Rudolf Dobias At Home
I spent part of this afternoon in the home of Rudolf Dobias (pronounced “doe-BEE-asch”), in the town of Dobra, about 80 minutes’ drive north of Bratislava. This is the home where he was born in 1934. When he was 20, and Czechoslovakia was still in the grips of High Stalinism, Mr. Dobias was arrested on charges of treason. He belonged to a Catholic scouting organization, and was falsely believed to have drawn a cartoon making fun of Stalin and Czech leader Klement Gottwald (both of whom had died by then, but it didn’t matter). Mr. Dobias was sentenced to 18 years in a prison labor camp, and sent to work in a uranium mine.
At 84, Mr. Dobias is in bad shape. He told us that his body is in pain all the time. Still, he sat for a 90 minute interview with me for my upcoming book. He insisted in our conversation that in prison, he was free, because he had interior freedom. As young as he was, the older men in prison with him, including a Catholic priest, took him on as a son, and encouraged him all the time, telling him that he was on the right path. He credits those men with deepening his faith in God by teaching him how to regard suffering as a means of drawing closer to Him. Notice that the comfort here was that his intense suffering was made bearable because it had meaning. That, and it was shared by all. Like everyone I’ve interviewed from the underground church on this trip, Dobias emphasized how indispensable it is to have close friends when you are persecuted.
After his release, Mr. Dobias struggled to find work, being a former political prisoner. He ended up as a miner, having to live away from home for long stretches. Even his children suffered. His little boy, for example, was not allowed to attend kindergarten because his father had been an enemy of the state. Mr. Dobias began writing successful children’s literature in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until after communism ended in 1989 that he was allowed to turn to writing literature for adults. Now he is now considered one of his country’s greatest writers.
Here is one of Rudolf Dobias’s best-known poems:
With my own cross in one cold cell
and far from Heaven indeed,
I wrote home: I feel very well,
there’s nothing that I need.
The guardians guard me watchfully,
what can I have to dread?
I know God’s mills are grinding me
and turning me to bread.
My body now so fever-bright
in God’s own burning coal,
and these four walls of purest white
exalt Him and extol.
Mama, I’m feeling fine. It’s true,
but I’m sad not to be with you.
(translated from the Slovak by John Minahene)
Earlier in the day, my friend took me to a Marian grotto in Bratislava, where the people of this city have long come to ask for the Mother of God’s prayers.
Along the steep hillsides, grateful Christians have posted stone plaques to thank the Virgin for her prayers. They are written in Slovak, Hungarian, and German — once all three were spoken here. Timo Krizka is here pointing to a particular one:
Here it is up close, the center one. It says, in Hungarian, “Virgin Mary Always Helps.”
It was left in 1958 by Judge Pavol Korbuly, a communist jurist who had repented of his cruelty and injustice by walking on his knees daily from a church to a vicarage, in humble penance. Something happened. He was converted. He had given his life to evil, but repented. The stories on this wall, we will never know them all. But we know Korbuly’s. I like to think that when he died, he was welcomed into Paradise by the souls of those he had condemned to death.
When I met with Mr. Dobias, he had what is for us normal people a strange relationship to his prison time. He saw it as a means of liberation from the ordinary cares of this world, and delivery into the hands of God. He told us that prison taught him “modesty.” I took him to mean that it taught him what really matters in life: God, friendship, compassion, maintaining one’s personal integrity, at all costs. The light is dimming in this old man’s eyes, but he is luminous, I tell you, luminous.
At one of the sessions at the Hanus Days Festival, I was in an onstage discussion with philosophers about the way Christians should relate to the post-Christian world, including how we can hope to reach that world with the Gospel. I took the Benedict XVI line: the best arguments for the faith are the art that the churches produce, and the saints. To meet Rudolf Dobias and men and women like him — in person, yes, but also through the stories told by others — is a more powerful means of conversion than any syllogism. At least I think so. When you sit in the presence of this humble old man, who had his youth robbed from him for a cartoon he did not write; who was driven down into the bowels of the earth to mine uranium as punishment for a crime he did not commit; who was denied work, whose children were refused education, and who could not practice his art until the fall of communism, when he was already in his 50s — when you meet a man like that, and experience his peace and serenity, and hear him talk about the blessing of inner freedom he found through experiencing God in suffering, well, you want to know the God that He knows, the God that gave him the strength not only to endure persecution, but to triumph over it.
It was distressing in one sense, being with him, and with the other older men who were part of the underground church. Thinking of them in contrast with the rest of us American Christians — I very much include myself in this number — I realize how unprepared we are to suffer. We complain about everything. We are not ready. We have no time to waste.