Two ‘prose poems’ by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008), from Stories and Prose Poems, translated by Michael Glenny, 1970, pages 214-216.
A JOURNEY ALONG THE OKA
Traveling along the country roads in central Russia, you begin to understand why the Russian countryside has such a soothing effect.
It is because of its churches. They rise over ridge and hillside, descending towards wide rivers like red and white princesses, towering above the thatch and wooden huts of everyday life with their slender, ornate steeples. From far away they greet each other; from distant, unseen villages they rise towards the same sky.
Wherever you may wander, over field or pasture, many miles from any homestead, you are never alone: above the wall of tress, above the hayricks, even above the very curve of the earth itself, the doom of a belfry is always beckoning to you, from Borki Lovestkie, Lyubichi, or Gavrilovskoe.
But as soon as you enter a village you realize that the churches which welcomed you from afar are no longer living. Their crosses have long since been bent or broken off; the dome with its peeling paint reveals its rusty ribcage; weeds grow on the roofs and in the cracks of the walls; the cemetery is hardly ever cared for, its crosses knocked over and its graves ransacked; the paintings behind the altar have faded from a decade of rain and are scrawled with obscene graffiti.
In the narthex there are barrels of salt, and a tractor is swinging round towards them; or a lorry is backing up to the vestry door to collect some sacks. In one church, machine tools are humming away; another stands silent, simply locked up. Others have been turned into clubs where propaganda meetings are held (“We will Achieve High Yields of Milk”) or films shown: Poem about the Sea, The Great Adventure.
People have always been selfish and often evil. But the church bell used to toll, and its echo would float over village, field, and wood. It reminded man that he must abandon his trivial earthly cares and give up one hour of his thoughts to life eternal. The tolling of the even-tide bell raised man above the level of a beast.
Our ancestors put their best into these stones and these steeples– all their knowledge and all their faith.
“Come on, Vitka, buck up and stop feeling sorry for yourself! The film starts at six and the dance is at eight…”
AT THE START OF THE DAY
At sunrise thirty young people ran out into the clearing; they fanned out, their faces turned toward the sun, and began to bend down, to drop to their knees, to bow, to lie flat on their faces, to stretch out their arms, to lift up their hands, and then to drop back on their knees again. All this lasted for a quarter of an hour.
From a distance you might have thought they were praying.
In this age, no one is surprised if people cherish their bodies patiently and attentively every day of their lives.
But they would be jeered at if they paid the same regard to their souls.
No, these people are not praying. They are doing their morning exercises.
Deuteronomy 8:10-11 — When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God.
Jeremiah 13:24-25 — “I will scatter you like chaff driven by the desert wind. This is your lot, the portion I have decreed for you,” declares the Lord, “because you have forgotten me and trusted in false gods.”
Jeremiah 3:21 — A cry is heard on the barren heights, the weeping and pleading of the people of Israel, because they have perverted their ways and have forgotten the Lord their God.
I Timothy 4:7b-8 — Train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.
Praise the Lord, my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
Praise the Lord, my soul,
and forget not all his benefits.