I 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!