Repentance As Response To Coronavirus
The Trump era has taking a terrible toll on The New Yorker‘s sense of humor. It cannot publish a funny political cartoon to save its life. This from the other day:
— The New Yorker (@NewYorker) February 27, 2020
I wouldn’t mind so much this making fun of the vice president’s Christian faith if the cartoon had even a slightest bit of wit. It’s just stupid, and it’s faintly ugly.
But you know, repentance is not a bad way to face this crisis. Let me explain.
We Orthodox Christians will begin Lent on Sunday night. To get ready for it, I went to confession tonight, for the first time in a long time. I’ve been struggling — struggling a lot — with some things. Not worth going into here, but let’s just say that I’ve not been in a good place, and for reasons particular to me, have been paralyzed every time I’ve thought about confession. I started going to confession 26 years ago, when I became Catholic, and have always been faithful to it. The rite of confession has been one of the great gifts of both my Catholic, and then my Orthodox, faith. Catechumens often find the thought of it intimidating, but I tell them, just you wait — you’re going to get to the point where you look forward to it. For me, it has been both a way of making spiritual progress, by having to do a spiritual inventory every two or three weeks, as well as getting free of my tendency to carry around a burden of guilt. When you leave confession, if you confessed with sincerity, then you can have confidence that your sins are forgiven. God is the one who forgives; the priest stands in for Christ. Still, there’s a certainty that comes with the priest praying over you, making the sign of the Cross at the end, and you walking out, free.
Anyway, I’ve been stuck for a while trying to deal with some things that are not right in my life. We all have them, but in my case, I have felt like I’ve been turned to stone, and unable to move. Why are things the way they are? Why can’t I do anything about them? It’s not like I’ve been mad at God, but I have simply been vexed and paralyzed. This morning, I knew that I had to find some way to get to confession, but I didn’t know where I would find the strength inside myself to do it. I haven’t been to confession in months, and therefore haven’t been to communion for months. When was this going to end? I don’t know. I felt like Dante and Virgil standing before the iron gates of Dis in the Inferno, unable to break down the wall, or enter the gates — until an Angel of the Lord came down, and through a divine act, made straight the path.
Well, I don’t want to say that God sent an angel today, but I will say that working on my forthcoming book, Live Not By Lies, this afternoon — I’m adding a new chapter — got through to me, and opened the gates of repentance. My editor and I were talking a couple of weeks ago about what the book would have to say to people who don’t really believe that the anti-communist dissidents are right, and that soft totalitarianism is upon us. The answer, as it turns out, is a chapter based on my conversations with my friend Timotej Krizka, a young Slovak photographer. Here’s a photo I took of Timo and his wife Petra at home in Bratislava last year:
Timo is an incredibly gifted photographer, and a deeply devout Catholic. Late last year, he published Light In Darkness, a collection of his photographs and interviews with elderly Christians who survived incarceration for their faith, under the communist regime. There’s an English translation in the book accompanying the original Slovak, but I don’t know how you can buy a copy of the book itself. If Live Not By Lies is successful, I hope some American publisher will buy the rights to reproduce Timo’s stunning volume.
In the chapter I finished today, Timo, who is 33, tells about how he had found a fair amount of success as a commercial photographer and filmmaker, but somehow felt empty and anxious. He began a project to honor the memory of his great-grandfather, a Greek Catholic priest in Slovakia who had been ordered by the Soviet-backed communist regime to convert to Orthodoxy (it controlled the Orthodox Church) or leave the priesthood. He refused, and had to spend the rest of his life working a secular job to support his family (Eastern Rite Catholic priests are allowed to marry).
Timo said that his great-grandfather’s decision profoundly affected subsequent generations of his family. As an artist, he wanted to honor that sacrifice, somehow. So, he set out across Slovakia to find survivors of the Czechoslovak gulag, ask them about their experiences, and photograph them. His is the first generation to grow up in a free, democratic, capitalist Slovakia — and he wanted to remind people of what had been done to Christians of the older generations.
What he found turned his life upside down. What follows is from the current draft of Live Not By Lies.
At the start of his pilgrimage, Krizka met Jozef Maslej, a ninety-year-old Greek Catholic priest living in remote eastern Slovakia. In his early twenties, Maslej was convicted of treason for studying theology. He had wanted to be a priest like his uncle, who had saved The state sent him to the worst prison in Prague. He spent the first four months in solitary confinement, losing 77 pounds and contracting tuberculosis.
The elderly priest’s young visitor was startled by how calmly the former inmate discussed his imprisonment.
“I said it then, and I still say it now: those were the best days of my life,” Father Maslej told his visitor. “I did not fear anything. I was not afraid that they would lock me up or that I would die. If I die, I die. I am in God’s hands.”
He received that solitude not as a punishment, but as a gift. Maslej spent entire days in his cell, praying the Our Father. The desire for comfort lost its power over him.
This spiritual strength manifested during forced labor at the prison quarry. Because of his work ethic, the prison overseers offered Maslej a promotion to an administrative position.
“He turned the promotion down,” says Krizka. “There was a possibility that they would put someone weaker in his place, someone who would have a harder time doing the strenuous work. He sacrificed for a man he did not know. There was no one to thank him.”
Maslej was eventually released from prison because of his tuberculosis, and sent to a sanitarium. When he was finally returned to society, Maslej was kept under watch as an enemy of the state. He found a job at a canning factory, and spent his career there. After retirement in his sixties, Maslej secretly resumed his theological studies, and was ordained a priest in 1988 – one year before the fall of the communist regime.
