“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either but right through the heart of every human being.”
If people wonder why Alexsandr Solzhenitzyn is revered as one of the most profound thinkers of his or any time they only need to ponder words such as those above. This quote is from a work entitled The Gulag Archipelago, three volumes of non-fiction describing life in the forced labor camps as experienced by Solzhenitzyn from 1945-1953.
One would imagine that this great writer would leave the Gulag with a sense of the black-and-white nature of life: there are good people (like the prisoners) and there are bad people (like those who put and keep people in prison). “If only it were all so simple!”
In his own thoughts, and then words, Ignatius of Loyola came to this exact conclusion. His life as a soldier enabled him to speak of this truth in military terms: the human soul is a battlefield.
While convalescing at the Loyola Castle after his near-fatal battle wound Ignatius read the only books at his disposal: a Bible and a Lives of the Saints. This was, in a way, a second “cannonball moment” for Ignatius because only after many days of ignoring these works - he thought they would be boring - did he finally begin to turn the pages. To his amazement they were tales of valor, courage, and incredible generosity of soul: they were stories just like those he longed to read, stories of brave men willing to give their own lives in a worthy cause.
In his transformation from being a soldier for the King of Spain to being a soldier for the King of Kings Ignatius pondered deeply the spirituality and psychology of the human heart. The fruits of these contemplations are clearly seen in the Spiritual Exercises, the masterpiece of Ignatian spirituality and one of our guideposts for the Ignatian Year. Throughout this work, but especially in the famous “Meditation on the Two Standards” Ignatius reveals the truth of the spiritual life that eludes those who look at others in light of a simplistic good-or-evil dichotomy.
This meditation, one of many in the Spiritual Exercises, takes for granted the belief that there is a never-ending battle in the soul of each person, a battle that is sometimes won by those on the side of the good angels, and sometimes by those on the side of the bad angels. The good angels, as well as the saints and holy people in our lives, fight under the Banner, or Standard, of Christ. The others, their opposite number, fight under the Standard of Satan.
Ignatius knew that the battlefield at Pamplona was insignificant in comparison to the battlefield of his soul and the soul of every woman and man who ever lived or would live. For this transformed soldier, winning a plot of land from the enemy was an empty victory as compared with that of winning an immortal soul for the cause of Christ.
But as in war, sometimes battles are lost, and our souls can become territory where the Standard of Satan proudly flies. Yet, it is often when those who fight under that banner see impending victory that the good angels and their troops come to the rescue. Someone gets through enemy lines and offers us a way out and we, God willing, are compelled to accept their offer.
Only if we understand that life is a war and our souls are the battlefield will we recognize those who, representing the Standard of Christ, come to lead us to safety. It may be a family member or friend, or it may be a 16th Century soldier turned saint, or it may be a 20th Century Russian writer and philosopher.
One day the final battle of this war will be upon us – probably without our prior knowledge that this is the decisive moment – and in the eerie silence that will follow we shall be called upon to give an account of our lives to determine under whose standard we should be laid to rest. Let us use this Ignatian Year to ponder more deeply which standard is worthy of our lives and what actions will win us a place in the Kingdom of Christ and not the Gulag of Satan.