A Simple, Great Soul

solzhenitsynFor a variety of reasons, I have been spending a fair amount of time with A.I. Solzhenitsyn, the great Russian writer who died in 2008. I am working through a collection of his writings and have been watching videos on his life along with detailed interviews. If any man lived through the maelstrom of the 20th century, it was he. Born in 1918 to a pious, Orthodox family, he was raised by a single mother, his father having died in an accident six months before Solzhenitsyn’s birth. Moving to Rostov when he was 6, Solzhenitsyn gradually became an enthusiastic Soviet boy. He learned to hold his faith in disdain and admire the Revolution. He even became a member of the Young Pioneers.

Like Dostoevsky before him, Solzhenitsyn was something of an idealist in his youth. His Marxism was quite real. Towards the end of World War II, in which he served with honor, he was arrested for remarks critical of Stalin in some of his private correspondence with a friend. Interestingly, his remarks were to the effect that the State was deviating from a proper Marxist course. His indiscretion made a prisoner out of him in the Soviet Gulag.

His first imprisonment was relatively easy, eventually being assigned to a sharashka, doing mathematical and engineering research. His acquaintance with older men with greater experience and a far more critical approach to the world began to move him back towards his childhood Christianity. He was removed from the sharashka and sent to one of the hard labor camps in Kazakhstan, and then sentenced to internal exile (for life) working as a teacher of mathematics.

He was rehabilitated in 1956 during the early Krushchev years, during which his first work, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a graphic novel set in the Gulag, was published. It sold extremely well and brought him into the public attention that would remain with him, both as a writer, and as a social critic, for the rest of his life.

He is more compelling to me than any other man of our time, in large part because of the simplicity of his soul. There is a Russian phrase, “dvoye dusha,” (literally “two-souled”) that comes to mind. Most people that I know are at least “two-souled.” Our complexity is a mass of contradictions – in opinions, sentiments, loyalties and loathings. We think one thing for one reason, and something else for a completely contradictory reason. It is one of the diseases of our age (cf. Alasdair MacIntyre’s Whose Justice? Which Rationality?) Solzhenitsyn was decidedly not dvoye dusha. He was utterly what he was to the very core of his being. Were it not so, he would have learned to bend and give way, and get along in the world. He could have been quite “successful” with a lot less trouble.

This inner simplicity is all the more remarkable in that Solzhenitsyn lived in extremely complex times. The State that imprisoned him was once idealized by him. And the State that oppressed him and sought to silence him was also located in the land that held one of the deepest places in his heart. He was exiled in 1974, eventually settling in Vermont. Hailed across the world as a champion of freedom, he nevertheless found that the Western media turned on him when he offered criticisms of the abuse of freedom and the rampant decay of life in the land of his exile.

In time, the media found it easier to dismiss him as a Russian curmudgeon, an artifact of a society that had long past. He was accused of many things (much as his Soviet masters sought to discredit him). But the truth of the man was that he was utterly the same, whether living under the Soviets or being hailed or lampooned in the West. That both East and West were glad to see him silent is simple testimony of the almost unlimited corruption of the modern state.

His practice of life can be summed up in the title of one of his articles: “Live Not by Lies.” The article itself is worth a read. For Solzhenitsyn it meant (at the very least), speaking the truth of his heart, always and at all times, without fear. And this is where the problem of being “two-souled” comes to the fore. There are terrible forces that draw us away from the simple truth of our soul. The audience itself, our passions, and such things easily create a cloud of confusion.

Thinking about this is quite painful for me. For a number of years, prior to my conversion to Orthodoxy, I lived a very two-souled existence. As I was increasingly drawn towards Orthodoxy, I was also repulsed by the Anglicanism in which I served. The complex levels of employment, parenting, serving, and the like created terrible contradictions within me. If every day did not involve direct lying, it certainly involved something very close to it.

About a year before my conversion, I went to my Anglican bishop and told him of my intentions. It was a very irenic and thoughtful conversation. Towards the end he asked me, “Can you say mass in good conscience?” It was probably the most poignant question of the morning. I told him that I could, though it was something of a circus act in my soul (I used a different expression that I’ll not repeat). He told me to let him know if it became unbearable.

My eventual conversion at the beginning of the next year came as a deep relief. I felt no triumphalism in the act. Indeed, I carried deep wounds as a result of the “dvoye dusha” that held me over the course of a number of years. It still haunts my dreams.

