fbpx
Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

A Time Of Gifts

Signs and wonders on a pilgrimage to the monastic heart of Romanian Orthodoxy
A Time Of Gifts

I spent the past few days in Romania, most of that time visiting Orthodox monasteries in the Bukovina region, just south of the Ukraine border. Bukovina is the heart of Romanian monastery life; my friends from Bucharest wanted me to go to the source to do interviews for my upcoming book on re-enchantment. For me, it was a life-changing trip. I wrote about it in three installments on my subscription-only Substack newsletter, which focuses on spiritual and aesthetic things, and strives to present reasons for hope (you can subscribe here). My Substack readers got the whole story, but I do want to share highlights with you here. It was a trip that gave me a lot of hope and confidence.

I stayed in the guest house of the Sihastria Putnei monastery, which is near the Putna monastery, the oldest and most important of all the monasteries of Romania. “Sihastria Putnei” means “hermitage of Putna” — it was founded by Putna monks who wanted a more remote monastery. On this trip, I was based at Sihastria Putnei (henceforth, SP), but also visited Putna, as well as the smaller women’s monasteries of Voronet and Sucevita (famous for their painted exterior walls). As soon as we arrived in SP, in the Carpathians, I stepped out of the car and knew I was in a sacred place. Yes, the mountain air was clear and bracing, but more than that, the sense of holiness was profound. I knew that I had arrived at a “thin” place.

After settling in my room, I came downstairs to meet the monks Father Efrem and Father Chrysostom. Efrem is a young monk who serves as the secretary to His Holiness Damascin, the bishop of Suceava, the diocese in which the monasteries are. He was brought into the monastic priesthood by Father Chrysostom, and they are very close. Here is a photo I took of them inside a church. Chrysostom is on the left, Efrem on the right:

I only just met these monks, but it was as if they had been waiting for me for many years. It was uncanny.
Later, I had lunch with Abbot Melchisidek, the staretz of the Putna monastery. He was a bluff, cheerful monk.

In our conversation, I shared with him a particularly painful cross that I have been carrying for some time — having to do with the nostalgia for the happy family I thought I was returning to when I moved back to Louisiana in 2011, and the acute sense of exile I have had since all that collapsed in 2012. He encouraged me to stand strong under its weight, and never to doubt that God can work through my sacrifice for the good of many. He said, “Brother Benedict, do you really think that you can do the kind of work you do in this world, and not attract the attention of the Devil?”

His point was that in the mystery of our life in Christ, God sometimes allows suffering for the sake of overcoming evil. If God himself was beaten, humiliated, and nailed to a Cross for our salvation, we who follow Him should expect no less — and we should follow His example, and bear up under the weight.

Later, I thought back to the opening sequence of Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia , (if you click on this, turn on the captions) which has had such a powerful effect on my spirituality. The cosmopolitan Roman translator Eugenia visits a rural Tuscan church, where Christian women are coming to pray for fertility. The old sacristan asks her if she is there to petition God for a baby too. No, she says, I’m just looking.

The sacristan says that those who are mere observers will experience nothing. She responds by asking what she can expect to receive if she sacrifices? He says:

The lesson is that unless you are willing to humble yourself, to make a sacrifice, you will receive nothing in return. This, in turn, reminds me of the part of Malick’s A Hidden Life, in which the artist painting the church says that most people admire Jesus, but Jesus didn’t call admirers; he called followers (disciples). You can tell the difference when it comes to suffering. Admirers run away when following Jesus costs them something; disciples remain at His side. This is what Kierkegaard said; Malick, the screenwriter, took the point from Kierkegaard’s work.

“Christ’s life is a demand,” the old artist says. “We don’t want to be reminded of it, because we don’t want to see what happens to the Truth. A darker time is coming. Men will be more clever: they won’t fight the Truth, they’ll just ignore it.”

The scene shifts to the artist painting the exterior of the church. He says

I paint their comfortable Christ, with a halo over his head. How can I show what I haven’t lived? Some day I might have the courage to venture; not yet. Some day, I’ll paint the true Christ.

Watch this three minute clip here. It’s worth it:

To bear suffering faithfully is to live the truth of Christ. That’s what Abbot Melchisidek told me, in his way. This is not a new revelation, but coming to me from the mouth of a wise old monk, with such force, and in such a setting, made it live anew within me.

