Introduction to Father George Calciu: Interviews, Homilies, and Talks (Platina, CA: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2010)
It is hard to write, or even think, of Fr. George without being flooded with memories. His presence was so tender and strong, and so indomitably jovial, that he will not, for any of us who knew him, recede into the past. He lives.
And yet the years keep accumulating since the last time I saw his face. In my parish, Holy Cross Antiochian Orthodox Church, just outside Baltimore, Maryland, there are several other people who were his spiritual sons and daughters. We were at the hospital on the night he died; we gazed on his peaceful face and prayed beside his coffin on the night before he was buried; we were privileged to be part of the crowd that came to his funeral, an immense crowd which overflowed the church and the parking lot and trailed down the highway for a block.
On the third anniversary of his death some of us, his children, gave a presentation after the Sunday morning Liturgy on his life and magnificent witness—to Christ, to life, to the power of God’s love. Rather than compose a literary introduction for this book, I’d like to simply repeat what I said that day. This is how we remember him, in one of the many communities that knew and loved him.
This weekend we are remembering the repose of Fr. George Calciu, who died on November 21, 2006, just two days before his eighty-first birthday. He died of pancreatic cancer, a fast-moving and painful cancer, and had barely survived long enough to complete one last trip to his homeland, Romania.
The news reached us on a Sunday evening that he had taken a turn for the worse. Fr. Gregory and I were hosting a gathering for Orthodox young people at our home that night, but I left our guests and went to the hospital. Other members of Holy Cross were already there, and numerous parishioners and spiritual children from all over. We filled the waiting room and, whenever possible, took a turn slipping into his crowded hospital room for a final prayer at his side and a moment to kiss his hand.
I came to know Fr. George because I had been searching for a spiritual father for some time, and asking everyone I knew for recommendations. When I asked Bishop Basil (Essey) if he had any recommendations, he said, “Fr. George Calciu is not far from you, in Alexandria, Virginia. Why not ask him?” I was astounded to hear this; I had read Fr. George’s book, Christ is Calling You, but I didn’t have any idea that he was even on this continent. So I drove over to meet him at his church, Holy Cross Romanian Orthodox Church, at Bailey’s Crossroads in Alexandria. I had noted this church many times before, because it is a small white clapboard church, an old church, and it looks incongruous in the midst of the shopping malls and office towers that make up the area. It was in March, 1999, that I met him for the first time, and he agreed to be my spiritual father.
Since his parish was named “Holy Cross” too, it gave us another thing in common. He was our preacher here on our patronal feast one year, and in December 2000 he gave our Advent retreat. Something else that stands out in my memory is that I had an appointment for confession on September 12, 2001. I drove past the Pentagon to get to his church, and saw it still in ruins, hasty tarps dragged into place and flapping. When I got there he asked me, “Why do you think that happened yesterday?” I hadn’t thought about “why.” He replied that he had opened his Bible at random the night before and read, “Unless the Lord guard the city, the watchmen watch in vain” (Ps. 127:1). The Lord had to have deliberately allowed this to happen, he told me: think how many “watchmen” the perpetrators had gotten past. It was an observation that gave me much to think about.
If you don’t know much about Fr. George, the one thing you know is that he is a survivor of terrible torture in Communist prisons, in Romania. He was imprisoned twice, from 1948 to 1964, and from 1979 to 1984, for a total of twenty-one years.
And yet his most distinctive feature was his smile; he had a beaming smile. He was often amused by life, and ready to laugh. As I read about Elder Paisios, it seems like he too had this quality of amusement and delight. It seems like there are two broad categories of ascetics, the sober ones and the laughing ones. Fr. George was one of the joyful ones. And though Fr. George was married and lived in the world, he was an ascetic. He fasted voluntarily on Mondays, to make an offering to God from his free will, something not required by the church. And I was told that he did not eat before 3:00 pm—though I think someone else told me, not before sunset. He was a champion of long church services and felt, for example, that you really couldn’t pray an akathist with your whole heart without preparing by praying an entire Vespers service first.
