The Meaning Of A Man’s Death
(As I write this, there is a funeral going on in Bucharest. I couldn’t get back down there — cross-border travel is still difficult because of Covid — but my heart is with my friends. I posted this to my subscription-only Substack newsletter a couple of days ago, but in honor of my friend Alin, I want to share it with you all.)
Maybe you will have seen by now my blog post about the utterly shocking death of Alin Bogdan, the head of the tiny publishing house that brought out Live Not By Lies in Romania. I spent the weekend in his company, and rejoiced with him as we saw the book become the first breakout hit of his little company’s life. I ate with him, went to churches with him, drank with him, visited a monastery with him, and enjoyed his company immensely. When we said goodbye at the Bucharest airport, I hugged him hard, and promised I would be back. He died the next morning — this morning, Tuesday. He was 43, and leaves behind a wife and a nine-year-old daughter.
One of the Romanian Christian men who was with us for much of the weekend e-mailed the rest of us tonight to say:
Dear brothers in Christ,
The only thought that I had about the shocking death of Alin is that we are living and fighting a real spiritual, unseen war, and that we should be prepared any time for literally anything, including death.
It’s a real blessing that we know each other and that we can pray for one another.
May God be with Alin, his daughter and family.
Christ has risen!
I’m still trying to process the meaning of what happened, though of course we will never know why God permitted this. Here was a man, a faithful believer, at the height of his professional success, dying of a heart attack. My late sister Ruthie died at 42, but she had nineteen months since her cancer diagnosis to prepare for the day. Alin went to sleep on Monday night, and I don’t know if he ever woke up.
Our friend Catalin, who worked with Alin at the publishing house, told me that this photo I posted the other night, taken near midnight Friday in a church in the Old Town, features Alin in the far distance, bent over an icon of Christ the Savior, reverencing it. He could not have known that in a handful of days, he would come face to face with Christ himself.
The thought is overwhelming. Truly.
One of the most striking things about Alin was the sadness in his eyes. I have no idea where it came from, having just met him, though when I told him and the others on the way to the airport that I had a particularly difficult spiritual struggle, he said from the back seat, in a modest voice, “You are not the only one in this car who struggles with that.” I knew that I liked him, but when he said that, I felt this electric bond of kinship between us. That survives him, at least in my heart.
I find I’m thinking about what the member of our fellowship said about Alin’s death reminding us that we are fighting a real spiritual war, and that we should be prepared at any moment for anything, even death. I could be wrong, but I don’t read him as saying that Alin was in some sense killed by his spiritual enemies, like the result of a voodoo curse or something like that. But we do believe that there is spiritual meaning in all things that happen.
The meaning of Alin’s death, as far as I can discern now, is, in part, that we should not take any day for granted, and take no one around us for granted. This is a lesson that, when written out like this, sounds like a greeting-card sentiment. But it’s true! In the right order of things, this 42-year-old man who had just had one of the greatest professional successes of his life ought to have gone on to keep building his business on the back of that victory. I received an e-mail from Smaranda Nistor, the translator into Romanian of Live Not By Lies, e-mailed me yesterday with a story about our late-night Saturday dinner, right after the shockingly large conference. It had gotten to be near midnight, and our food still hadn’t arrived. I was so tired I was about to fall asleep, so I asked Catalin, who was also exhausted, if he would take me back to the hotel. Smaranda lives near Catalin, and asked for a ride home.
She told me that Alin asked to her to please stay on a little longer at the party, that he would take her home. She said she considered it, but seeing how tired Alin was, and knowing that to take her home would require him to go thirty minutes out of his way, she declined. She reminded him that they would be meeting again this week to discuss the new books he wanted her to work on as a translator.
“Now I keep looking at his photo from the time we met back in 2014, and I swallow hard my tears,” she wrote yesterday. “Why did I leave, why didn’t I stay on, why didn’t I steal a few hours more with him?”
Maybe that’s a lesson for us from Alin’s death: steal as many hours as you can with those you love. Stay late at the party. Don’t miss an opportunity to show love. As I write this, I recall with shame my failure to go visit my dying friend Bishop Charles Jenkins. There was too much going on, I thought at the time. There will be time later. He died while I was here in Hungary. I am filled with regret.
I wrote back to Smaranda and told her I had been impressed by the great weariness on Alin’s face, and wondered what burdens he was carrying. She wrote back to tell me. They were the burdens of loyalty. She explained that he stayed loyal to those he loved, or had once loved, even as they mocked him publicly. Even old friends! He was loyal to his political mentor, even though this caused Alin to be jeered by those same old friends. He was, Smaranda wrote, “loyal to his Christian faith, also under constant siege today.”
“And, unlike so many modern people, he avoided blaming everybody else for his pains,” she wrote. “He just bore them inside, trying to look at them as the inevitable difficulty of living. Until it was too much to bear in just one heart, however large.”
I have to stop writing. I’m crying. This brave little man, who struck me when I met him as quiet, serious, and unassuming, was a hero. Look at this photo of him in our group at the Antim Monastery. Alin is the short, bald one. Would he strike you as any kind of hero?
