Great souls, great truths

Soon after the 1961 breakthrough of "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," with its hellish first glimpse inside a Soviet labor camp, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn published a radically different kind of story.

"Matryona's Place" described a peasant woman who quietly, but persistently, refused to be corrupted by the numbing policies of the Stalinist regime. Some people were evil. This elderly woman chose to be good. It was a matter of virtue, character and soul.

The story ended by saying: "We all lived beside her, and never understood that she was that righteous one without whom, according to the proverb, no village can stand. Nor any city. Nor our whole land."

Some people touch villages, while others mysteriously touch the world, notes journalist David Aikman, in his book entitled "Great Souls: Six Who Changed The Century." It offers portraits of six moral leaders whom the veteran foreign correspondent has either interviewed or studied during his nearly three decades with Time and other news publications. In addition to Solzhenitsyn, Aikman searches for common themes in the stories of Mother Teresa, Elie Wiesel, Nelson Mandela, Billy Graham and Pope John Paul II. The first four have been awarded Nobel Prizes, an honor many believe the last two shepherds deserve as well.

"We can definitely see an element of the transcendent in each of these lives," said Aikman, during lectures this week at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Ga. "These are people who believe that there are solid, absolute truths that are worth living for and they were willing to die for those truths as well, if they had to."

Aikman focuses on one transcendent virtue or theme in each life. For millions, Mother Teresa became the embodiment of compassion. The pivotal moment in Mandela's life is when the once-arrogant revolutionary emerges after 27 years of imprisonment and, instead of spewing venom, consistently preaches messages rooted in forgiveness. Despite all odds, Graham has remained focused on salvation.

As Solzhenitsyn received the Nobel Prize, he said: "One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world." Pope John Paul II has, in word and deed, consistently returned to the defense of human dignity. Wiesel has, after surviving the Holocaust, dedicated his life to the virtue that Aikman calls "remembrance," demanding that the living never forget the reality of the suffering and death caused by human evil.

While these portraits cannot replace full biographies, Aikman manages to highlight unforgettable details and images -- always pointing toward issues of faith, obedience, discipline, courage and hope. Each person wrestled with doubts and came to accept a unique, even holy, calling that could not be denied.

As a boy, Wiesel meets with a great rabbi to receive a blessing and then sees his mother emerge weeping from her private talk with the rabbi. The elderly man had prophesied that the boy would grow up to become "gadol b'Israel" -- a great man in Israel, a great leader of the Jews -- but that neither the rabbi or Wiesel's mother would live to see it.

There is the image of the Solzhenitsyn as a child, drawing comfort from an icon of Jesus hanging near his bed. Later, young Marxists rip his baptismal cross from around his neck. There is Karol Wojtyla, long before his papacy, falling spread-eagled on the floor to pray for deliverance as Nazi police miss his Warsaw apartment door. There is Mother Teresa, refusing to leave a Calcutta hospital until the staff surrenders and admits a dying woman whose body had been attacked by rats and ants. There is Mandela, praying and studying the Bible with a prison guard's son, then comforting the guard after the son's death. There is Graham, refusing billionaire H.L. Hunt's offer of $6 million if the evangelist would run for president.

"Greatness of soul is not the same thing as being a celebrity," said Aikman. "It's a matter of character. Each of these great people had the kind of character that, at some point, it began to affect and to infect those who were around them. Now, it's almost impossible to imagine what our world would have been like without them."