Yet he was hardly dour. He was naturally affectionate, and would hold my hand, or anyone’s; the first time he met my husband, he stood there in the aisle of his church holding his hand for some time, and just beaming, a radiant smile. I’m a smiler too, and when the two of us held hands in his church, just smiling away, I would think “Now the angels are rejoicing. Now the demons gnash their teeth.” Joy, like love, is a powerful force to spread God’s presence in the world.
Fr. George was the youngest of eleven children and, as the baby of the family, was his mother’s favorite. When I saw his smile I would think, “That’s the reflection of his mother’s smile—that’s the same smile he saw looking down into his cradle.” His mother’s love for him shone out through him all his life.
You would not guess, when you saw that smile, that he had suffered terrible things. In 1948, when he was twenty-three years old and attending medical school, he was imprisoned by the Communists and subjected to brainwashing, that is, “reeducation.” Only young men were chosen for this process, because the goal was to make a sharp break with the past and begin fresh, with a new generation of leaders. In the entire Communist world, the pre-eminent place for this form of mental and emotional torture was the prison in the town of Pitesti, near Bucharest.
At Pitesti, the goal was to break down a prisoner’s mind and sense of self, and rebuild him into the ideal Communist man. When a new group of prisoners came in, they were beaten by guards, and by prisoners who had been there longer. A few of them would be killed—whoever appeared to be a leader. They would be tortured and humiliated in many ways, and in particular forced to watch or participate in blasphemy. Fr. Roman Braga, a fellow-prisoner who is now at Holy Dormition Monastery in Michigan, told me that, with no calendar, they could not know what season of the year it was, but could take their cues from the guards’ songs; if they were singing a blasphemous version of a Nativity hymn, they would know Nativity was nigh. Fr. Roman also told me that one of the things guards said to torture them was that the Lord Jesus had had an affair with St. Mary Magdalene. He commented me that, in Communist prison, this constituted torture; in America, people will pay money to read it in a book, like The DaVinci Code, or watch it in a movie.
The psychological dimension of the process was called “unmasking,” in which prisoners were required under torture to renounce everything they believed. Fr. George recalled being compelled to say, for example, “I lied when I said ‘I believe in God.’ I lied when I said, ‘I love my mother and my father.’” With time, the exhausted prisoners would come to doubt their memories, and no longer know what was true about their own past. The intention was to undermine the prisoner’s memory and personality, to infiltrate his consciousness with lies until he came to believe them.
This experiment lasted only a few years, because, when word began to leak out to the outside world, and the Communists abruptly reversed course, and began to condemn “re-education.” They began to claim that they knew nothing about it, and started identifying and executing scapegoats.
And what happened to the prisoners? It seems that, once the torture stopped, many people began spontaneously to heal. With time they would recover their memories and sense of self and, hard as it is to believe, gradually return to normal. This healing could begin even though they were still in prison, simply because the brainwashing methods had stopped. Not all recovered, though. Some went insane, or died, sometimes by suicide.
When people hear of this torture they think, “I could never be that brave. I would just give in and say whatever they wanted.” But what Fr. George said was that this was true of many prisoners, including himself.
In an interview conducted by Nun Nina, Fr. George speaks at length about his experiences. In talking about Pitesti he said, “It was a spiritual fight, between good spirits and evil spirits. And we failed on the field of battle; we failed, many of us, because it was beyond our ability to resist.… The limit of the human soul’s resistance was tried there by the devil.”
He also told Mother Nina, “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.”
But afterward, when at last alone, Fr. George would feel tears of repentance, and that would bring healing. Being able to turn to God at night and repent after the torture and failures of the day was very consoling. Fr. George said, “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.”
There was yet one more stage of “brainwashing,” the worst of all. The mentally and physically broken prisoner would ultimately be forced to torture someone else. This was what completed the destruction of their personalities. Fr. George said, “Under terror and torture one can say, ‘yes, yes, yes.’ But now, to have to act? It was very difficult. It was during this part that the majority of us tried to kill ourselves.” Fr. George says he tried to throw himself off a three-storey staircase, and was saved only when another prisoner grabbed him and pulled him back.
