This is a follow up blog about Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He suffered greatly while being imprisoned. He won the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature for his powerful writing on communist oppression and spiritual emptiness. His 1962 novel, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” described life in a Stalinist labor camp. By 1973 Solzhentisyn had published “The Gulap Archipelago” which exposed the system of labor camps in Russia, resulting in his 1974 expulsion from the Soviet Union.
As a young pastor I remember His voice being clear, distinct and uncompromising, compared to the moral and ethical uncertainty of American culture. He gave me courage and a desire to speak the truth. Here is a quote that made a lasting impression on me as I was forming my theological view of reality. After his imprisonment in the Russian gulap of Joseph Stalin’s “corrective labor camps” Solzhenitsyn wrote:
“It was granted to me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. 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, not between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts…..That is why I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: ‘Bless you, prison,’ for having been in my life!'”
Solzhenitsyn acknowledges his youthful arrogance, believing that he was doing good while being blind to his cruelty. By the amazing grace of God, while lying on “rotting prison straw” he felt the “first stirrings of good” in his own soul. It was then that he came to see that the line that separated “good and evil passed through every human heart.” I never forgot those words. Solzhenitsyn was able to bless his time in prison for helping him form a conviction about good and evil. He wrote elsewhere, “If only it were so simple. If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it was necessary only to separate 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.”
In those formative years I also remember Henri Nouwen’s words characterizing Thomas Merton: “Merton knew only too well that the sin, evil and violence that he found in the world, were the same sin, the same evil, and the same violence that he had discovered in his own heart…..The impurity in the world was a mirror of the impurity in his own heart.”
Ever since those days, I’ve learned to accept, even though I want at times to deny, the presence of good and evil in my own heart. It has kept me humbly dependent on God’s grace, living with “moral realism.” Regarding himself, Paul said, “But God had mercy on me so that Christ Jesus could use me as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst of sinners” ( I Tim 1:16). David acknowledged, “But I am conscious of my rebellion, and my sin is always before me” (Ps. 51:3).