It is a very gray, rainy day here in Maryland, the kind of day that makes it easy to mope around (especially if one has a shocking cold) and feel rather sorry for oneself.
But if you need a ray of sunshine, look at the smile on the face of the elderly Romanian priest in this photograph. He is pictured with several members of the extended Mathewes-Green clan and the photo is taken inside Holy Cross Orthodox Church here in Linthicum.
The priest is Father George Calciu, who died yesterday in Fairfax, Va., after years of joyful ministry in the Washington, D.C., area. But before that, he was an immigrant from Romania for suffered for many years in communist prisons because he would not be silent about human rights and his faith, especially in his ministry to young people. To read one of his testimonies about those years, click here.
I was only able to hear Father George speak once. Afterward, I sat looking at my pages and pages of notes, thinking to myself, “There has to be a column in here somewhere. I’m a journalist. I can do this.” Later, I listened to my tape of his talk several times, thinking the same thing.
But I couldn’t do it. There was no way I could conceive of a 700-word newspaper column that would do any justice to this man’s life and the force field of joy that surrounded him, even after all the suffering he had endured.
I couldn’t find the “news hook” in the life of this near-martyr. There was only his remarkable faith and that was timeless — the opposite of what we think of as “news.” The world of contemporary faith is not full of men who can say “Repent!” with such a wonderful smile.
One of Father George’s spiritual children — in his ministry as a father confessor — is Frederica Mathewes-Green of Beliefnet, National Review, National Public Radio and many other media outlets. As it turns out, Frederica was able to write a column for Beliefnet — “Befriending a Cockroach” — that captures one remarkable piece of Father George’s life. Here is a key passage from the piece, which focuses on his spiritual struggles against the communist brainwashing and torture technique called “re-education.” In the first step, prisoners were simply beaten.
Next, they would begin to “unmask,” which meant requiring prisoners, under torture, to verbally renounce everything they believed: “I lied when I said ‘I believe in God,’ I lied when I said ‘I love my mother and my father.’” Third, prisoners were forced to denounce everyone they knew, including family. Because a diabolical element of this plan was to employ fellow prisoners as torturers, the targeted prisoners knew no rest. The abuse never ceased, not even in the cell, and every torture imaginable was employed.
Last, in order to show they had truly become “the communist man,” these prisoners were required to join the ranks of torturers and assist in the “re-education” of new prisoners. This last step was the most unbearable. “It was during this fourth part that the majority of us tried to kill ourselves,” says Fr. George.
The experience created a spiritual crisis in Fr. George, who until his imprisonment had led an ordinary, reasonably devout life. “When you were tortured, after one or two hours of suffering, the pain would not be so strong. But after denying God and knowing yourself to be a blasphemer — that was the pain that lasted. … we forgive the torturers. But it is very difficult to forgive ourselves.” Though often angry at God, sometimes at night a wash of tears would come, and the prisoner could pray again. “You knew very well that the next day you would again say something against God. But a few moments in the night, when you started to cry and to pray to God to forgive you and help you, was very good.”
I think I will try to dig out that tape of Father George and listen to it again, in his memory. There are subjects that are just too big to fit into our little media boxes, and his life is one of them.
May his memory be eternal. And may God comfort Father George’s many spiritual children. They can find comfort in the memory of his smile and in the certainty that he will still pray for them, as they pray for him.