One of the most spiritually significant events in my life was first reading Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. It was not his fiction that first fell into my hands, but a collection of essays, From Under the Rubble. He was, at the time, in the international spotlight as he struggled to maintain his witness to the Truth while remaining out of prison (having already spent a substantial part of his life in the Soviet Gulag). The Drama ended with his exile. What I learned from his essays was the profound Orthodox faith of this beleaguered prophet. At a point in my life where all heroes, political and otherwise, had largely imploded, here was a man who stood like a rock. Heroes are very important to the young. I am deeply glad that such a man stood up at that time and shone the light of Christ to a darkened world. I could hardly have dreamed of such a hero. The West was later to learn, to its dismay, that his loyalty was not to be found with Western liberal democracies but with a spiritual longing that certainly required freedom, and yet not the freedom that has become license in the Western world. After his famous Harvard Address in June of 1978, the Western press dropped him as an item of interest.
I have later come to know several people who knew him when he lived in Vermont, in a further self-imposed exile, where he sought seclusion from the world about. The first person he asked to see when his exile from the USSR brought him to Switzerland, was Fr. Alexander Schmemann, whom he admired and who became a spirtual friend.
I reprint here an article containing an excerpt from his writings that I posted a while back. I hope to share more in days to come. The world has lost a great friend, but heaven has gained a greater. Vechnaya Pamyat! Memory Eternal!
My dear friend, Fr. Al Kimel (known to many as thePontificator) 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.’”