The Romanian poet Razvan Codrescu wrote about Fr. George:
All the life of this man after the tragic Pitesti episode was one of confession and sacrifice. In his soul and in his flesh he measured the distance between hell and heaven. Perhaps no survivors of Pitesti achieved a moral victory as brilliant and as enduring as his. Because the case of George Calciu exists, it can be said that the Pitesti experiment was a failure.
In 1964 there was a general amnesty, and Fr. George was released. He had lost sixteen years of his life, and, at this point, getting a medical degree would have taken too many more years. So Fr. George studied for a doctorate in French, and also attended seminary, being ordained a priest in 1973. During this period of freedom he also married his preoteasa,3 Adriana, and they had a son, Andrei. Fr. George taught French and theology at the Orthodox seminary in Bucharest, and there were a few years of rest. But in the seventies the Communist government began attacking the church (for example, demolishing buildings), and Fr. George felt he had to speak out. Many of the church and seminary leaders, however, felt that protests only made things worse, and urged Fr. George to be silent.
In 1978, Fr. George felt called by God to deliver a series of seven sermons, one for each week of Lent, addressed to young people and calling them to transformation in Christ.4 For the first four weeks Fr. George gave the sermon in the seminary church, but there was hostility from government observers, and church leaders felt threatened. In the fifth week they locked the church, trying to deprive Fr. George and the students of a place to meet, but he simply gave his sermon in the courtyard. In the sixth week, they locked the seminary gates, but the students climbed over the walls to hear Fr. George’s sermon.
After the seventh and last sermon in the series, the Paschal holidays began, and during that time Fr. George began to receive death threats against himself, his wife, and their son (who was then twelve years old). His reaction, characteristically, was to plan a new series of sermons to make public what was happening. But he didn’t get the opportunity, because the seminary expelled him from its faculty. Fr. George told Nun Nina that God was telling him, “You asked for seven sermons, seven weeks, and I gave this to you. There is no need to explain and defend yourself. These sermons were not for the purpose of defending yourself, but to bring My Word to the students and to worship God.”
Within a year Fr. George was again arrested and confined to prison. However, the seven sermons had been recorded, and cassette tapes and typed transcripts were carried to Jerusalem and from there translated into other languages and spread throughout the West. Fr. George became internationally known as a political prisoner, and many organizations called for his release, as did prominent Romanian expatriates like Mircea Eliade and Eugene Ionescu. When George Bush, Sr., was Vice President, he called on the president of Romania, Nicolae Ceausescu, and urged him to set Fr. George free. Instead, Ceausescu tried to arrange for Fr. George’s murder in prison, but his plans failed and in the end he was compelled to release him from prison. Fr. George reunited with his wife and child, and in 1985 they immigrated to America.
This was how I found him, fifteen years later, when I was searching for a spiritual father. In light of everything he had been through, it was amazing to me that this living martyr, a survivor of torture, at that point in the latter half of his seventies, was still working full-time as a parish priest. It was obvious that there would be no retirement for him, that he would work until the day he died, and he did. As I went regularly to see him for confession (he told me to come every forty days), I could observe how hard he worked, ministering not just to church members but also to people in need who had no ties to the church. He was always ready to give. I knew of a Romanian immigrant, a non-churchgoer, to whom he regularly gave groceries, and whom he cared for as if she were his parishioner, his responsibility. I knew of a young man, non-Orthodox, angry at God and belligerent, with whom Fr. George met regularly to talk. He told me that he kept telling the young man just one thing, over and over: “I love you.”
Despite his age, Fr. George was always vigorous, strong in body as well as mind and spirit. He would fly back from Europe on a red-eye flight, then go right to church and stand through four hours of worship. Nothing stopped him. He was small, not a great deal taller than I am, but so vital and alive that I always thought of him as a “little lion.” And, as I’ve said, he had a radiant smile. He seemed always ready to be amused.