Then we piled into the church van, and Father Efrem drove us to the Sucevita monastery. I sat next to Father Chyrsostom, and asked him about how he came to monastic life. He is 42 now, but when all this happened, he was in his mid-twenties. He said:

I was a theologian. I was a very nice Christian, so to speak. I was fasting, going to church, I was working in the radio station of the church. I was somehow well-behaved. At a certain point, I think it was in 2005, I felt that there was something missing. The missing stuff was huge, because I was not able to feel God. I entered into what I call a depression — it was clinically diagnosed. I didn’t take any medicine, but as a theologian, I was trying to solve my problems theologically, but it didn’t work. I exhausted all the possibilities in the practice of my faith, but not inside my soul. I remember it very well.

I remember it very well. I was inside a cathedral. I had to make a small radio story of the divine liturgy. It was St. Demetrius’ feast day. I was talking about God, but I was empty on the inside. I was at the point where I didn’t think God existed. I was talking to Him, but he was rather absent. He was not doing the things I expected him to do. It was my last chance. I made a decision that was a radical one. I said to God, “If you exist, please do something, because I’m going to lose myself.”

Then it was like in The Matrix, when everything stopped. Then I heard something like a voice — not in my ears, not in my brain, not in my heart. It was filling the whole universe, and consumed my entire existence. It told me to go to a particular spiritual father.

That spiritual father told me how to meet the living God. Because I was meeting an idea, a ritual. I do believe that these things are important – knowing things about God, and being together in a ritual. We need ritual to meet the other. But I was only on there. But this spiritual father helped me to meet the living God. And it was … simple.

What did he do? I asked.

The usual thing, making confession. And he was telling me how to make things interior. For example, I was going to the services of the church, and doing my prayers. I told the spiritual father that I was going through a tough period. I mean, this experience didn’t solve things. It was nothing magical. That spiritual father told me, okay, you’re telling me these things, like a normal person, but what are you telling God? Are you talking to him like a living person, as a You. I asked him what’s the use of the akathists [a kind of formal prayer], then? He said those are training exercises, but they’re not the real thing. He taught me how to pray, and how to meet God.

The other important thing he taught me is that I don’t have to get rid of the state I was in. God is not solving things, but he is somehow giving value to them. I discovered that depression might be a very good friend of mine. It helped me see in a straightforward way the reality of the world.

I had lucidity. From that moment on, I was no longer impressed by anything, unless it had something significant to say to me. So I became a monk.

You made that sacrifice, I said.

I don’t consider this a sacrifice. I’m embarrassed to say this, but I was forced, somehow, into this. You know the saying of St. Maximus, that God has three wills: the good will, the will when he’s trying to help you solve things, and the third will is when he’s leaving you alone. That’s terrible, because you are there with your will all alone. God somehow put me in front of a mirror and said, ‘OK, this is who you are.’ It was terrible because I went to the theological school because I loved God. Since childhood I had wanted to be a priest. So it wasn’t a sacrifice, but I did accept somehow that there is a message, a meaning in all this. Being in a bad state of mental health is somehow a blessing. It was a blessing, and it is still a blessing, because my depression is still there. But it can be a friend.

I’m a spiritual father, and I’ve noticed something very strange. The vast majority of young men and women coming to me for advice are struggling with the same things I was struggling with a long time ago: depression and a lack of meaning. When we are 24 and 25, we finish college, and don’t know what to do. A lot of them are seeking direction for their life, and it’s very easy for me, because I have been there. I tell them what happened with me: that I searched for spiritual guidance, and was on that path in a very strict way when, I’m convinced, God sent me to that particular person.

A second thing that happened to me: I was in Jerusalem, and in the morning I was at the Holy Liturgy in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I am not a good friend of the early morning, but it was very early. There were Russians, Greeks, Romanians, Muslims, Catholics, Copts, and all the people in there. And I was judging God: if we are the right faith, the right confession, why couldn’t you give to us this sacred place? One of the consequences of my conversion was that I was becoming very strict. God told me, in the same way as the first time, ‘I’ve been struggling for many years to bring them together, and you’re judging me?’ I realized it was the only place on earth where everybody is in there together around God, even if they’re fighting each other, they are there with God. So I’ve learned nuance.

