Confession and Forgiveness in Solzhenitsyn

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My dear friend, Fr. Al Kimel (known to many as the Pontificator) sent me a link to this wonderful excerpt from Solzhenitsyn’s The Red Wheel, including some insightful commentary. The piece may be read in its entirety on the Blog, Word Incarnate (on WordPress). My thanks to the writer, Abbot Joseph (a Byzantine Catholic) for such excellent writing, and to Fr. Al for the head’s up.   The passage describes a young woman who was in the throes of grief and misery over her grievous sins, which included affairs and betrayals and a general turnaing away from God – Leaving the solitude of the place she was living – for fear she would commit suicide – she walked and walked until she found herself outside a church – she went in and was struck by the huge icon of the Pantocrator (“Ruler of All”) in the dome of the church – Solzhenitsyn describes her experience:

“At present it was in semi-darkness but, lit from below, the countenance of the Lord of Hosts, majestic in conception, was half visible and half recognizable. There was no trace of consolatory tenderness in the Creator’s tense expression, nor could vengefulness or menace have any place there. He Himself was the heaven above us all and we were sustained by Him… But from beyond and through what was painted there, the unimaginable looked down—a portrayal of the Power that sustains the world. And whoever encountered the gaze of those celestial Eyes, and whoever was privileged to glimpse even momentarily that Brow, understood with a shock not his own nullity but the place which he was designed and privileged to occupy in the general harmony. And that he was called upon not to disrupt that harmony.

“There Zinaida stood, and went on standing, with her head thrown back, staring into that immensity, deaf to what was happening in the church… What floated above her could not be conveyed in words, was indeed out of reach of thought. It was a wave of life-giving will, surging also into the human breast… she stood shivering like a sacrificial victim awaiting the stroke… A passive receptacle of the Divine Will, she began to feel easier and stronger. Gone was the burning desire she had felt at home to break out, run away… She stood staring upward, her neck growing numb, but the iron bands that had immobilized her for so many days relaxed, gradually fell away, released her…”

This was but the beginning of her liberation from sin, however. She needed also to meet Christ on the level of his com-passion, his suffering-with her, in addition to his awesome and all-encompassing majesty and power. So she approached a different icon of Christ. “It was a completely human face, though its complexion was not of this world… The eyes held an enigmatic omniscience… knowing all, from the beginning to the end of time, things of which we never dream. A mind at ease might not have responded to these depths. But Zinaida, with her heightened perception, saw that Christ was suffering acutely, suffering yet not complaining. His compassion was for all those who approached him—and so at that moment for her. His eyes could absorb whatever pain there yet might be—all her pain, as they had absorbed many times as much before, and would absorb whatever pain was still to come. He had learned to live with pain as something inevitable. And he could grant release from all pain. A weight was lifted from her.”

She began to examine her life, her sins, as the church choir sang penitential psalms. “She shuddered. Her whole story had been known here before her coming. They were proclaiming it aloud.”

She had not come for confession, but there was a priest there hearing confessions, and when the others finished, their eyes met and he invited her to come. There was a lectern there upon which rested the Gospel book and a crucifix. “Gospel and crucifix watched over her confession. The lectern—she saw it now—was a steep slope, a rough steep slope—and up that slope she had to drag her whole life, struggling under the burden, and against the friction… She plunged in without preliminary explanation, throat dry, voice cracked. ‘I have seduced a married man’…”

One by one she dredged up, with great difficulty, the sins that were crushing her soul, or rather burning her from within. Solzhenitsyn describes her struggle with repentance and confession thus: “It was like using the grapnel at a wellhead, with three hooks facing different ways—and what you have to do is find down there, in the dark depths of your soul, a hot stone, fish for it, grip it, only the hooks won’t take hold, it breaks loose, seventy times over it breaks loose until at last, with delicate movements, as cautiously as if it was your dearest treasure, you latch on to it, draw it upward, raise it carefully, carefully, then seize it. You burn your fingers but you have rid your soul of it… It was as if every stone thrown out had ceased to be a part of her…so that she could look at it objectively instead of dragging it around inside her… But once you have learned how to drag these stones out with your grappling hook—your throat is less dry, speech becomes less hesitant, confession flows faster, until your words tumble over themselves as you hurry to snatch at and identify all your betrayals…

