Advance Always, Solzhenitsyn on “The Ascent”

“Bless you, prison”

“Bless you prison, for having been in my life.”

This is surely one of the most remarkable lines, from perhaps the finest chapter, in one of the greatest books of the twentieth century, by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn (“The Ascent” from Part IV “The Soul and Barbed Wire,” Gulag Archipelago


Solzhenitsyn leads us to the truth of the Gospel, as he himself discovered it, through the utter desolation of the experience of the soviet prison camps and the searching honesty of concrete, embodied human existence: blessed are the meek, blessed are the poor, blessed are the merciful  – all summed up in a moment of remarkable insight  and self-knowledge, when he utters that line “Bless you prison.” On the rotting straw of the prison bed it became gradually disclosed to him that “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, not between classes, not between political parties either — but right through all human hearts. The line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains . . .  an unuprooted small corner of evil.”

The purpose of the life of a man on earth is to develop a moral life, to decrease the evil in ones heart and to magnify the good; and it is a constant struggle — leading to an ascent or decline (corruption). Solzhenitsyn saw this truth first as a rebuke to the Soviet materialism, with its emphasis upon concrete results and production (“the result is what counts” and “what more do we want” other than material gain), but he also saw the same error of materialism in the west when he proclaimed at Harvard in 1978 (to hisses and boos) that our purpose on this earth “cannot be the unrestrained enjoyment of everyday
life.  It cannot be the search for the
best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully get the most out of
them.  It has to be the fulfillment of a
permanent, earnest duty, so that one’s life journey may become an experience of
moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than one started
it.”  In the chapter we are reading he says “the only solution [to the problem of injustice] would be that the meaning of earthly existence lies not, as we have grown use to thinking, in prospering, but . . . . in the development of one’s soul.”

As for the law of ascent or decline, de Sales’ “Advance Always in the love of God and man,” Solzhenitsyn says this about life in the GULAG and the sheer determination to survive: “This is the great fork of camp life. From
this point the roads go to the right and to the left. One of them will rise and
the other will descend. If you go to
the right — you lose your life, and if you go to the left — you lose your
conscience.”

Solzhenitsyn said: it is not impossible for your soul to rise in camp. To the contrary, camp became his blessing to learn the way of God. “Along our chosen road are twists and turns and twists and turns. Uphill? or up into the heavens? Let’s go, lets stumble and stagger” For the “day of liberation.” But it is impossible to “liberate anyone who has not first become liberated in his own soul. The stones roll down from under our feet. Downward, into the past! They are ashes of the past! And we ascend!” Solzhenitsyn repeats that refrain “We ascend” as he learns it is not what you do, but how you do it, that spirit counts more than result. Prison transformed him, he says, in a direction so unexpected. Camp, as life easily rouses up “feelings of malice, the disturbance of being oppressed, aimless hate, irritability,” and now with the unmasking of the lie of results, he learns patience and is thus ascending. “Formerly you never forgave anyone. You judged people without mercy , you praised people ‘with equal lack of moderation. And now an understanding mildness become the basis for your uncategorical judements. You have come to realize your own weakness  — and you can therefore understand the weakness of others. And be astonished at another’s strength. The stones rustle beneath our feet. We are ascending . . . “

He is this led to his brief prayer “Bless you, prison” concluding the chapter on “The Ascent.” This is followed by a chapter entitled “Or Corruption?” He acknowledges the tremendous corruption of soul brought upon so many in the camps. In sub-human conditions, in the effort to survive and not be consumed or flattened by others. But Solzhenitsyn testifies that many did know countless men who did ascend even in the most terrible conditions of the camps: “A sort of silent religious procession with invisible candles.” His GULAG is a testimony to them and for them. His counter argument — “no camp can corrupt those who have a stable nucleus, who do not hold that pitiful ideology which holds that ‘humans are created for happiness,’ an ideology which is done in by the  first blow of the work assigners’s cudgel. This people became corrupted in camp who before camp had not been enriched by any morality at all or by any spiritual upbringing.”

The grace of God is behind Solzhenitsyn’s account of the ascent. He opens Part IV with this quote from St Paul: “Behold I show you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.” (I Cor 15:51)

And he said in his Templeton Address (1983)

The material laws alone do not explain our life or give it
direction.  The laws of physics and
physiology will never reveal the indisputable manner in which the Creator
constantly day in and day out, participates in the life of each one of us,
unfailing granting us the energy of existence. …  To the ill-considered hopes of the last two
centuries, which have brought us to the brink of nuclear and non-nuclear death,
we can propose only a determined quest for the warm hand of God, which we have
so rashly and self-confidently spurned.

Solzhenitsyn is a fellow teacher with Augustine and St Francis de Sales as draws  forth the riches of the gospel and the reality of grace — I hear Romans 5:5 as the reason for hope — the love of God has been poured into hearts and the Spirit hovers over the deep. We are plunging downwards or flying upwards, but not at all stationary or inert.

.

Join us!

* indicates required