After that visit, when I came back home, I received a spiritual gift of guidance, which is not something you ask for. It’s important when you have people coming to you not to be very strict with them, but to understand them, and help them to become more than they are when they come to you.

It’s up to God to change them. We have to help them. They’re coming to us, and waiting for us to say you’re okay like that. They like that very much. But when you say to them that they can be more than that through God, they pull back.

This is especially true with the young men. When you first meet them, they’re somehow excited to meet the living God. But then they get frightened. They somehow feel that God is pushing on them, is taking away something from them. It’s important for us, the guides, to be with them, even on this path.

Do you think that mysticism plays an important role in helping people believe that God is real? I asked. I brought up the sociologist Christian Smith’s view that young Americans will never be re-converted through moralism. Or, I would say, rational argumentation.

“The mystical theology of the Church of the East,” he said. “Our theology is mystical. It’s about meeting God. It’s not about performing the sacred.” He went on:

There are three temptations Christ had at the beginning of his mission, from the Devil. And at the end of his mission He had three temptations, which are still our temptations in the Church today. In the first one, they asked if we are allowed to give money to Caesar. Christ says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” This is important, because in the Church, we tend to be too close to Caesar, not to God.

The second temptation came from the Sadducees, from the woman who had seven husbands. The question was, who will be this woman’s husband in the end? Christ said you don’t know God. You don’t know the Scriptures. God is beyond the law.

The third is when the Pharisees say, “Which is the greatest commandment?” Christ tells them, and then tells them to go do it.

So the three temptations of today’s church are: the law — formalism, you know, incense, colors, which are important, but not the main thing. The second is thinking that you are saved because you know a lot of things. And the third is when the Church is too involved in politics.

We have our mind connected to Christ — our nous, not our analytical mind — so for us it should be simple to see where society is making bad choices. The Church should be like a prophet. The prophet is the one who sees the will of God beyond everything else. The young people are coming to the Church to see this spirit of prophecy, which is giving this mystical way. We don’t have that spirit in the Church today, because we are too caught up in formalism; we know things. The spirit of prophecy gives you this mystical way. It’s not an intellectual way, and it’s not even an aesthetic way.

The holy hermits who lived their lives in the forest didn’t have a Byzantine icon to venerate. We have to be careful not to make idols of everything that is beautiful. We even make an idol of mysticism.

The most threatening thing to the modern mind is the Person of God. He’s not a force that we can manipulate by magic. The Holy Eucharist is sometimes seen as a magical thing, through which we can manipulate God. He refuses to go there. He is a person as I am, and He decides when He will meet us. He is a Person too, just like we are. It’s not the case that we can perform some sacred rites, and God will come because He is impressed.

Why are people unable to sense God’s presence today? I asked. What can they do to open their eyes.

Because they are afraid. God’s presence is something terrible. Something special. It’s not something easy to cope with. When you meet God, you know you can no longer be as you were. Father Nicolae Steinhardt was a Jew who converted in prison. He talked about how after his baptism, he had a vision. He said that after his vision, he could no longer think evil about others. That’s what the presence of God does. It’s something very difficult to cope with, because you have to change, and people really don’t want to change.

It’s typical also for our relationships. We meet somebody, and we like them, but we want them to change, not us. We don’t want to create the world together. Loving each other is not looking at each other, but to look outward in the same direction. To love each other is to create something from the same experience. It’s the same way with God. To live with God is to look in the same direction, and to create together.

We don’t do this because we are held by our sins, but mostly by fear. We don’t like God as He really is. We prefer God to be like an idol. When I was studying theology, I used to wonder why the God of Israel was always so bothered by idols. Idols are the things that are keeping us away from who God really is. It’s not the statues; it’s the concept. It’s the things that I think about, the things that I revere. My way of seeing the world. But when I have to sacrifice this to see the world as God sees it — that’s very difficult.

I asked Father Chrysostom if he ever experienced a miracle, aside from the one that led to his deeper conversion.