“She had blurted out all she had to say, however horrible it was; she had done all she had to do, and now she crouched with her head pressed to the crucifix, breathless. But another Breath, the Spirit, hovered over her and stole tremulously into her. ‘May the Lord our God Jesus Christ [said the priest] through his grace and the munificence of His love for mankind, forgive you, my child, all your transgressions. And I, an unworthy priest, with the authority vested by Him in me…’ He stressed not his authority, but his unworthiness. Grief-stricken witness of her struggle against grief, he testified to her forgiveness. ‘I pardon you and absolve you of all your sins…’

“He withdrew his stole, and she quietly raised her uncovered head… Yes, he had understood her question, and let it be seen that he had… ‘In each of us [he said] there is a mystery greater than we realize. And it is in communion with God that we are able to catch a glimpse of it. Learn to pray. Truly, you are capable of it.’”

8 Responses to “Confession and Forgiveness in Solzhenitsyn”

  1. Peter Says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Father.

  2. Philippa Alan Says:

    Unbelieveable! Ineffable! So true!

  3. mattyonke Says:

    Wow. My experience wasn’t quite that picturesque, but it was similar.

    I was a protestant till about a year and a half ago. I had a friend who became Catholic and was pestering me all the time to join him. I wanted nothing to do with it, though I was drawn to the more historic expressions of Christianity.

    At one point he invited me, in his absence, to join in on a discussion group at a nearby Ruthenian Catholic Church on icons. As a presbyterian I was staunchly iconoclastic, but I read St. John Damascene’s Treatises on Holy Images and attended the discussion.

    The discussion was very interesting, but I was nowhere near abandoning my iconoclasm or my protestantism. Now bear in mind that prior to this night I had never seen an icon in person, nor paid much attention to religious art at all.

    The leader of the discussion took us into the Church to see the icons we had been debating about for a couple hours now. When we came into the Church it was dark but for a few candles. The leader ran to the back of the Church to turn some lights on. The first light that went on was the light around the majestic Pantocrater. My life changed in an instant. A light may as well have shined down from heaven. I felt like St. Paul on the road to Damascus.

    The leader spent a while explaining the significance and symbolism in the various icons, but my fate was sealed. I went outside to call my wife and told her I was afraid we might have to be Catholic. And so we are. We attend a wonderful Romanian Rite Catholic Church and our spiritual lives have grown in richness that I could never have imagined.

    Sorry, I know you’re Orthodox, so that might not be the ending to the story you wanted to hear, but it has been a good one for us.

    Anyway, sorry to ramble, but thank you for the story and letting me share mine.

    In Pax Christi,

    Matt

  4. fatherstephen Says:

    Matt,

    I don’t mind the ending on your story – afterall, you wound up in a Byzantine rite setting. We could discuss sometime the relative merits between Byzantine Rite Rome and Orthodoxy – but God knocked you off the horse right there. What could I say? Thank you for sharing the story!

  5. jacob Says:

    Matt wrote:

    … prior to this night I had never seen an icon in person

    ;^)

  6. fatherstephen Says:

    in person…

    Perfectly stated, in accordance with the theology of St. Theodore the Studite. Whose feast was yesterday.

  7. Fr. Jim Says:

    I read this first in The Solzhenitsyn Reader, a wonderful anthology that was published in 2006. I recommend the book as a way to sample some of the best of A.S., as well as see previously unpublished items. Now I’m wanting to read the entirety of the items I’ve sampled. This man was a gift to the world – if only we would listen!

  8. Pseudo-Polymath » Blog Archive » Tuesday Highlights Says:

    […] forgiveness and remarks culled from some (as yet unread) books on my […]

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