My situation is a rather dramatic example (and embarrassing). But the problem is, I think, very widespread in our culture. We carry a host of contradictions within ourselves. The passions, devoid of reason, frequently dictate both the attachments of our lives and how we treat them moment by moment. A single and simple heart are rare and difficult to achieve.

Christ said, “Let you eye be single.” He also said, “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.” (Mat 5:37) St. James says that a “double-minded” (literally, “two-souled”) person is “unstable in all his ways.” For many, this has become their mode of existence.

A single and simple soul comes through a certain stillness of mind and purpose and a singularity of devotion. There can be little doubt that Solzhenitsyn’s simplicity was partly shaped by the suffering he endured. It was also shaped by the simple and straightforward nature of his Orthodox faith. It is only remarkable because it is rare, but not because it is difficult to achieve. Solzhenitsyn’s own advice was, “Do not lie.”

Lying pervades our lives. I often think we are so engaged with lying that we fail to notice. The lying begins within our own hearts. What we experience as “complexity,” particularly complexity within the soul, is often little more than a refusal to face the truth and endure its consequences. We prefer a life in which unpleasant consequences are minimized. Lying is ideal for such a life.

The gospel begins with a call to repentance. Repentance (metanoia), means a “change of mind.” It is not just changing the thoughts of the mind, but changing how the mind thinks. St. Paul speaks of the “renewing” of the mind (Romans 12:2). Christ’s calling of the disciples is a perfect example of this renewing. Christ seems to have made any double-minded following impossible. Men leave families, jobs, everything that has constituted their lives prior to Christ. He counsels them to “let the dead bury the dead.” These actions have always seemed extreme, but as years go by, I see that they have this aim of concentrating the soul.

Our entrance into Christ (and into the fullness of the Church) rarely asks such efforts on our part. At the time of my conversion to Orthodoxy, I was actually grateful that my circumstances were radically affected, even if most of the effects turned out to be products of my own anxious mind. There was nothing truly heroic, or that involved any noted suffering, but in an age of comfort, where we fear every inconvenience and the loss of any security, there was sufficient difficulty to begin the process of healing my conflicted soul.

In every life, that process can begin at any time. It starts with a resolute commitment to follow Christ, regardless of consequence. We are asked in Baptism, “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” This, it seems to me, is so much more than simply “making a decision for Christ,” or “accepting Him as Lord and Savior.” It is asking us to die. For the Christ to whom we unite ourselves is, first and foremost, the Crucified Lord. “I die daily,” St. Paul said. Nothing less than that heals the heart.

For the first two years of my Orthodox life, I worked as a hospice chaplain. As I worked at “dying daily,” I was daily with the dying. The approach of death, in the life of a believer, properly concentrates the soul. It was a great benefit to me to bear witness to those witnesses of a single heart. Three years ago I was in hospital with a heart attack, watching the medical staff scurry about the business of saving my life. In the middle of it all, there was a great peace. There was only one anxiety – that of meeting Christ unprepared. I turned down the offer of a sedative as the procedure began. “I have work to do,” was my comment.

I have no judgment for any who wrestle with a divided soul. But I can say that it is not a state that we should tolerate for long – it is too devastating. There are truly great souls, singular points of grace that tell us of what is possible. Solzhenitsyn became a hero for me, even within my college years. I suspect the disease of my own soul intuitively saw in him the example of the way home. Yes or no. Do not live by lies.

31 comments:

  1. I am so glad you wrote this article. You first spoke of this “two souled existence”, if I recall, in an article about veneration of the Theotokos, but I never commented.

    It struck me particularly because it was related to worship and veneration – expressing love. It reminds me of a feeling I had growing up a child of a divorced household – wehere it was not okay to express love for one parent. In your previous article, it sounded to me, that keeping this veneration of the Theotokos private / secret – created a similar inner turmoil.

    I think if that experience as a child of divorce can be considered two-souled, then so many in our society are affected by it. And it requires healing – even unto adulthood.

    Am I understanding your use of two-souled right?

  2. I think that “The Underground Man” by Dostoevsky is the perfect embodiment of this “dvoye dusha” you talk about. The first time I read Notes from Underground, I felt immense comfort, like someone was giving me hope amid the painful duplicity which is the plight of our fallen condition made so much more extreme, I think, in the hell of modern existence.

    I got the book you once recommended called “Letting Go of Shame” by the Potter-Efrons. In this article you suggest simplicity and honesty as the way forward for many of us. However, the one problem I forsee is that this advice may not be sufficient for those who suffer from “shame-deficiency.” Does that make sense?