After that experience, everything looked like a miracle. I would be eating, and it seemed like a miracle. I could sleep, which was very rare — for more than four or five months prior to this, I couldn’t sleep properly. I had eating disorders, things like that. It’s hard to say. For example, I had an accident with my foot, and I was reading a book about the spiritual fathers, and asked the Romanian St. Paisius to heal my foot. I woke up in the morning and it was healed. I went to the doctor, and he said this was a very serious injury, how were you healed? I told him it happened during the night. But I’m not making a big deal about this, because miracles are less about outer things, and more about inner things. If a miracle doesn’t transform you, it is still objectively a miracle, but to me, it’s not really a miracle.

In fact, it’s something normally to avoid, because it could create in you the sense that you are special, that you somehow deserve it. If the Lord is a Person, and he gives me a gift, it’s not because I deserve it, but because He is showing me love. So the perspective is somehow different. So I’m not looking for miracles. If they are coming, then I’m thankful for them. It’s a miracle that I’m at this monastery, that I met Father Efrem, and Father Lucian [a young priest who was with us that day].

Do you think that Western people today have barriers that keep them from seeing things of the spirit? I asked. He told me a story about a mother who overheard Father Chrysostom talking about his struggle with depression in a conference. Later, she brought her adult son to see him. The young man had been suicidal, and none of the priests she had brought him to before, and none of the prayers they had said, had any effect.

But after talking to Father Chrysostom for fifteen minutes, the young man started on the road to recovery. That’s all it took. The monk added:

If you need something, search for it. This mom was not searching for me because I was the giver of solutions. I was a patient who was struggling, just like her son. We became friends. I didn’t promise him anything. I didn’t tell him that he would be healed. In fact, this is the healing process. He met the Christ who was not a judge, but a healer.

We arrived at the 15th century Sucevitsa monastery, which includes a jewel box church behind its thick walls. (It’s spelled “Sucevita,” but the t is a special character in Romanian, with a “ts” sound.) On the drive to SP, we stopped at the Voronet monastery, another of the painted monasteries of Bukovina. The entire building was aflame with color. Here is the famous Last Judgment wall at Voronet:

I remind you, this is an exterior wall. It was painted in the 15th century, and is still so vivid today. It’s like the whole thing is on fire. Here’s a comparison between the Last Judgment wall, and an adjoining wall that was more exposed to the elements:

Sucevitsa is even more beautiful, because, I think, it has been entirely preserved. Here is Father Chrysostom explaining the meaning of the Jacob’s Ladder iconography on one wall of the Sucevitsa monastery:

The important thing to know about these places is that none of these images are done for mere decoration. Every single image is catechetical — that is, it teaches an important lesson about the faith. Father Chrysostom pointed out a series of panels at the top of this wall:

The ones with the white background are of Adam and Eve in Eden before the fall. The whiteness everywhere symbolizes God’s palpable presence, which our ancestors felt because they had perfect communion with Him. After they sinned, and were cast out of the Garden, the background colors changed.

Father Chrysostom, who is a trained theologian, gave me a fascinating tour of the church’s interior, explaining all the iconography. The effect was overwhelming. It was as if this little late medieval church was a book conveying information about God and the cosmos in a way that can be received more directly than with the abstractions of language. I could have stayed there all afternoon. It is hard to describe the effect of the vividness of these colors. Look at this image of the Gospel verse in which Jesus tells his disciples “I am the Vine, and you are the branches.”

Imagine every square inch of the church’s interior covered with images so intense with color and meaning.

I like the way the sunlight comes through the window by the altar:

For me, this was the highlight. This is the exterior wall of the apse:

Notice the central line, from top to bottom, taking in the window. Father Chrysostom explained that this tells the story of the Cosmos, and how God condescended to us to bring us back to Himself. These are the various embodiments of the Logos.

The the very top level shows God, the Ancient of Days, inside an eight-pointed image indicating the six days of creation, the seventh day of rest, and the eighth day indicating eternity, and the cycle of time. It is a symbol of all of creation. (It occurred to me that this is an image of whatever existed at the moment of the Big Bang.)

