A Day at a Time


One of my favorite books, for many years, has been Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich: A Novel. It’s hard at first thought to say what draws me to the book (I’ve probably read it ten times). It makes occasional remarks that are religious but it would not be described as an overtly religious novel. Though it’s set in largely the same place and time of the books on the life of Father Arseny, it has no saints. What it does have is a quality that I would describe as religious, though not obviously so. It is it’s use of time. That the novel is only a day in a man’s life gives it a pace and a motion that sees and reflects, and therefore values fairly insignificant things in a very significant way.

Perhaps the best moments (or more) that I have known in worship have been when things seemed to step out of time. This often happens for me at some point in Holy Week. Finally overwhelmed (exhausted) with the details I shut down the part of me that is trying to think about every thing and the service takes on its own life, carrying worship into the depths of the week that is indeed one eternal Pascha. In such moments time stops, or compresses, and a clarity of detail reveals layers of meaning and belonging that were otherwise hidden.

I have had other such moments – not all of them overtly religious, either. I recall a ride on a snow sled outside my house – probably 15 years ago and I can remember every detail with such clarity that I can close my eyes and take the ride all over.

Such moments – even such a day – is like the fulfillment of Christ’s commandment to “take no thought for tomorrow.” It is not that tomorrow is unimportant but that it always threatens to capture us and take us away from today. There is a sense in Solzhenitsyn’s novel that one day is much like another. I could well imagine that would be so under such conditions. There is not really a tomorrow to consider – not without tempting insanity.

But there is also something insane about the tomorrows of our own existence – insane in its original meaning – not healthy. Tomorrow, when imported to today pushes aside the possibility of peace and recollection and replaces it with anxiety and a scatteredness that cannot be a place to live.

It is strange that an American, with all of the creature comforts that surround him, would be drawn to a novel that recounts a single day in the life of a prisoner in the Soviet Gulag. I suspect it is because we (I) read it as a prisoner in a different Gulag, one created by days out of joint, stretching forward without end. A single day, a single moment is the promise of a single peace. A Day in the Life did not create the sort of political reaction that Gulag Archipelago brought with it. But it may have created a deeper reaction – a whisper of rebellion against a more insidious foe.

Take no thought for tomorrow, let tomorrow take thought for itself. Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof.


  1. Fr. Freeman,

    I was first introduced to this novel in college. It is also one of my favorite books. Solzhenitsyn shows that by focusing on the here and now, on this very moment without worrying about the years stretching out before us, the human spirit can bear many things. Through the characters’ lack we realize our abundance. Through their satisfaction with a thin bowl of soup and a crust of bread we realize how many times we are often unthankful for the abundance in our lives. Like all true art “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” speaks to our common humanity.

  2. You wrote, “the Father Arseny novels.” Say it isn’t so. I thought that they were non-fiction. πŸ™

  3. I am assured that they are non-fiction. I perhaps should have not used the word novel – it’s just that they read that well. Sorry to have caused any confusion. Please forgive. I am correcting the text lest it lead to any confusion in the future.

  4. My anxiety is constantly looking for “fuel.” Thank you for reducing its effects on my life! πŸ™‚

  5. I first read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich my senior year in high school while my family was snowed in for a whole week. I had to take a break from reading to help my dad shovel two-foot-deep of snow out of the driveway. That helped to give me a feel for the Siberian setting.

  6. Roland,

    The year my daughter spent in Siberia, the indoor temperature of the apartment did not get above 50 degrees Farenheit. Apparently its unimaginably cold.

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