Befriending a Cockroach
An Orthodox priest in solitary confinement saves his language ability by talking to the least of God's creatures
Adapted from 'At the Corner of East and Now: A Modern Life in Ancient Christian Orthodoxy.'
It took me a long time to find a spiritual father; I asked everyone I knew for suggestions. Then someone said, "Have you met Father George Calciu? He lives near you."
I was astonished. I had read the book "Christ is Calling You!" and been awed by Fr. George's strength of character, his witness, and courage under persecution. Photos in the book show a white-haired man with a broad smile and eyes crinkled with joy, yet Fr. George endured merciless physical and mental torture in Romanian prisons for sixteen years. From 1948 to 1952 he was held in the dread Pitesti prison, which practiced the experimental Russian method of "re-education." Prisoners were all young men between the ages of 18 and 25--the target group that was to be made over into the "new man."
In the book, Fr. George explains to an interviewer that the Pitesti experiment had four distinct steps. First, a team of guards and experienced prisoners would beat incoming prisoners and kill one or two, whoever appeared to be a leader. 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."
Years later Fr. George attempted to write out his memories of Pitesti, but found the endeavor futile. "Sometimes I was hammering at one word, timidly, then persistently, then intensely, to madness. The word became nothing other than a sequence of letters or sounds. It had no meaning. It didn't tell me anything. I would say: 'beating' or 'pain' or 'prayer' or 'curse'...and I would substitute one for another without any change; none told me anything! I would say 'cell' and the word would not speak. I could say instead 'lelc' or 'clel' or 'ellc' with the same result. Everything was mute and absurd. And suddenly a curse from that time would resound in my mind, or a song somebody sang during the unmaskings, and the whole atmosphere would install itself with a painfully striking character and with a reality more real than it was then. Affective memory! Proust was a genius in his intuitions, a part of the literature he wrote."
In 1978, Fr. George Calciu defied the communist government again and was once again imprisoned. He had preached a bold series of sermons to students, though fellow priests, church hierarchs, and the seminary administration all warned him to stop. They locked the church; he preached in the courtyard. They locked the gates; students climbed over the walls. Fr. George went to prison knowing that Ceaucescu wanted to kill him, but his cellmates assigned to that task refused. Eventually he was freed, thanks to protests by Romanians in exile like Eugene Ionescu and Mircea Eliade, and pressure from the U.S. government.