that he had ever drifted from God.
Bocelli was formerly agnostic, once saying that the young Andrea wouldn’t understand his rekindled faith: “Over the years I have come to believe that faith cannot be acquired effortlessly: just as any other discipline, it requires commitment, perseverance, and sacrifice. To be committed to faith means we need to comply with simple deeds that may even appear tedious. If we want to improve our faith, we have to submit to prayer.”
What is striking about Bocelli is the apparently seamless ease with which he brings a sensate manifestation of the divine into the secular sphere, unapologetically and emphatically delivering to those seated in the nose bleeds as well as those within reach. He is staunchly pro-life. In fact, he was almost a victim of abortion himself: doctors recommended that his mother terminate her pregnancy due to the prediction that her baby would have a disability.
To many ears, this is a bold statement for someone with such fame to make without a follow-up statement to retract or clarify it. It was Tolstoy’s words—particularly in Confessions—that moved Bocelli to his conviction in God.
There’s also a certain Tolstoyan element in the stadium when Bocelli performs in front of thousands of average Americans.
Tolstoy was no stranger to the cognoscenti. How can one avoid succumbing to megalomania, epicureanism, or suicidal ideation in such circles? There, knowledge is supreme, and life is meaningless. Tolstoy’s fixation and quandary grew as he became engulfed in the abyss’s precariousness and melancholy. His visceral recognition of right and wrong were at odds with intellect and theory, which today often seem like the highest goods, the bottom line of temporal reckoning. Money and praise were the end, and writing books and newspaper columns were the means.
Tolstoy clung to his conviction that everything is rational and therefore purposeful. Yet no amount of pontificating could answer the simplest questions of life—the ones Tolstoy sought after an era of self-indulgence, in perpetual orbit with a materially wealthy but spiritually dissatisfied bunch. “The sum of our action and thinking, of our science and art, all of it struck me as the overindulgences of a spoiled child,” he writes.
His realization was that life itself wasn’t evil and meaningless; rather, he had lived evilly and meaninglessly—a consequence of the will’s enslavement to lust. Killing oneself is the logical conclusion if life’s only blessing is one’s passage into nothingness, as Schopenhauer supposed. However, it was by living the “genuine life”—a life around simple working people—that Tolstoy’s internal maelstrom was tempered. In witnessing the fullness of simple lives that came with accepting God and thus the inseparable Sacraments, he understood the truth and banished the nothingness. By attending Mass, fasting, praying, and receiving Communion, he discovered we can’t be passive believers. We must live faith, not simply profess it.
Today, we’re increasingly separated from the vestiges of religion in life, as Tolstoy was separated from the simple laborers. Our most time-consuming rituals are transactional, our preoccupations material. As recent debate will show, even mention of the “common good” can make smoke jet from the ears of market fundamentalists. Consumerist collectivism has stripped the semblance of religiosity from the public sphere, and this will inevitably preclude the encounters that allow many to discover faith. Our private lives become arid, devoid of spirituality—almost as if by design.
Tolstoy’s colleagues of the 19th century would most likely find congeniality in today’s “front row,” to use the vernacular of Chris Arnade’s book Dignity. Nothing exists if it can’t be proven with empirical data, the faithful are dismissed as naīve, and facts don’t care about your feelings.
But in the presence of Bocelli, our mortal coil is exposed to a kind of balm. And it’s not just another bargain basement distraction from our collective fate. This one indisputably reflects the existence of such archaic things as “beauty” and its objective reality. Much like Tolstoy, we feel this in an abstract organ (rather than cerebrally) when we are in the presence of such a thing. This visceral sensation is not exclusive: it reaches to a celestial depth within the universal human anatomy—a depth that doesn’t appear in medical imaging. In contrast with the ubiquity of pop—the monotonous background music to our routines where artists are often indistinguishable from each other—Bocelli is sui generis in his ability to attract a diverse crowd and remind us of the infinite beatitude through explicitly Catholic art.
He also allows us to experience a performance free of religious compartmentalization within the art world—which is, perhaps, a relic of a bygone era. While Christian music is relegated to its own station on the radio, Kanye West produced an album that raises the question of whether he is a Christian-music artist or an artist who also happens to be a Christian and sings about it.
It took Tolstoy’s exposure to faithful people for him to feel this truth and shed his former nihilism. “God is Life,” he said to himself. It doesn’t necessitate evangelization to convince people of this truth, but in a world that increasingly produces the artistic equivalent of clickbait headlines, it takes the opportunity of exposure to beauty and truth for one to realize Tolstoy’s fullness.
However, his fullness took work. As Bocelli recounts in his own experience, faith requires this of us. For it can’t be bought and it’s not automatic, although these are understandable expectations in a culture conditioned to expect such outcomes. Faith is a gift, given freely and accepted freely. As Tolstoy writes, we must renounce the sensual pleasures. “We must labor, suffer, and be kind and humble,” he tells us. This is the invitation of Christmas in a consumerist age: to invest in the discovery of faith rather than the excess of material goods. We have a God who puts on our humanity so that we may learn the better to cooperate with His grace.
We can begin, as Tolstoy did, by living simply. After all, God Himself chose a manger for His bed.