But he was! Smaranda told me more, things I can’t say in public, and I’m telling you, this was a great man, a knight of faith. He carried his cross with modesty, until it crushed him. Alin Bogdan may never be canonized, but I have no doubt that he is a saint. How incredibly blessed I was to have spent the last weekend of his earthly life with him. I will be thinking about the mystery of Alin’s life for the rest of my days. I will be asking him, in heaven, for his prayers, and to walk with me on this difficult path that we were both on, and that all of us struggling to be faithful in a faithless time are on. I have no doubt that the fellowship formed by us Christian brothers last weekend in Bucharest will continue on for all our lives — that Alin’s sacrifice will bond us forever.
I agreed yesterday to join the Bucharest brothers in praying daily for our Catholic brother Alin’s soul. The men are planning to read two kathismas from the Psalms daily for Alin, for the next forty days. A “kathisma” is a Greek division of the Psalms (see here) to make it easier to pray the entire Psalter over the course of one week. Follow that click for the list of kathismata, or click here. We are starting today, the day of Alin’s wake, with the first two kathismas, encompassing Psalms 1 through 8. Please join us, if you like.
I leave you with this photo below that I took in a Bucharest Orthodox church on Friday night, near midnight on my first evening in the city. I was impressed by the woman in the foreground, on her knees with a battered prayerbook, praying into the night. Catalin told me yesterday that the man in the background, in the shadows, venerating the icon of Christ the Savior, is Alin, who is now with his Lord. I believe that I was photographing a saint, and didn’t know it. I went to Romania eager to see the land of so many saints, martyrs, and confessors of the Communist yoke. I did not know that I was going to meet a living one, who bore the pains of heartbrokenness with humility and grace, until it literally broke his heart.
How many saints and heroes do you meet every day, and don’t know who they really are? How many people are carrying immense burdens, but don’t let it show? How can we love them more, and help them carry their crosses? These questions Alin’s death leaves with me. With you too, I hope.
Today, on this very day, and on every day, steal hours.
That was the end of my Substack post. I subsequently received an e-mail from the same Romanian brother who wrote above about Alin’s death and spiritual war. He explained what he meant:
Indeed, I was not thinking, when I wrote that we should be prepared for any trial, including (sudden) death, at some curse or something like that. What I had in mind was that our archenemy, the devil, the father of all lies, the murderer of man, really is like a roaring lion looking for us to devour. He was upset by the deeds Alin contributed with ContraMundum. He was furious because his lies where exposed and because your visit lifted so many hearts and minds. And he envied the wish Alin had to return to Orthodoxy, and to receive Christ in communion. And I think that he tried to kill all this, to ruin the works and to silence the voices. But then, why did God allow all this? I think that He allowed this because He can turn the bad outcomes in saving ones. And I think that indeed there is a sign for us too in what is going on. ”Stealing the hours” is definitely one meaning.But then I think there is more to it, something that has to do with our particular condition, with our concrete lives and crosses. On Monday I talked with [another of our fellowship] about what was the meaning of this bright weekend? What this gift from above means? What should we do about the fruits of this spiritual labor? What God wants from us now? Is it about a spiritual rebirth? A cultural revival? And then, Alin’s death strikes us hard, beyond what any of us could expect.I think one of the answers is in this sermon that a bishop gave the other day:“And I don’t know how long it will be allowed for us to have a good time, quiet time, time with peace, in which we can worship. This night is coming over us, too. And they will not come suddenly to close our churches; we will close them ourselves, for no one to be able to enter them. (…)There will come a night when they will teach us that we must believe otherwise, not as the true Light has taught us. Others will teach us how to marry, as we do not know how to marry, man and woman, and to raise babies within the blessed family. They will come to teach us to marry differently, you know how they want to teach us – that this is a completely “special” month – [Pride Month]. Not a month in which the Holy Spirit descends upon us, but a month in which other spirits roam through the days, however we may still have, of the Christians. (…)And there will come another night, dear believers, before the end of this world, to put it bluntly, a short night, for the Lord said that for the elect those days will be shortened, a short night in which I do not know how many of us will be able to find any light; a night in which we will be even more persecuted, in which we will not be able to buy, we will not be able to sell, we will not have anything to eat, if we want to be with the Light and we will not want to enter this new «kingdom». That night will be difficult, but whoever gathers his spiritual strength and ”provisions” during the day will then have something to eat and something to relate to.Now, when we have strength, when we have grace from God, when the church bells ring, when the Liturgy is offered, when we can confess our sins in front of a priest – he who now gathers, as the Romanian saying goes, white money for dark days, and let us gather those things of the Light for the dark days, whoever does this will be more protected.”At bottom line, what I understand from the recent events and Alin’s death is that is later than we think. That is indeed as serious as it can gets — a matter of life and death. Not yet in a political way, but definitely in a spiritual one. Something tells me that the grace we all felt is not about a conservative rebirth or a cultural or religious revival, but about a final awakening call, a final chance to work in the daylight, before the night falls, and a call to a brotherhood of the Cross so we wouldn’t feel alone anymore.So I when I said that we must always be prepared for anything, I was thinking about being spiritually ready, for the battle is fierce and the night is coming, by going to confession and taking the Holy Communion as often as we can, by asking the prayers of our spiritual fathers and friends, by sharing the fight together.