  3. Love this post Father, thank you.

    For someone who has never read any of Solzhenitsyn’s works, where would you suggest I start? A day in the life of…., Gulag Archipelago, Cancer Ward, or something else?

  4. Thank you Father for sharing this part of your life story…

    My own father was an avid reader of Solzhenitsyn (during the years of communism in Poland). I think that maybe this is what helped him resist the pressures of joining the communist party and leaving the Church (as was needed and expected if one wanted to further one’s career). I know it cost him dearly when it came to his professional advancement, and later on I learnt that he quietly endured several “troubles” related to these choices. At his funeral several people said he was the most honest, honorable and generous man they knew….

    It truly is astonishing how, as you said, “Lying pervades our lives. I often think we are so engaged with lying that we fail to notice. ”. It’s most painful to discover that tendency in the people we love and are supposed to be able to trust…

    Vouchsafe o Lord to keep us in the “single-souled” mode all of our lives, commending ourselves and all our life to Christ our God.

  5. Thank you Father Stephen for this timely encouragement.

    The best way for me to gauge the extent of my lying is by my social media posts (Facebook, Twitter). I think to myself “Oh, if I say that – they will be offended”* or “If I open up my account to this person, they will see that I believe x”. I am double-minded, but becoming less so – oddly enough, social media has been helpful in this regard.

    *I am not talking about discussions or posts that denigrate people or groups of people etc. I’m talking about social media posts that affirm/validate a classical Christian Orthodox world view.

  6. Thank you Father Stephen for this post.

    You are writing about something that has particularly bothered me about my own struggles as a recent convert to Orthodox Christianity.

    When I first “ascertained” ‘Death and Resurrection’ in the data I was studying before I came into Orthodoxy, I couldn’t bring myself to say to others, that I saw “Death and Resurrection”, rather the best I could do at the time was report a ‘half-truth’ that the data suggested ‘life after death’–a phrase that would be more readily accepted among family, friends and colleagues. And I still slip into this ‘hedging rhetoric’ to avoid criticism and conflict.

    When I entered into Orthodoxy as a catechumen, my family began to pay attention, however, and wanted to know what was “going on in my head”. If what inspired me to pursue this faith was the data, then what again did I see in the data? They wanted the specifics, so I attempted to tell them the specifics, but they are not chemists nor physicists and they had a fair bit of trouble following what I said. They asked me to repeat the science a few times over the course of the year that I was a catechumen, but what I said had no impact. Instead, as I came closer to the day of my baptism, it was the physical nature of the baptism itself that they were able to grasp as a reality for them, nothing in the science was as tangible. When you love someone who is not a believer, it seems quite hard not to gloss over the inner experiences because they cannot share them– there is no shared experience for that understanding and it often hurts.

    I take heart in this, the Grace of God. I’ve been told that when I come home from St Herman’s that I seem to be especially loving. (wasn’t intentional on my part–though perhaps it should have been) Apparently, my going away to services is appreciated if for no other reason than the state of being that I have when I come home.

    I pray that I may become more single minded and less fearful of being who I am now as an Orthodox Christian, stating the Truth with love to the best of my ability when the occasion arises.

  7. It seems to me that living in lies to make life more bearable is really a counterfeit existence. We think it will make it easier to lie to cover our shame, but, in reality, lying makes life far more difficult. One has to remember what lie one told to who and construct a reality around it so as to not slip up. Generally speaking, in my experience, that meant telling different lies to different people to hide the truth and the task of keeping all the lies straight made life so very difficult and often led to exposure and even more shame. Since I made the decision to stop doing “what was right in my own eyes,” and walk the path of salvation, I have had to face my shame but I find that living is so much easier. There is only one truth, I need not invent anything nor keep track of anything except the one truth and amazingly all my relationships have become more genuine and peaceful. Thank you Father for this post as it reminds me of the anguish of the double soul and why I am walking the path I walk.

  8. Nicholas,
    I think I was not able to see the shame in my life until after my conversion – and, frankly, not for about 12 years in. Part of that is that I did not have an understanding of shame, just the feelings and reactions. The past 4 years, especially, have been marked by a long series of revelations regarding myself and my life. Some of them are a bit painful, though less painful than continuing to live in them. Learning to “bear a little shame” in those regards has healed my soul greatly, though the habits of the heart are very difficult to change. The instinct to cowardice, I think, can be found deep in the personality/soul. It may be that a coward’s bravery is greater than that of others (I certainly hope it’s at least as good).