Fr. George could be stern, however, for example when dealing with Orthodox Christians who were careless about fasting and church attendance, or who reveled in religious emotionalism rather than maintaining a deep commitment to God.
And he was brilliant. As I mentioned, he first trained to be a doctor, and after his release from prison earned a degree (in addition to his seminary degree) in French literature. When exploring the nature of memory he would make an allusion to Proust, for example. Once I told him about an evangelical church in Canada where worshippers, believing that they are under the power of the Holy Spirit, laugh uncontrollably or bark like dogs. He gave a big smile and said, “It is the spirit of Anubis!” It took me a minute to remember that Anubis was the dog-headed god of the ancient Egyptians. The range of Fr. George’s knowledge was vast.
English was not his best language, however. I’m afraid there were many times that I was not sure what he was saying. One time I asked him whether I should pray “deliver us from evil” or “deliver us from the evil” (that is, “the evil one”) as it says in the New Testament Greek, only to find that he didn’t understand that there was a difference. Though it was wrenching to lose him, in a way I feel closer to him now, because there is no more language barrier.
As he lay dying in the hospital, after he had (to all appearances) passed beyond awareness of his surroundings, he nevertheless knew, somehow, when those around his bed began to sing the akathist to St. George. He tried to sing along, and his right hand swept upward in an attempt to make the sign of the cross.
I’d like to conclude with a few stories and examples of his eldership.
1. The first time I met with him I asked him for advice in saying the Jesus Prayer. I had a three-hundred-knot prayer rope and had been saying three hundred Jesus Prayers each night. He told me that he did not believe in praying great amounts of the prayer, and I should cut it back to one hundred. He also showed me that when praying the Jesus Prayer you should form your right hand as you do when making the sign of the Cross, and then rest it over your heart. He also showed me that if you then cover your right hand with your left, as he said, “It makes a barrier that the devil cannot get through.”
2. I was telling him once how badly my mind wanders in church. He looked surprised and said, “Well, when that happens, you just change your position.” He showed me—like standing with your arms by your sides, and then folding your hands together. If you change your posture a little bit, it automatically puts your mind back into the presence of God. Needless to say I’d never experienced that, but he thought it was common knowledge.
3. Fr. George was blessed to see the Uncreated Light on several occasions. The first time was when he eight years old, and looking at a field of wheat while thinking of God as Creator, and what his mother and the priest had said about God. He said, “In a moment, I realized that the field was full of Light. I could not understand what it was: this light had no shadow and no perspective. Perhaps because I was accustomed to the image of natural light on the land, I could see all the details, but only in light, not in shadow. I was as if petrified. I don’t know how long I was like that: and when I recovered the field was normal.”
President Ceausescu tried to have Fr. George murdered in prison, and in one case assigned him two sadistic criminals as cellmates with orders to kill him. But instead Fr. George changed their hearts. One Sunday Fr. George served the Holy Liturgy in the cell—an act strictly forbidden in the prison. After he had partaken of Holy Communion, he turned to his cellmates and found them kneeling in prayer. Fr. George said, “They were in this Light, visible Light, Uncreated Light but visible.… the whole cell was full of Light.”
4. In a 1997 talk at St. Paisius Monastery in Forestville, California, Fr. George talked about another experience with the Uncreated Light, and this one is especially interesting to me because Fr. George says that later that day he did something that spoiled it. One morning in prison he heard the church bells and knew that it was Pascha. When a guard came into his cell for the usual inspection, Fr. George said, “I didn’t turn my face to the wall as I was supposed to, but said to him, ‘Christ is Risen!’ He looked at me and at the other guards. [This] was the most sadistic man I had ever met in my life. He could not accomplish his eight‑hour shift without beating and torturing the inmates. His face was like that of an angel, very beautiful, very elegant, but I never saw such cruelty in a man. Nevertheless he answered me, ‘In Truth He is Risen!’ This shocked me very much. He shut the door and I was petrified because of what he had said.”
