Napoleon has begun his invasion of Russia and, in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Tsar Alexander has sent Balashev, one of his generals, with a letter to Napoleon asking why this has happened and demanding that Napoleon withdrew his troops from Russian territory. Balashev encounters the French general Marshal Davout:
Balashev found Davout seated on a barrel in the shed of a peasant’s hut, writing – he was auditing accounts. Better quarters could have been found him, but Marshal Davout was one of those men who purposely put themselves in most depressing conditions to have a justification for being gloomy. For the same reason they are always hard at work and in a hurry. “How can I think of the bright side of life when, as you see, I am sitting on a barrel and working in a dirty shed?” the expression of his face seemed to say. The chief pleasure and necessity of such men, when they encounter anyone who shows animation, is to flaunt their own dreary, persistent activity. Davout allowed himself that pleasure when Balashev was brought in. He became still more absorbed in his task when the Russian general entered, and after glancing over his spectacles at Balashev’s face, … he did not rise or even stir, but scowled still more and sneered malevolently.
It was a paragraph that I read through twice, thinking, “Tolstoy must have encountered some Church of Ireland clergy.” Of course he had not, but were he to be alive a century and a half after he wrote, he might have found various people within clerical circles whom he would have thought to be the embodiment of Davout.
Thirty years ago, they were much more common, but even now they are still to be found, those who boast that they never take a day off, that they never have time for a holiday, and even if they had, they could not afford one, those who will not be outdone by anyone in the hours they work, and the miles they travel, and the problems they face. Like Davout, they seem to delight in dreariness and monotonous routines. Self-righteousness does not need to be articulated, it is apparent in their activity and their conversation, no-one works as hard as they do, no-one compares with them for a spirit of self-sacrifice.
Apart from the people who must listen to their constant litanies of busyness, it is hard to see who is meant to be impressed by the Davout-like approach to life and ministry. Being stale, having no new experiences on which to reflect, constantly repeating the same lines, it wearies the parishioners and can hardly impress a God who is creative and constantly new.
“You younger people do not know what real ministry is like.” I am fifty-five, in my thirtieth year in parish ministry and can think of colleagues who would still say such things to me.
Davout lives on.