    We pray to stand before the dread judgment seat of Christ “without shame or fear.” I believe that we can place ourselves there now, by bearing a little shame, and find greater and greater healing. The Elder Sophrony said, “God never judges twice.” If we submit it to Him now, we’ll not hear of it again.

    When I converted, a number of reporters/journalists who had followed some of my writing and political actions within conservative Anglican circles wanted to “do my story.” I seriously did not want them to, and said, “I’m entering Orthodoxy as a penitent.” I think I’m only just now feeling ok about my story – or sharing these parts of it – mostly because I’m only just now coming to understand it. It’s also a part of the reason that I did not write for 8 years after my conversion. And, even then, I “pulled my punches” for at least another 4 years to a large extent. Coming to be oneself is a very hard thing (for me). I suspect it is for others, as well.

  9. Indeed it is a hard thing and I thank you for sharing this Father Stephen. I pray that in remembering your words that I might take courage when I need to.

  10. Thank you Father Stephenfor your truthfulness

    Such openness allows in light to those of us living in the shadows of double mindedness or two souledness 🙂

    Names our condition

  11. Thank you Father Stephen for this blessed article. I wonder if you often write after a Service or prayer; a spiritual Father once said that his secret was just that: to speak or write when the Grace of God was at its height (if this is an appropriate term for Divine Grace).

    I can only imagine what you must have felt going to “work” as an Anglican priest every day after you had realised you could not do so anymore. I wonder how many of us continue on a trajectory because gravity (fear of loss, inertia, cowardice) keeps pulling harder than our own faith can push us into true freedom.

    In similar fashion, but on a less spiritual level, I have experienced this dichotomy for several years in my professional, but not so much my personal life. It resembles your description in your book about the two-storey universe: by day, I mix with Western minds, secular at heart and with little regard for Christ. I do so mostly in silence, although I do not hide my Orthodox Christianity. By night, or in what little leisure is left, I try and generally fail to pray to God, to stand in front of Him with repentance, seeking forgiveness and glorifying His name.

    There are times, most times where my life is as if God is not there and I simply exist to produce and consume. I, too, feel like I am not living as I should or would like to and I hide behind lies, excuses for living in a series of distractions. I wonder if debt has a lot to do with this split lifestyle; I may want to live a certain way, but I am “obliged” to work and live to pay off mortgages, schools et.c.

    Fear of rejection, the unknown, the road less travelled governs much of what I do and what I have become. It is only in the presence of a spiritual father, most notably in the stillness and serenity of Mount Athos that I was able to open up about this two-souled existence. And more recently your articles, which I read both during the day and at night. Thank you for being you and for sharing your personal struggle.

    I will read this article and the literature on this wonderful man. Everything I fear is slowly happening and it’s not too bad, so perhaps this will help me let go and abandon myself in the hands and providence of the Lord.

    I ask for your blessing in this scary journey of soul transformation.

  12. Bless, Father. Christ is risen!

    I pray every day to become “authentic.” You put it so much better.

    Thank you so much for this help with my prayers.

  13. It is too much for a heart to bear living a double life. To be one person at work, then another at home. Then perhaps a third with friends. Such a life tears a soul apart. I am not sure what St. Paul meant to ‘be all things for all people’ but I know in my heart this isn’t it.

    For me, it has been the struggle with sin or rather defining myself by my sin that has created a double soul in me. Leading a double life, one at Church and one in the world, I cannot bear. When my heart is in the world, I don’t want to go to Church. When my heart is in Church, I can’t bear the world. I feel torn.

    I am not sure where I am going with these comments but these thoughts came to mind as I reflected upon being double-souled.

    Thank you Fr. Stephen for your comments and for introducing a writer I have never heard of.

    Christ is risen!

  14. Thank you Father for the thoughtful post. I live a very two-souled existence. On the one hand, I want to enter the Kingdom of God. On the other hand, I want to make my stay in this world as comfortable as possible. Lord, have mercy!

  15. Thank you Father Stephen for this soul-challenging post. As some of my other brothers and sisters above have also said, I am mired in this place of the double soul. My wife is not a Christian (neither was I when we first got married). My Christian friends are not Orthodox, and conversations about Christianity that we always had have basically disappeared since I became Orthodox. Only one Protestant friend is even remotely interested in Orthodoxy, and because of his schedule, we have only seen each other once in the last year and a half. The only conversations I can have about Orthodoxy are at coffee hour with my fellow converts.

