Thursday, May 20, 2010

Book #7: Great Souls: Six Who Changed a Century

"A Great Soul…as we define it in this book, is “someone of preeminent attainment characterized by one or more character qualities of greatness.”
- David Aikman, Great Souls

One reason I was interested in reading this book was the variety of names on the cover:  Billy Graham, Nelson Mandela, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Mother Theresa, Pope John Paul II, and Elie Wiesel. I had heard of all of them, of course, as they were all very famous people in their own ways. Mother Theresa never sought fame for herself, it came to her. Solzhenitsyn, on the other hand, declared the truth about Soviet Russia from the housetops, as it were. They all had faith in common, but very different kinds of faith. They were from all over the world and were well-known for widely diverse reasons. I checked the CD out at the library, wondering if I would enjoy this intriguing book.

It turned out to be a collection of mini-biographies written by well-known journalist, David Aikman. He spoke personally to several of the people he showcases in this book, so every biography has a personal touch. Aikman has selected a “character quality of greatness” for each great soul, a quality which has permeated their life for many years and characterized the impact they have had on the world: Graham - salvation, Mandela - forgiveness, Solzhenitsyn - truth, Mother Theresa - compassion, John Paul ll - human dignity, Wiesel - remembrance.

I had never heard about Billy Graham’s beginnings, but it amazed me how a kid from a North Carolina dairy farm became “America’s pastor”. Circumstances like a case of mumps and the support of a greatly-disliked newspaper mogul helped take Graham in an unlikely direction. It seems as if the hand of God reached down to that little insignificant boy and turned him into something huge and extraordinary. He wasn’t perfect, by any means, but he has certainly changed this world for the better. 

Likewise I knew little about Nelson Mandela, besides what I gleaned from the movie Invictus. He was born in South Africa, in the days of Apartheid. I was surprised to learn about his headstrong, violent, almost communist leanings in his younger years, as he fought against the extreme injustice of the white minority rule. Then he was imprisoned for 27 years. The hot-headed man matured during this time, much of it spent on the isolated Robben Island. He came out a different man, still passionate for freedom, but with a spirit of forgiveness for his persecutors. He went on to become the president of South Africa until 1999 when he retired at the age of 75. 

A while back I meant to read one of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s books, but I admit that the size frightened me. Little did I know what a fascinating man the author was. He was born in Soviet Russia, and was an ardent communist. He loved Lenin’s beliefs and was a firm supporter of socialism. But he didn’t care for Stalin, and that’s what got him into trouble. Solzhenitsyn wrote some derogatory comments about Stalin in letters, which were intercepted; this resulted in eight years in a labor camp. While imprisoned he wrote the book One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which is considered one of the most powerful indictments of the Soviet gulag that has ever been written. After his release he became a full-fledged anti-communist and kept writing. And he continued to be persecuted. He spread the truth about the inner cruelties of the U.S.S.R., and eventually helped free the Russian people from communist tyranny.

Mother Theresa was born Agnesë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, in what is now Macedonia. By the age of 12 she was convinced that God wanted her to be a missionary, so at 18 she left for training in Ireland. After learning English she took her vows and began teaching at a convent school in Calcutta, India. Years later she experienced her “call within the call” and felt that she must go outside the convent to serve in the Calcutta slums. She started her own order, the Missionaries of Charity, and the rest, as they say, is history. She cared for men, women, and children who had been left out on the streets to die, and reached out to outcast lepers. She won several prestigious awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize, and went on to worldwide fame. But her personal creed of compassion remained the same. I was very impressed with the life story of this amazing woman, and has made me want to read about her more fully.

Karol Józef Wojtyła, also known as Pope John Paul II, was born in Poland. He suffered the deaths of mother, father, and brother before he was twenty years old, and went on to attend a university and become very interested in theater. There hadn’t been a non-Italian pope since the 1520s, and this young man who worked in a limestone quarry under Nazi occupation seemed one of the last people on earth to become the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic church. Through remarkable circumstances, Karol went from manual laborer to priest, to bishop, to cardinal, and finally, to pope. Throughout his life he maintained a respect and will to work for human dignity. 

Eliezer Wiesel was born in 1928 Romania, the son of a grocer. He was a Jew, and it was this heritage that helped make him the world-wide figure that he is today. After the Nazi army ceded Elie’s hometown to Hungary in 1940, the Hungarian authorities allowed the Germans to deport Jews in the area to the concentration camp of Auschwitz Birkenau. Elie and his father made it through to a work camp, but Elie never saw his mother and little sister again. Over eight months of excruciating living conditions passed before Elie was released. His father died in the camp. But did Wiesel repress what happened to him and forget about what others suffered and are still suffering? No. He made it his task to remember, and to make others remember, to fulfill his “duty to the dead.”

All in all it was a fascinating book which I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend. It has inspired me to learn more about these remarkable people, and to emulate their greatness in every way I can.  

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