From the Editor—Friday Reflections

Burning Leaves or Not?

Centenaries of Kindred Souls & Eternal Destinies

November 2, 2018

Growing up in Michigan, I associate Hallowe'en-All Saints-All Souls with falling leaves, which we used to burn (legally). I remember a scene from "Lessons from the Nursery" by James L. Sauer. He writes about Bambi by Felix Salten, translated from German in 1928:

As I read Bambi, a number of emotion-charged visions made me pause. I literally stopped reading and set the book down more than once, overcome with a kind of aesthetic shock that takes the wind out of you. The first experience occurred in the chapter on leaves. Hardly what one would consider the most promising topic for high art. Nevertheless, the chapter on leaves forms a picturesque parable of the problem of our existence. Two leaves discuss mutability and the afterlife:

"They were silent a while. Then the first leaf said quietly to herself, 'Why must we fall? . . .' The second leaf asked, 'What happens to us when we have fallen?' 'We sink down.' 'What is under us?' The first leaf answered, 'I don't know, some say one thing, some another, but nobody knows.' The second leaf asked, 'Do we feel anything, do we know anything about ourselves when we're down there?' The first leaf answered, 'Who knows? Not one of all those down there has ever come back to tell us about it.'"

Not one? Well, Salten is defining the human predicament, not presenting the gospel. And as a definition of the human situation, it is marvelous. The parable goes on and achieves that brave agnosticism that is found in parts of the Old Testament Wisdom literature. There is a sad, solitary pain as the leaves fall one by one. And so we will wither; all flesh is grass. Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher. (Creed & Culture: A Touchstone Reader)

But, of course, we are destined for glory, not vanity. I read last night:

Just as a sown field cannot sprout and nourish its plants without sufficient rainfall, so my heart is incapable of producing things pleasing to Thee and of bearing the fruits of truth without Thy grace.

. . . Grant me Thy holy seed, that I might bring Thee a harvest of sheaves abundant in good fruits and say, "Glory to Him Who gave me this that I might bring it unto Him.".... (Ephraim the Syrian)

The heart is like a field, able to produce a good crop, as well as weeds, which reminds me of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Rod Dreher posted comments from the son, Ignat Solzhenitsyn, who was interviewed last night by Daniel Mahoney at Notre Dame. Dreher:

Mahoney quotes the famous passage in which [A. Solzhenitsyn] says the line between good and evil passes through the heart of every human being, and who wants to cut out part of his own heart? The author's point is that anybody is capable of being the creators of the gulag, and the imprisoners. ...

[Ignat S]: "What Solzhenitsyn is interested in primarily is who we are, and how it can be that we perpetrate such acts upon each other. And yes, not that the bad people do it and the good people suffer, but that each one of us has that capability. His experience taught him that it did not take very much to push a person into that darker side.... Communism is a specific evil that's a subspecies of something larger, and that's what interested him."

Russell Kirk wrote: "Solzhenitsyn's great concern is the moral state, rather than the political state."

Solzhenitsyn was born 100 years ago this coming December 11. Russell Kirk was born 100 years ago this past October 19. Solzhenitsyn lived for a time in exile in rural Vermont; Kirk lived and wrote from rural Michigan. Kirk thought he and Solzhenitsyn were kindred spirits, according to Eric Ericson:

Kirk also cites a passage from Solzhenitsyn's most overtly religious statement, the address given on the 1983 occasion of his receiving the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion....:

"Our life consists not in the pursuit of material success but in the quest of worthy spiritual growth. Our entire earthly existence is but a transition stage in the movement toward something higher, and we must not stumble or fall, nor must we linger fruitlessly on one rung of the ladder.... 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 of us, unfailingly granting us the energy of existence; when this assistance leaves us, we die. In the life of our entire planet, the Divine Spirit moves with no less force: this we must grasp in our dark and terrible hour."

Kirk describes this passage as "express-[ing] with high feeling the essence of the conservative impulse." ... Kirk is recognizing the congruity between Solzhenitsyn and him at the deepest levels of their thinking. For both of them, meaning in human life lies ultimately in the transcendent realm, and only by reference to this transcendent source of meaning can the nature of human beings and human society be properly understood.

Kirk again: "Solzhenitsyn's moral vision is what Eliot called the 'high dream'--the vision of Dante, the Christian extrasensory perception of true reality. Even more than Dante, Solzhenitsyn passed through the Inferno, and was purged of dross." Dreher: "Ignat reminds his audience that his father wrote 'bless you, gulag, for having been in my life' for what his suffering did for him to convert him." One hundred or five hundred years: the light of true words will shine.

We're not just falling leaves for compost or the burn pile. We're meant for higher things, for conversion not combustion. The good seed is planted in the heart, watered or starved, enlightened or stunted in the darkness. The Lord of the Harvest will still come.

I don't know whether Kirk and Solzhenitsyn ever met. Of course, I think they now have, or will. Happy All Souls Day (some of you)!

Yours for Christ, Creed & Culture,

James M. Kushiner
Executive Director, The Fellowship of St. James

—James M. Kushiner is Executive Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, and Executive Director of The Fellowship of St. James.