Then we see Christ Emmanuel — the Logos among the Archangels, who first saw Christ (remember, St. Gabriel the Archangel brought news of Christ to Mary, who announced that she would call the child “Emmanuel” — God with us). Below that, Christ the Child, and then Christ the King and Emperor of all. Then we see the Eucharistic Christ. On the level of the window, we see the martyrs, who saw the Light. Then, at the bottom, are the monks, and at the center, St. John the Baptist, the Forerunner, a prophet who tells us about the King. It is painted on the buttress. John the Baptist is a forerunner of the Second Coming too. The monks are the prophetic voice of the Church, according to this image.

Hearkening back to Jacob’s Ladder on the other side of the church, Father Chrysostom said, “We can only climb the ladder because the Logos chose to come down to us. We can do nothing without Christ.”

Father Chrysostom told me that he sometimes has sophisticated people come to see him, seeking Truth, and reconciliation with God. Yet they tend to be dissatisfied with formal explanations about spiritual matters. If he has the chance to take them to see these frescoes, and the ones on the Voronet monastery. Then, they get it.

This brings to my mind the Russian Orthodox filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s observation:

“The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.”

This is what the art of iconography on these painted monasteries of Bukovina did for me. If you see these images as they are intended to be seen, it is hard to remain as you are.

After vespers, I had dinner with His Holiness Damascin, the bishop of Suceava (that is, the local ordinary). He is young — in his forties — but had deep-set, searching eyes, and a powerful sense of peace. He has written a book about the meaning of Holy Week. I told him that I would be leaving for Israel next Sunday to spend Orthodox Holy Week in Jerusalem. I asked for his advice for how to do it.

“Be a Benedict there,” he said. He explained that it is far too easy to be caught up in the emotional crowds, and that I should instead make sure that I spend time alone, to allow the Holy Spirit to reach me.

Bishop Damascin

On Sunday morning, I awakened in Sihastria Putna to a fresh blanket of snow everywhere. The big monastery church was full of worshipers, as many men as women, and everyone — from old people to children — remained on their knees, on the hard floor, for the entire long liturgy. This is unusual in Orthodoxy; people usually stand during the liturgy. But the people of Bukovina have a reputation for pious zeal.

I took this shot of a young monk in the choir. It looks like a still from a Carl Th. Dreyer film of the 1920s:

 

After the liturgy, Father Chrysostom and the rest of us walked over to the trapeza for lunch.

We met later with Abbot Nektarios of Sihastria Putna, and talked about spiritual things. Finally, it was time for us to leave, because we wanted to make it to Cluj by sunset. I departed Sihastria Putnei a changed man, somehow better able to shoulder the burdens of the present and the time to come — because these monks all believe the times are darkening — in part because I know now that I have powerful intercessors in my new monastic friends.

The first part of the drive to Cluj was through the Carpathian mountain. Look at this image I shot through my car window:

In Cluj, we had a late dinner with some friends of one of my traveling companions. Then the next morning, we drove out to a small women’s monastery in a Transylvania valley to meet with Father Seraphim, an old monk who serves as that monastery’s elder (the nuns need someone there who can say the Divine Liturgy for them), and who is a spiritual father to local people. He was a dear old man, twinkling with joy. In interviewed him for my book, but I haven’t yet transcribed it, so I can only tell you here that the thing I remember most from our conversation was how he spoke of love, and the challenges of loving sacrificially.

The old monk invited us to stay for a Lenten lunch, which we did. I got a View From Your Table shot; that’s Father Seraphim in the back, getting more food from the nun in the kitchen:

That night, I gave a talk about The Benedict Option and Live Not By Lies to a full house at the museum of the archdiocese of Cluj. The Metropolitan himself came to hear me, which was an enormous honor. A man named Teo who carves wooden crosses for a living gave me this. When I first glanced at it, I thought it was smooth. But then I looked closer:

Isn’t that incredible? Each arm of the cross is only two inches long — but Teo put so much detail into it. I’m wearing it now, and always will.

