Posts Tagged ‘solzhenitsyn’

From Under the Rubble

May 26, 2011

Dostoevsky wrote in the mid-19th century, a time when many ideas and cultural forces were only beginning to coelesce. We live in an age after which those forces have come together, and after which they have largely been judged by history to have fallen short of their stated ideals. The world has witnessed more than a century of failed promises and programs (not that we have completely rejected such things) and are, to a large extent, left drifting in a world in which we have few markers or sure bearings upon which to plot our lives, much less the future of mankind.

The Christian faith has not been immune to the cultural forces of the past few centuries. Some groups of Christians feel compelled to maintain strong ties with the present culture and to change themselves and the shape of their proclamation according to the prevailing winds of cultural understandings. Others have been swept along, always having been “cultural” Churches, and now struggling to know which part of the culture they are to represent.

Holy Orthodoxy has traditionally held to a course which is unchanging – though it has been profoundly influenced by the political and cultural institutions which have surrounded it. Today, with greater freedom than in many centuries, Orthodoxy struggles to find its proper place and stance amidst the rubble of the modern world.

Aleksandr Solzhnitsyn published a small book of essays in the early ’70’s entitled, From Under the Rubble. The “Rubble” of his title represented the rubble of Christian civilization that had been overwhelmed ultimately by various forces of modernity. His experience was of the crude realities of the Soviet System (where he spent some years within the Gulag system and where he spent his “freedom” under constant surveillance). But the “rubble” extends beyond the boundaries of Solzhenitsyn’s cultural and historical experience.

The whole of Christian civilization now sits somewhere in history. Condemned for its excesses and failures, used as the scapegoat for any and every imagined ill. Those who profess the Christian faith today, do so “from under the rubble.” We cannot look around for authentic Christian culture. It is only with difficulty that we may draw on the wisdom of the past.

But the story of the human relationship with God is a constant re-telling of life from within rubble. There is very little in Scripture that can be described as a golden age. Even the righteous King David is beset with his own personal sin and rebellion within his own family. The story of Creation and Paradise are followed immediately with the story of the first sin, the first murder, and the multiple failings of humanity.

However, nowhere in the gospel of Christ are His followers enjoined to create a great civilization. Such things have come about, from time to time, within the context of Christian believing, but always with flaws that mark the weaknesses that will bring about their downfall, and even with periodic persecution of the Church and the Truth itself. States are not inherently evil, neither are they inherently good.

In the gospel of Christ we are taught about the coming of the Kingdom of God. This kingdom is not the perfection of some other kingdom. It is not the product of human imagination and innovation. It comes as a gift – not even as a result of our prayers. As the wondrous gift of God it is the hidden treasure that we find beneath and within the rubble. The Kingdom is the Pearl of Great Price – the indestructible truth.

I once read that even a single commandment of Christ, if kept with all our heart, mind and strength, will become for us the door to the Kingdom. Such singleness of heart is a very rare thing – though it is not a complicated thing. I think of St. Paul’s words in Romans 12:

Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.

Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good. Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another.

It is not complicated – just a simple way out of the rubble. Solzhenitsyn’s boldest recommendation in his small essay entitled, “From Under the Rubble,” was printed in block letters: DO NOT LIE, REFUSE TO PARTICIPATE IN THE LIE.

How simple. How hard.

More Notes from the Edge

July 20, 2009

railroadposterI began last week with an article on the End of the World and the Orthodox view of the “last things.” I have followed this with thoughts about life on the “edge.” That image, a common metaphor within a number of 20th century Orthodox writers, is continued in this post – and likely in several more to come. Perhaps it is an aspect of our modern life that we frequently find ourselves to be living “on the edge.” It may also be true that we share this experience with Christians through the ages. The gospel has a way of bringing us to “critical” moments. For all who find themselves on the edge – both religiously and existentially – I offer my prayers and the solidarity of someone who has been there repeatedly. Whatever “the edge” may mean – it does not mean we are alone.

+++

A short but insightful quote from Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. It came to him during his time in the Gulag:

…. It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.

…. If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

The spiritual battle which confronts us all is to be found in the human heart – our own human heart. This insight, not unique to Solzhenitsyn, but characteristic of Orthodoxy in general, can be news to those who have not heard the faith spoken of in this manner. All too easily the battle between good and evil is externalized and one side settles for a legally defined morality while the other sets for a legally defined immorality and neither side understands anything. Even the debate on Abortion gets completely obscured by the externalization of its legal/illegal status, and fails to see, too often, the great battle that is waged inwardly to bring a life other than my own into the world. What is the state of the heart in this great moral debate?

The same can be said of any number of public issues – and even of issues within the Church. The Church necessarily raises the “level of the playing field” allowing everyone involved to speak in the most absolute terms and to judge quickly and with assurance. Easily lost is the state of the heart throughout all of our battles – both public and ecclesiastical.

Part of the genius of Solzhenitsyn, similar to the genius of Dostoevsky in the century before, was to move issues away from the abstract and bring them to the existential level of the human heart. Nothing was exempt from this requirement. There is no moral “free-ride.” Thus Raskolnikov discovered in Crime and Punishment that there was no greater good that could justify the murder of some “meaningless soul.”

This, of course, is simply the gospel. “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and to lose his soul?” And none of us should doubt that every moment of our life, every decision of the day is a matter that bears on our soul. The line between good and evil runs through every human heart.

It means that every moment we walk on the edge of an abyss – not that Christ has not entered the abyss to bring us out – forgiveness is real. But having once been rescued from the abyss we need to learn all the more how to tread the narrow path and to pray for all who have fallen. Some brave souls, in their great love of mankind, even enter through prayer into the abyss with Christ, to pray for those who have fallen and to bring them home again. It is certainly the case that those who bore the suffering of Stalin’s Gulag, and yet prayed for us all, had entered the abyss and learned there, union with the Crucified Christ, to Whom belongs all glory!

Solzhenitsyn – The Harvard Address

August 4, 2008

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, addressing an assembly at Harvard University in June of 1978, offered profound insights on the West and the future of our society. His thoughts were anchored in a vision of man that was profoundly Christian, transcending the limits established in present societies. He issued a call for a deeper pursuit that can only be called “prophetic.” These two paragraphs are only a minor excerpt, but give a sample of his thought.

The entire address may be read and listened to here.

Western society has given itself the organization best suited to its purposes based, I would say, one the letter of the law. The limits of human rights and righteousness are determined by a system of laws; such limits are very broad. People in the West have acquired considerable skill in interpreting and manipulating law. Any conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the supreme solution. If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required. Nobody will mention that one could still not be entirely right, and urge self-restraint, a willingness to renounce such legal rights, sacrifice and selfless risk. It would sound simply absurd. One almost never sees voluntary self-restraint. Everybody operates at the extreme limit of those legal frames.

I have spent all my life under a Communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale than the legal one is not quite worthy of man either. A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses. And it will be simply impossible to stand through the trials of this threatening century with only the support of a legalistic structure.