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From my study window a soggy breeze weights a solitary leaf falling from the towering oak in my side yard and hurtles it toward the spent grass. Interminable moments pass until it is lodged within a muddy crevice, its bronzed face weeping, unattended, susceptible to even more desiccation.

Such begins autumn’s necessary stripping with its obvious parallels to human life—The outworn must give way to the new.

However, last July this truth imploded within my body as I lay on my dining room floor, my foot caught within the tubing of my vacuum cleaner. Howling pain bit chunks into my left shoulder, elbow, and hip. Unlike the solitary leaf, I needed help and fast.

It came: paramedics, surgery, rehab, physical and occupational therapy. Indeed, hundreds of helpers knocked on my door, each with their piece of the puzzle that would eventually restore me to wholeness.

Slowly, my body-mind-spirit began to knit through the prescribed exercises, that is, until mid-August when gnarly pain emerged in my hip. Multiple modifications of the stretches only worsened matters and I was back on pain medications. My suspicions mounted: the surgery had failed. I’m waiting to learn what will happen next.

 

 

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Shuddering gripped our souls as the mixed a capella choir of multiple voices burst into “Priidite, poklonimysa” – (“Come, Let Us Worship),” the first of fifteen Russian hymns of the Vespers/All Night Vigil Service, composed by Sergio Rachmaninoff in 1915. Even the floorboards of the old St. Stanislaus Koska Church in North St. Louis reverberated under our feet. We were in the presence of the Sacred.

Who was this artist who had crafted jeweled harmonies around ancient chants from the thousand-year-old Russian Orthodox liturgy, who interspersed folk songs within the fabric of these hymns, who challenged his singers toward difficult ranges—both soprano and basso profondo? What occurred in Rachmaninoff’s psyche that compelled its composition in less than two weeks? Its first performance in Moscow was a fundraiser for his beleaguered country at war with Germany in World War I.

No doubt he was also sensitive to the disturbing undercurrents that would usher in the 1917 Revolution with its decades of atrocities.

Perhaps Rachmaninoff hoped his Vespers/All Night Vigil would stay the course of evil, but it did not.

Nevertheless to quote S. L. Frank, Russian philosopher, survivor, and author of The Meaning of Life (1925), “The process of transfiguration, of illumination and deification of the world and of human souls is achieved through suffering, for suffering is…the indispensable weapon with which to overcome evil. The victory of goodness can only be achieved through suffering.”

Rachmaninoff seems to echo this truth in his Vespers/All Night Vigil. It can be experienced on YouTube.

 

January’s bluster mandates thermal underwear, bulky sweaters and scarves, fur-lined boots, and so much more. Shopping, working, even walking in the chill, fill our days, all made bearable between lengthening sun-filled days. Fortunate are our circumstances enabling us to brave the onslaught of winter.

But not so in other parts of the world where others hunger for warmth, where winter’s bite congeals spirits and hastens physical death.

An extreme example of this is found in the life of the Nobel Peace Prize winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008). In 1962 the Soviet magazine Novy Mir published his slim novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, its protagonist drawn from his experience as a bricklayer in one of the Gulag slave labor camps in Siberia. There, the extremes of nature exacerbated the extremes of men.

It is January 1951, five o’clock in the morning; twenty-seven degrees below zero, another work day for Shukov, as Ivan is called, and the five hundred prisoners in Hut 6. The ragged noise of the hammer awakening them is “… muffled by ice two fingers thick on the windows.”

Atop his bunk, aching and shivering, Shukov considers the sickbay, but thinks better of it and joins his Gang 104 for skilly (gruel) and twenty grams of bread in the mess hall; then, to the work parade in the midway for the first of many searches and counting throughout the day by armed guards; then, five abreast, hands behind their backs, they trudge to the construction site and work until dark; then, the final search, more gruel, and lights out. Never is there respite from the killing chill. “Thanks to be to Thee, O God, another day over!” Shukov says.

It was precisely this spirit that empowered Solzhenitsyn to survive the horrors of the Gulag. Through his later writings and lecturing around the world, he manifested the evils of the Soviet ideology. He still teaches us much.

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