    I hang around in the nave an hour or more after everyone else has left the church, because it’s the only place I feel “real”. It’s a lonely existence. This post is timely for me. It makes me realize something has to change.

  16. In my observation their are very few who do not live double-spaced lives. It fits nicely with the two storey universe we have created. The entire world is shaped to create such a state and maintain it.

    Our consumerist political economy and binary thought are all a product if the two souled ideal.

    I know that I have felt bifurcated as long as I can remember.

    Bearing with it as we struggle for healing in Christ is, I believe, is part of the Cross we all bear.

  17. Thank you Father. I found the box set of Solzhenitsyn’s novels in a used bookstore a while back and so far have only read “A Day in the Life…”. Looking forward to when I can read “First Circle.”

    I took a big step away from the dvoye dusha when I converted to Orthodoxy by leaving a career that was, essentially, a lie. I had to lie every day in order to stay there. And now I don’t do a whole lot… I take care of our son, I write. So in some sense I no longer lie, at least nearly as much.

    But I think there is a difference between “not lying” and “telling the truth.” And it is that latter step that I am having a great deal of trouble taking. I cannot tolerate lying in my life. At the same time, I do not actively tell the truth. In conversation, I allude to Orthodox things, but I rarely state them explicitly. It is always implicit. It is how I continue to protect myself from criticism, from giving offense.

    I write, but so far it is just for myself. I have not attempted to publish anything, even on a blog. I feel something building within me, though, that demands me to preach the Gospel in some active, explicit way. This terrifies me, but I know that I must trust God in this. Please pray for me.

  18. Nicholas,
    Yes. But… what you describe, truth telling clearly must be accompanied by discernment. We could say this about any virtue, and not one virtue, no matter what, can remain a virtue without the “salt” of discernment, the virtue of all virtues (in this understanding).

  19. Dino, thanks for the response. That’s a very interesting point, if I’m hearing you correctly. “Not lying” can be done by merely withdrawing our false voice, the dvoye dusha. It is a passive thing. But to be active–to tell the truth–requires that we know which truth to tell and when. Yes, I see this. And I do doubt whether I have that in me.

  20. “The Elder Sophrony said, “God never judges twice.” If we submit it to Him now, we’ll not hear of it again.”

    Father, can you shed a little light on this quote? I don’t seem to understand.

  21. Very profound. What’s sad is not only do we lie, we end up believing the lies we made. Lord have mercy.

  22. Matvey,
    First, the “judgment” of God is not a legal transaction. It is both an identification of a problem, a wound, an eruption of sin in our lives, it is a bringing of that reality into the light of Christ. And it is there that the light of Christ corrects, heals and makes whole. The judgment of God is not for our condemnation but for our healing.

    “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. (Joh 3:17)

    If we allow God to judge us now, the matter is settled now.

    But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. (1Jo 1:7)

  23. Christ is Risen….in your readings about A.Solzhenitsyn you may want to skim if you have not already done so, the Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann 1973-1983, where he writes of his time/relationship with/thoughts of A.S.

  24. I desire, more than anything to not be “Two-souled”. Pray for me, Father, that my ‘eye be single’ and ‘my body full of light’.

  25. Nicholas S.,

    “At the same time, I do not actively tell the truth. In conversation, I allude to Orthodox things, but I rarely state them explicitly.”

    In addition to what Dino said, I’ve found it helpful to recognize that the truth is no respecter of the categories we create in our “double-souled” life. For example it’s generally not the case that one thing is good for the Christian but a different thing works for the pagan. Exercise is good for the just and the unjust. So is rest. So is a time to clear the head every day. And so on.

    As I slowly learn that sin is much less legal and much more about something in my life need repair and redirection, it becomes obvious to me that sin affects everyone the same and therefore the non-religious person next to me has basically the same needs, hopes, fears, wounds, etc.

    It’s true that the terms used to discuss these things can be different depending on who you’re with at the time – and in this way we as Christians stand in the gap, practicing being all things to all men – but the essence of the things discussed are the same.

    For example, no matter where a friend is drawing their strength and peace from, you and I know that all good things come from God who alone is the only Source. The person we’re speaking to doesn’t immediately have to know that. It can be enough for the moment that they are allowing something good into their lives. When they are ready it will be revealed to them (perhaps even through you?) where that goodness comes from, but in the meantime it’s more important that the good habit is established.

    In this way you can learn to always tell the truth, even though it must be done with discernment according to the ability of your hearer to receive it.

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