At the end of the event, my last in Romania, we stood for the Metropolitan to pray and dismiss us. When I turned around, I saw this statue of St. Stefan the Great, the Moldavian king who founded the monasteries I had visited:

I nearly gasped when I saw this. Why? Because for the past few years, I have been following a mystery that arrived in my life in 2018, when an artist in Genoa approached me after a talk, and said that he had been praying in his studio that afternoon, and the Holy Spirit told him to come hear the American speak tonight, and to give him this. This is an engraving the artist made of a medieval saint named Galgano:

Longtime readers know this story, so I won’t drag it out; you can find the whole thing here. In short, though, I didn’t know who Galgano was. Turns out he was a passionate nobleman who was a great sinner. His mother prayed for him to return to the faith. He had a vision of St. Michael the Archangel, telling him to put his sword down and serve Christ. He resisted. Then he had a vision on top of a hill in Tuscany, in which the call was again made. Galgano said to God that it would be easier for him to put his sword into this rock at his side than to do as God says. He brought the sword down … and it went into the rock. He instantly converted, and spent the rest of his life living in a hut next to the sword in the stone. After his canonization in 1187, only three years after his death, the local bishop built a church just like the one Galgano had seen in his vision. At the center of the church was the sword in the stone.

Get this: in the year 2000, Italian scientists examined the artifact, which is still visible (though covered by thick plexiglass). They X-rayed it, and found that the blade does indeed pierce the rock, inexplicably. And they tested the metal of the sword: it is from the 12th century, consistent with the story.

I still didn’t know what this had to do with me, until 2020, when, in the depths of a particular despair, I stumbled across the Tarkovsky movie Nostalghia. It spoke powerfully to me in my situation. There is a particular scene, a dream sequence in which the protagonist, a troubled writer named Andrei, walks through a ruined church, brooding. The Virgin Mary addresses God, and asks him to show himself to Andrei, who is so lost. God replies that He does show himself to Andrei, all the time, but Andrei is so lost in his head that he can’t see.

I thought: that’s me. I have to change.

After the movie ended, I looked up the amazing church where that sequence took place. It was the Abbey of St. Galgano!

Last fall, at the end of my book tour in Italy, I made a pilgrimage to pray before the sword in the stone:

I was (am) convinced that God is calling me to live sacrificially, though I’m not sure what that means. One thing it does mean, I am sure, is that I need to set aside my brooding over what is lost, and irrecoverable, and to focus on whatever mission He has for me. But this is really hard, and I have done a poor job of it. I am always stuck in my head, replaying events from the past over and over, unable to reconcile myself to them. The distraction, and brooding over it, is affecting everything in my life. My sense is that this is what God is asking of me: to stop dwelling on, and in, the past, and to ready myself for the future He plans for me, whatever that is.

It would be easier for me to put my sword in a stone than to do that! But with God, all things are possible. At the monastery this past weekend, I received several confirmations that this is what God wants me to do with my vocation. I left the monastery feeling so much hope and confidence. The road ahead is going to be difficult — sacrificially difficult — but I have the gift of confidence that I am following God’s will for me, and the gift of spiritual friendship from these holy monks. And I am more dedicated now to this re-enchantment book than to any book I’ve ever written — a book about signs and wonders, and how to open our eyes to the presence of God.

So, when I reached the last event in my trip, and after delivering my speech turned around and saw St. Stefan the Great, with his sword in a stone, I was startled, and then delighted. St. Stefan was a worldly conqueror, but he is remembered today not so much for the deeds he did with his sword, but for what he accomplished without the sword: the founding of the monasteries that form the heart of Romanian Orthodoxy.

This was a sign for me. I am sure of it.

Say, readers, soon I will be in the Philadelphia area giving some talks at an Anglican conference. I will be talking about Live Not By Lies, but now I will also be sharing the good news I received from the monks. The Anglicans asked me to post this for you all:

The Anglican Diocese of the Living Word (ACNA) is thrilled to host Rod Dreher at its 2022 Missions Conference and Synod on May 5-7 in Souderton Pennsylvania. In this special time set aside annually for renewal, worship, and teaching we look forward to Dreher’s visionary insight on the matter of living out the faith once and all delivered to the saints while paradoxically also sojourning as exiles and pilgrims. ADLW wants this event, titled “Rediscovering the Sacred: Finding Sanctuary in Exile,” to be accessible to Rod’s followers so that they too can hear him speak in person.
Rod’s followers have a special code available to them that will give them a 10% discount on the registration.
Enter code DREHERPA on check-out for your discount.
We look forward to greeting you all in the name of Christ.
I hope to see you there. We have a lot to talk about.
Advertisement

Comments

Become a Member today for a growing stake in the conservative movement.
Join here!
Join here