The Language of the Soul: Work, Faith, Love and Anna Karenina

heart graphicThis summer I read the novel, “Anna Karenina,” by Leo Tolstoy.  I had never read the novel previously, and I had no preconceived notions about the plot, the characters, or the emotional turmoil I would experience as I read.  The book evokes so many different emotions, as Tolstoy weaves a political, social and religious tale, in the 19th century…a Russia that was tinkering with how to establish themselves in the world of change.

This novel should never be named Anna Karenina.  First of all, I do not like weak female characters, and while others may debate the redeeming characteristics of Anna, I was more intrigued by approximately 3 other characters.  None intrigued me more than Levin.

Levin was a working man.  He worked with his hands, with the peasants on his land.  He later tries to take part in politics, but really finds no use for the people or the process, longing to be back with the working class.

Throughout the novel, you are able to see faith, and lack of faith, through the eyes of Levin as he experiences faith through working class Russia.  At the end of the book, Levin has a conversation with a peasant, and they talk about faith.  Here is the turning point for Levin, and it’s a big one.  It’s one I identify with so much as a working Catholic mom, and as someone who is walking a faith journey with lots of questions and wonder.  Here is Levin’s monologue as he realizes that faith is core of his identity, and that love has pointed him in the direction of faith:

“Where did I get it from?  Was it by reason that I attained to the knowledge that I must love my neighbor and not throttle him?  They told me so when I was a child, and I gladly believed it, because they told me what was already in my soul.  But who discovered it?  Not reason!  Reason has discovered the struggle for existence and the law that I must throttle all those who hinder the satisfaction of my desires.  That is the deduction reason makes.  But the law of loving others could not be discovered by reason, because it is unreasonable.”  (Anna Karenina)

Whoa!  One statement that stands out to me is, “They told me so when I was a child, and I gladly believed it, because they told me what was already in my soul…

YES!  This is what I had been contemplating all summer long.  I struggle with trying to understand weighty theology and the rationale behind every rule.  I remember having a conversation this summer with a friend, and we both agreed that even the “heavy” theology is just LOVE already written on your soul.  And with childlike faith, we accepted it once.  And at times, we question it, seeking the why, the how, the what.

I found this same line of thought when researching women who work, and how their faith impacted their leadership.  The overwhelming number one theme that arose from the data is that faith was core to the identity of these women.  Work did not define them.  Being a daughter did not define them.  Their leadership “style” did not define them.  Their faith defined them, and in turn impacted everything they did, including leading in a work situation.

One participant said:

“You can’t really separate who you are from what you do and how you operate.  I definitely think it is important to have that connection because that’s why…that’s what drives you.  I mean, who you are at your core, and for me, faith is a big part of that core.  I think that’s how – that’s what drives you every day.  And not just in the decision you make, but in how you treat everybody else.”

The way these women carried out their work was through lives of love.  Their actions at work illustrated extreme compassion at times, mercy and grace.  Levin shows similar characteristics in his own leadership, as he interacts with the peasants who work his farm land.  Ironically, it is the peasant who brings Levin to the understanding that love is beyond reason, and faith is the sum of this love on a human heart.  The women in my study knew this intrinsically, and moved forward in their leadership acting on what is written on their souls – LOVE.

John the apostle tells us:

“Whoever is without loves does not know God, for God is love.” (1 John 4:8)


“We love because he first loved us.”  (1 John 4:19)

Because God created us in His image (Genesis 1:27), male and female, and if God is love, it stands to reason that love is written on our soul.  This should naturally lead us to a loving leadership style, one which testifies to the image of God, and leads us to a deeper spiritual and faith-filled journey.

But like Levin, we sometimes pit reason against faith.  We see these two as diametrically opposed, when in fact, reason can and does lead us to understand ourselves as sons and daughters of the King of Kings.  Why?  See the above quotes from Sacred Scripture.  God is love.  We are made in God’s image.  Boom.  The end.

But not really the end.  Love is a verb.  How do you act on love throughout the day in your routine, whether you work outside of the home or in the home?

Here are a few ways I think we can all bring love back into the work culture.  These are simple things…but they say the little things mean the most sometimes.

