“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 cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
—The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
I came across this quote recently and was struck by how it calls out our tendency to play the blame game: to point a fault-finding finger at others rather than at ourselves. But its insights go further, because it reminds us that there is both good and evil in every human heart and it challenges us to destroy—I like the definitiveness of that word choice—whatever evil is within us.
The season of Lent is an ideal time to acknowledge the good and the evil in my own heart. I want to identify what is good in me and then work to refine and enhance those virtues. I also want to pinpoint exactly what is corrupt and cruel in me and get rid of it completely.
Is this a spiritual exercise that can be wrapped up in forty days? I don’t think so! But, actually, that’s the point: by dedicating the Lenten period to a serious self-examination and a commitment to self-improvement I can use it to kickstart the building up of lifelong habits and through these habits a better character. And it’s all the more likely to succeed if I begin by taking small but specific, doable steps in the right direction.
So, I have singled out one virtue and one vice in me. Every day of Lent I will do two concrete actions: one which strengthens the virtue and one which roots out the vice.
How will I be held accountable in this effort?
I think the quote above will help, because it seems to me that part of its message is: every person is implicated in the good and evil in our world. Each time I choose virtue I increase the good in our world. Each time I choose vice I add to the evil in our world. Actually, let me be even more explicit: every step I take towards virtue or towards vice affects your life in some way.
So, in the moments when I feel too discouraged, exhausted, or grudging to follow through on my Lenten promise, I will think of you, my reader!
I will remember:
The line dividing good and evil cuts through my heart—Paula’s heart.
And I will ask myself two questions:
Am I willing to take the time and energy to nourish goodness in my heart by practicing virtues like diligence, prudence, and generosity in order to bring you benefit?
Am I willing to destroy a piece of my own heart, the part which gives rise to poisons like resentment, self-aggrandizement, and gossip, for your sake?
The answer to these two questions will always be ‘Yes’. Why? Because I love you, my friend.
In peace and with prayers for a fruitful Lent,