Fr. George goes on: “And little by little, I saw myself full of Light. The board against the wall was shining like the sun; everything in my cell was full of shine. I cannot explain in words the happiness that invaded me then. I can explain nothing. It simply happened. I have no merit. I was perhaps the biggest sinner in that section, but nevertheless God gave me this Light….In a short time this Light disappeared, but the happiness lasted many hours.”
But later that same day a colonel came and Fr. George began to speak with him about the faith, and use his intelligence to argue. Fr George said:
I heard [the colonel’s] steps in the corridor, and I knew that the guard was about to tell him what happened in the cell. He was approaching the cell … and I prepared my answer. Now it was like in a theater, in a play or a movie: I knew he would come, I knew his question, and he knew my answers. He opened the door and, as I had done with the guard, I looked at him and said, ‘Christ is Risen!’ He looked at me and said, ‘Did you see him?’
‘No, I did not see him, but I believe that Christ is risen because of those who testified: the apostles, the martyrs, the bishops, the patriarchs and all the Christians who for two thousand years affirmed that Christ is risen and who answered, ‘In Truth He is Risen!’ You believe in things you have never seen. Did you see the North Pole? It exists, and you believe in it on the authority of the men of science. Did you see Marx and Engels? You didn’t see them, but you believe in them because people of authority told you that they existed. You didn’t even see Stalin, our contemporary. But you know that he existed because someone told you. Because of this authority concerning the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, I believe in His Resurrection.’
He did not have an answer for me. But I felt something false in myself. No argument is able to convince somebody about Jesus Christ—it is a single argument to say, ‘Christ is Risen!’ Can you bring forward some proofs that Christ is risen? No. Only faith. I remember reading something in a Russian newspaper or book, how at the beginning of the revolution in Russia, the Communists sent people of science, people with higher education, from village to village to speak to the peasants and show them with scientific arguments that Jesus could not have risen from the dead. Trotsky, with a group of such devoted Communist scientists, came into a certain village on Pascha. The police obligated the people and the priest, on the day of Pascha, to come to a big hall to hear the scientific arguments that Jesus Christ could not have risen. They said a lot of things, very intelligent, and at the end they asked if there were any questions. Then the priest, who in fact was a peasant, said, ‘I have a question.’ They said, ‘Come here,’ and he came up to the front and said, ‘You are very intelligent people: the intelligentsia of Russia. I think what you said is true, but I want to say something. People, CHRIST IS RISEN!’ And he heard the answer: ‘IN TRUTH HE IS RISEN!’
This is the single argument we have for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. We can invoke the information of the Bible: to the unfaithful it means nothing. We can speak from the Holy Fathers; again, it is nothing to them. Therefore, it was enough for me to say, in front of the colonel, ‘Christ is Risen!’ We need no other proof. Because of just trying to prove to the colonel that Jesus really rose from the dead, I felt something wrong in my orientation. Since then I gave up trying to give proofs to the guards or to the inmates, the criminals. I had learned from experience that people are changed only by the fire of your faith, by the dedication in your attitude to them and to God, because this is the most powerful proof.
As someone who has been writing books and giving speeches about Orthodoxy for many years now, I often turn over those words in my mind. I have been often puzzled and disappointed to see that even Christ-loving Western Christians can hear about the treasure of our Orthodox Faith, can hear about the healing of the inner person, the enlightening of the nous, and the possibility of theosis, and simply not care. I’m surprised at how often there are no follow-up questions after a speech. Perhaps they just don’t believe me; perhaps I’m a very poor example. But I think there is a basic truth in what Fr. George says here. Explanations and arguments don’t persuade people; they provoke, instead, rebuttals. God’s way is to woo us, to draw us with cords of love (cf. Hosea 11:4). “People are changed by the fire of your faith,” by witnessing the action of God in your life. Wood catches fire from fire, not words. Fr. George lived as a flame, a light that could not be overcome by darkness. We who rejoiced for a time in his presence long for the day we will feel the warmth of that fire again, and see the beauty of his smile.