  1. LISTEN.  Truly listen to what others are saying around you.  Seek to understand them, rather than to be understood by them.  Seek to hear what they are obviously saying, but also what they are not saying.  Use your 2 ears and 1 mouth in the right proportion.  Remembering that the moments you are spending with people listening to their problems, joys, struggles, etc., is sometimes the only time that day that anyone will truly listen to them.
  2. DO WHAT YOU ARE ASKING THEM TO DO.  Levin owned tons of farmland.  When it came time to “mow the land,” Levin had hired hands (peasants) to do the grunge work.  However, you witness something remarkable in the novel.  Levin rolls up his sleeves and gets to work with the peasants.  The peasants come to appreciate Levin for this, and begin to trust him.  Levin does this straight from his heart and soul – the one he talks about being imprinted with this love.  It works.  The task is completed and Levin begins to forge a relationship with the peasants that is not seen in other characters.
  3. SPEAK TRUTH – WITH GRACE AND MERCY.  I think the moment I realized Jesus had a personal love for me was at an age I could understand his most merciful act was something I did not deserve, yet He freely gave.  This has always been a lesson in my own life, including supervisory moments.  Over and over again I have witnessed my own supervisors hold me accountable, but in a way that drew me closer to them as mentors.  They were showing me through grace and mercy that my “mess ups” were not insurmountable.  I pray that is the same thing I am doing with each individual on the team.
  4. WALK WITH THEM IN THEIR STRUGGLES.  Everyone has a story.  Everyone has something they are dealing with at home.  Everyone needs a partner on the journey.  When you can, be that partner.  Help to lighten the load.  Jesus’ walk with Mary Magdalene illustrates for me that you walk the journey with them.
  5. FORGIVE.  AND ASK FORGIVENESS.  Where else besides the home is there a ground so fertile with moments to forgive, and moments to ask forgiveness?  It is definitely in the workplace where I find my foot in my mouth; moments of weakness; gossipy water cooler talk.  When these things happen, I must remember that love prevails, especially through forgiveness.

I am going to walk this journey of faith and love, with the example of Levin from “Anna Karenina,” and from the women in my research.  These characters inspire me to bring love to the forefront – the love that is stamped on my soul from the beginning of time.  Thank you, Lord Jesus!

Peace of Christ to you and yours!

Mary    Send article as PDF   


  1. I love this Mary! Especially how you tie Levin’s thoughts in with your women’s leadership group! Wonder what Tolstoy would think of THAT!? :)

    • Perhaps he could have written Anna a bit differently, had he had my research! :) Just kidding. Anna Karenina is perfect just the way it is, and I will always admire Levin (and Kitty et al.).

      Thanks for sharing!!!


  2. Mary, really enjoyed this post! This book (along with so much other literature) has intrigued me, but I haven’t read it yet. I received a spark of inspiration from your thoughts on the book and its Catholicity. Thanks for this excellent post!

    • Staci…I really enjoy reading literature, and filtering it through my faith, for sure. This one has some moments of Catholicity, mixed with lots of what was going on between religion and the state in 19th century Russia. It intrigued me, and now I want to learn more about Russia, for sure. Especially now. It is weird to see that some of the things going through Tolstoy’s mind are re-inventing themselves now. Levin, though, reminded me that our faith journeys are filled with joy, peril, pain, suffering, wonder, and lots of just plain ole faith. He inspired me to remember that childlike, full of wonder, might be a good posture to take in your faith. Thanks for reading!!

      • Beautiful, insightful comments about Levin. He is one of Tolstoy’s best characters; one sees a different kind of inner growth over a more extended period in the young Rostov in *War and Peace*.

        Wow, yes, learn about Russia. What a wonderful idea! Its a mysterious place, that has yet to fulfilled its historic mission. Tolstoy is a genius, but he does like to examine in brutal detail the fall and consequent unraveling of a woman’s psyche. My problem with AK (after two readings) is that she IS the main character. To learn about Russia, a good history is needed. Robert and Suzanne Lassie’s work still holds up. Robert Massie’s *Nicholas and Alexandra* is classic, but if you can only read one book, I.

        would recommend Suzanne Massie’s *Land of the Firebird*. Magnificent book. Then of course you ladies must take on the Pope’s favorite author, Dostoevsky

        • John,

          Thanks for the feedback and the recommendations. I was nervous writing the blog about AK because I am no expert in either a) Russia or b) Tolstoy. The story of Levin moved me, though. I will contemplate taking on War and Peace!

          Thanks for the Russia history recommendations as well. I love literature. One of the best things I love is learning about the locations. I will definitely look into Suzanne Massie’s work.

          Peace to you, John!


        • Sorry got cut off. Dostoevsky is intense, and though I love it all. *The Brothers Karamazov* is in a category of its own. Arguably the greatest novel ever written, it is certainly the most spiritually profound Russian novel (also prophetic of the 20th and perhaps the 21st century). It is an essential read; I’ve read it five times and am probably due to read it again.

          Hope this is useful to you and Lauren and your friends. God bless you!

          • I am putting it on my list, for sure! I know it will challenge me…I may read it over the Christmas break. I will need a good break from LSU to absorb it slowly!!

            Lauren is awesome. She is in Texas, and we are trying to start a Bookish Catholics group in Baton Rouge, LA. Pray for us!

            Thanks for all of the suggestions, John!


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