“The idea that I would have to wait almost my whole life to fulfill my dream, like Father Maslej, is hard for me to understand,” Krizka reflects. “If I have to wait for a year to get what I want, I lose interest.”
“In his life, I found none of the things we use today to measure the quality of life,” the photographer continues. “He was not free to choose where or with whom he would spend his days. And still he lived like he lacked nothing. How is it possible that he owned nothing but had everything?”
The meeting with Father Maslej shook the young photographer to his foundations. Though a practicing Catholic, Krizka began to understand that his concept of God was too abstract and mystical. In the faithful life of this persecuted old Slovak, Krizka saw what it meant to worship a God who became a suffering flesh-and-blood man.
“Father Maslej did not fill his life with dreams of the future,” Krizka muses. “He did not run away from cruel reality, to pleasant memories. He accepted reality as God’s will, and by doing that, entered into the present moment.”
Father Maslej was around Krizka’s age when the totalitarian state crushed his dreams and threw him into prison. Yet how was it that young Maslej was free, and Krizka, who had vastly more liberty as a middle-class citizen of a free-market democracy, was not?
The answer, he reckoned, was that the prisoner Jozef Maslej grasped that true freedom is an inner state: the freedom to do God’s will, in whatever situation one is thrown. “To be able to accept it, and to want to accept it. God’s will is not what I imagine for my life; it’s what I am living.”
The time with Father Maslej — that’s him above, in Timo’s portrait — shook the photographer up. On the long drive back to Bratislava, he had to pull over and go lie down in the grass to think about what he had just heard, and what it had to say to him about his own life. More from my book:
“I felt something in me moving, breaking and transforming,” he remembers. “My body did not move, but I was somewhere else. I could no longer be who I was before this.
Krizka found more elderly survivors of communism to interview, and to photograph. The more time he spent with them, the less he felt burdened by his own problems. He would confess to them that his greatest fear was that he would lose control over his life. To this, they smiled. All of them.
“It seemed that the less they were able to change the world around them, the stronger they had become,” Krizka says.
He goes on:
“These people completely changed my understanding of freedom,” Krizka says. “My project changed from looking for victims to finding heroes. I stopped building a monument to the unjust past. I began to look for a message for us, the living, free people.”
What their Christian faith gave them was the alchemist-like ability to transform suffering into joy. This is the secret of the prisoners’ freedom.
“My natural reaction had been to fight suffering. I believed that pain was bad, that it was an obstacle to living a full life,” says Krizka. “I was wrong. I saw that it was not necessary to run away from suffering. On the contrary, if one accepts suffering, one’s world will grow bigger. Accepting suffering does not mean that it will disappear but it will allow us to feel joy.
“Many prisoners, despite hunger and illness, made theater, or wrote poems in prison. There were moments when they managed to draw a spark with a piece of stone and light a cigarette. Or when they made coffee using water that came out of a lukewarm radiator. These moments filled their life with gratitude.”
Timo said that he realized from these encounters that the real oppressor he had to overcome was — himself, and his constant worrying over the future he imagined for himself. He came to realize that the will of God is the life he is living, not the life he dreams about. It is more important to seek God in the life you have than to imagine that once you get the life you want, you will find peace and inner harmony. This, then, is the answer to the question. Even if the anti-communist Christians are wrong about what’s coming, their experience of oppression, even prison and torture, has life-saving lessons for us today.
You’ll have to wait till my book is published in September to read the whole thing. But I have two copies of Timo’s book here with me. I edited the English text, so I know these stories. This afternoon, looking at the faces of those saints, my own problems and struggles seemed very small. But not just small: I realized that I ought to be looking at these seemingly insurmountable challenges as an opportunity for conversion, to become more Christ-like, to become humbler, and more grateful. If those men and women in Timo’s book were able to carry their much heavier crosses, and allow their fidelity to grow, and their love to be purified by them, then surely I can regard my own crosses in this way.
I began my confession tonight after vespers by telling my priest why I had been away from confession for so long, and that I was not there tonight of my own volition, but out of obedience to God, and from the inspiration given to me by the witness of these dear Slovak heroes of faith. And I told him that my own pride blinded me to the fact that God was giving me, in my own crosses, an opportunity to repent of my pride, and to grow in His love. I told him that I ask God to help me to see these trials for what they really are. Then I listed my sins, as one does, expressed my contrition, received absolution, and went out into the night, a free man.
On the drive home, I was thinking about the New Yorker‘s snotty cartoon about Mike Pence and repentance as a way to face the coronavirus crisis. They are actually correct. This terrible crisis is a trial for us all. None of us wants it, but it is coming anyway. The way we meet this crisis will be a test of our souls. Will we despair? Will we be angry at God, or selfish, and spiteful to our neighbors? Or will we receive this crisis and its suffering as an opportunity to rediscover God, and our family and community, and our better angels?
I was texting this afternoon with a friend, who said of this onrushing public health crisis:
When you have lived for several generations in a powerful and wealthy country untouched by deep tragedy and awash in the deep-seated belief that you are both the Chosen Land and Master of Nature, the belief that everything is manageable becomes the biggest article of faith. And the biggest blind spot.
True. This is why repentance — of the kind Timo’s saints led me to this afternoon — is one of the best things any of us can do to prepare for the struggle ahead. Maybe even haughty New Yorker contributors will see that, eventually.