A Prayer Before Decision

Philosopher Ivan Aleksandrovich Ilyin (1883-1954) was a young man when he saw his beloved country overrun by the forces of international Revolution. Before his 1922 exile, he was actively organizing resistance to Bolshevism in the White underground. Here is his prayer for the strength of spiritual freedom, the prayer of a patriot and counter-revolutionary. Translated by Mark Hackard.  

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From the notes of a murdered friend. 8 Nov. 1917.

“For we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.” Romans VIII: 26

This night before my decision I shall never forget. It was clear to me that Russia stood before the abyss, and that the people could neither understand nor oppose its temptation. We the sober and loyal were few, and we were obligated to struggle unto the end. I had to decide, and the tragedy of life unfolded before me for the first time.

I saw, and see, tragedy that in life, there is no outcome to still the conscience, and life itself demands decisions and action. And the more valuable and sacred the cause for which you fight, the less visible the way ahead, the more irreparable the consequences of your decisions and actions – the harder it is.

In Russia villains have arisen, men of a spiritual makeup as yet unseen on earth, possessed, savage and shameless. And our people are as trusting as a little child – and as passionate as an uncultivated adult. I see the temptations, the advancing infamy, the unavoidable collapse, and my heart is torn by love and sorrow. But I cannot not see that the fight will be ruthless and bloody, and that therein craftiness and cruelty will be needed. The heart shudders from horror and revulsion.

And how easy it is to say, “Lord, free me from this decision!”

And it’s impossible. After all, this would mean saying, “Take from me the strength of my spirit, which is the living likeness of Your Spirit! Extinguish my freedom concealed in this strength! Relieve me of service, responsibility and the burden of life, the burden of Your world!…” This would be a prayer of weakness, timidity and escape. This would be a prayer for the snuffing out of human dignity, for the deprivation of divine likeness: “Take from me Your grace-filled fire of spirituality, for I cannot and do not want to bear it!”

And I began to mentally search out help from other people, consulting, requesting direction, dreaming of blind subordination to an order…I was alone, and there was no one with whom I could exchange a word, but it seemed happiness itself to lay down the necessity of decision and follow after someone powerful, good and formidable…

And I understood that this is impossible. Why shall I hide behind another – from God and from myself? The one to whom I would be subordinated I would have to choose myself. And my decision to go under another’s “command” would also be my own decision. And in whatever I would submit, every time I would myself submit, voluntarily, and I would execute freely that which was ordered. And if it later came to be that a disaster occurred, or guilt, sin, or shame, then I would see with horror that I caused the disaster, that the guilt was mine, that shame and sin were mine: for neither the strength, nor the freedom, nor the responsibility of my spirit would have abandoned me!

And then I understood that it is not granted on earth for man to hide behind another, from his decision and from responsibility.

He must stand and himself take the “grave cloth” of weakness and come forth…

“…Teach me to serve Your cause! Help me to find Your way! Show me Your will!…”

But these, after all, are the commandments in which His Will is expressed. And acting according to these commandments, will I not fulfill His will? And am I then relieved of responsibility? Here, Lord, is the commandment given by You, and I have fulfilled it with all my strength…One needs only to find the exact expression of this commandment, and not think of the consequences…The highest commandment is the commandment of love…But which love? Active love or resigned? Dread or emotive love? Sacrificial or indulgent? How is any of this literally spoken in the Law?

And suddenly I understood that I will not dare to hide behind the letter of the Law in order to lay responsibility upon the Creator. For the commandments are given not to slaves who tremble before the letter, but to the free who apprehend spirit and meaning. The free are called to see events and independently discern good and evil; to choose, decide and take responsibility upon themselves. Yes, love is the highest of the commandments. But is it possible that out of love, we would hand over the weak to the evildoer for laceration, that out of love for the seducer, we would give over these little ones to temptation? And out of love for the blaspheming atheist, should we betray to him what is sacred for desecration? And so I will subtly place into the commandment of love this depraved meaning and say, “Did you not command it?” in an attempt to strip myself of responsibility and lay it upon the Giver of the Law…

From weakness comes hypocrisy, and from hypocrisy lies. And all so that we may renounce spiritual freedom…

“Teach me spiritual freedom! Remove from my chest cowardice and faintness of heart! Help me find my path – the path that does not lead me away from Your Face! Send me the fullness of love that does not harden in my wrath upon Your enemies! Give me the strength of love capable of laying down everything, the strength to confess You at the deathly hour! And stamp out within me by the fire of Your love my human hate! May it not burn through my heart! And let me not die embittered in wrath and retribution!”

Shall I only lay down my life? No, not only my life, but the life of my life – tenderness of heart, the candor of a guileless will, the child-like purity of good cheer…Will I restore them? And how shall I recover them?

“Send me the strength of silent but ceaseless prayer! Send me the ineffable sighs of Your Spirit! Send me the gift of tearful purification!…”

My decision has come. I am ready.

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