Category Archives: history

Intersecting losses make a harbinger.

Five speeches that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn gave  in the U.S. and in Britain in 1975 and 1976 make the book, Warning to the West. Today I sat on a log at the beach and got on with reading this collection that I’d started before Christmas; a while later I sat in my car overlooking the ocean and finished it.

It’s a nice little book, if you’d like a taste of Solzhenitsyn but don’t feel up to tackling one of his novels or The Gulag Archipelago. He said he prefers to write, but his speeches are powerful, and complement his writings. Taken altogether, these talks present a lot of history “from the inside,” and the perspective of someone whose analysis is based on thorough knowledge. His unique vantage point combines with true wisdom.

In different striking and blunt words to different groups, such as U.S. legislators and BBC listeners, he gives his prophetic message. While he uses details of events that were then recent history to make his points to his audience at the time, the heart of his concerns is ever pertinent and enduring.

“There is a German proverb which runs Mut verloren — alles verloren. ‘When courage is lost, all is lost.’ There is another Latin one, according to which loss of reason is the true harbinger of destruction. But what happens to a society in which both these losses — the loss of courage and the loss of reason — intersect? This is the picture which I found the West presents today.”

-Aleksandr Sozhenitsyn, 1976

2021 – The Year of Dostoevsky

Today Nun Cornelia has kindly given us a reading recommendation in her article, “Time to Read (or Reread) Dostoevsky.” Her reason for putting forth the idea at this time is partly that today is the 140th anniversary of the death of Feodor Dostoevsky. And not only that, but 2021 marks 200 years since his birth in 1821.

Even if you haven’t read his works, you are likely to recognize his name as a writer, whose skill Sister Cornelia describes: “The details of all his characters, their mannerisms, their actions, their thoughts and words, even their names, all paint individual pictures of the human condition in relation to God and the devil—pictures that don’t fade with time, and are applicable in any culture.”

In a short essay she gives details about his childhood and temperament as described by his parents (hot-headed and cheeky), and his “morose” youth, during which he spent time in military service and then began to study literature.

“His compassion for humanity led him to socialist circles, which, as he would eventually understand, were in fact seething with anti-humanity. These attempts at social reform would also end in failure for him, and he nearly lost his life in front of a firing squad. His sentence was commuted at the last minute, and he was sent to Siberia for prison and then exile. In prison he was respected by all, but at the same time considered a dangerous revolutionary and kept in shackles and manacles for his entire sentence.”

The upbringing he was given, and the era he was given to live and suffer in, certainly contributed to his great soul; and because his writing “could not be separated in any way from his own deep convictions, his books lead us in a mysterious way to those deep convictions.”

Sister Cornelia details some of the many ways that Dostoevsky suffered, and the way his wife suffered with him for his sins and weaknesses. She ends with thanks for all his works that she hopes we will read, and read again.

“But neither can we forget that an underlying quality present in him from childhood was also key to producing the literary heritage that we have today: stubbornness. Through all his failures—and apparently, he took critical failure very hard as his epileptic fits were brought on by them—he never gave up his calling and forged ahead with novels that change people’s lives.”

At the bottom of the article are links to several others on Feodor Dostoevsky. You can find it all here.

This is the Wisdom of Man.

“I have stood near the cave of St. Jerome in Bethlehem, and seen the recently excavated graves of the Holy Innocents. There are a mass of infant burials, clearly made in haste, with evidence of violence, all dating to the first century. It is not a Biblical myth but a crime scene as gruesome as any that we could imagine. This is the Wisdom of Man.

“The Wisdom of Man measures strength and power by the ability to administer brute force. Whether a sword or nuclear weapon – power is defined by physics. Were the power that confronted us measured in the same manner, victory could be as simple as a mathematical equation. But the power of God, the Wisdom of God, that confronted King Herod and all the so-called “rulers” of this world, belonged to a realm that is wholly other.”

-Father Stephen Freeman, in this article: “The Wisdom of Man and the Foolishness of God”

Troparion:

As acceptable victims and freshly plucked flowers,
As divine first-fruits and newborn lambs,
You were offered to Christ who was born as a child, Holy Innocents.
You mocked Herod’s wickedness;
Now we beseech you:
“Unceasingly pray for our souls.”

 

Even though the world has upended itself.

Ever since the King of Glory was born into this world of death, His people have suffered under and among the kingdoms of this world. We talk a lot about how He was weak and helpless, being a baby. But any of us mothers might remember the vulnerability of women in pregnancy, in the very season when one wants to be most in control, so as to nurture and protect.

I think a lot about my children and grandchildren, who are likely to live on after I am gone, and what they might have to endure in this earthly world, where it seems that the rich and powerful, and often the evildoers, are getting stronger; in any case, the relative impotence of the majority is being revealed. I was very glad to see my friend Anna Mussman write about these concerns last spring, in “Why I’m Grateful to be Pregnant During This Pandemic.” It may be that I linked you to her article back then. She safely gave birth to her fourth child after publishing this article, in which she reminds us of reasons for confidence, even in the face of vulnerability:

We can’t say for sure what will happen to our children, our children’s children, or their children, but we can remember that our God’s promises are just as true for them as for us. 

We need not mourn past seasons of prosperity “as those who have no hope” mourn. We know that sometimes suffering is exactly what we humans need to recognize our sin, repent, and receive forgiveness. Besides, suffering does not last forever. Eternity, the answer and fulfillment of all seasons, is yet to come. 

Babies are cute and adorable and fill us with love, but they also remind us that we are vulnerable. Strangely enough that is actually the most comforting thing about them. Their very perfection forces us to realize we will not be able to save and protect them in the way we wish. We mothers cannot guarantee that our babies will be safe and happy in this world. 

That’s how babies drive us to God. Through our babies and the difficult seasons they may bring, we are reminded over and over that our hope is found in the Father who has promised never to leave us, to never forsake us or our children. God’s love is not seasonal. 

That is why even though the world has upended itself and the media is declaring this year a bad one to have a baby, the world and the media do not get the last say. God does.

In his Advent collection Waiting on the Word, Malcolm Guite offers a sonnet of his own for December 22. With its reference to the facts of Christ being despised, cast off, “never on the throne,” under imminent threat of murder even as an infant, it reminded me of Anna’s exhortation. We who are followers of Christ can expect no less than the treatment He got; kingdoms rise and fall, and there haven’t been very many truly good kings in all those millennia.

It doesn’t matter. Christ’s Kingdom is real, and the only lasting one, and it is where “we ourselves are found.” It is even right and proper, given the presence of this Kingdom, that we be cheerful, because He told us to be: “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.

O REX GENTIUM

O King of our desire whom we despise,
King of the nations never on the throne,
Unfound foundation, cast-off cornerstone,
Rejected joiner, making many one,

You have no form or beauty for our eyes,
A King who comes to give away his crown,
A King within our rags of flesh and bone.

We pierce the flesh that pierces our disguise,
For we ourselves are found in you alone.
Come to us now and find in us your throne,
O King within the child within the clay,

O hidden King who shapes us in the play
Of all creation. Shape us for the day
Your coming Kingdom comes into its own.

Therefore thus says the Lord God, See, I am laying in Zion for a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation: ‘One who trusts will not panic.’ (Isaiah 28:16)

-Malcolm Guite, in Waiting on the Word