What I Saw In Bucharest
Ever been to Romania? I hadn’t, until this past weekend, but the country has been on my mind for decades. It had one of the more grotesque Communist dictators, Nicolae Ceausescu, who ruled this country with his ghoulish wife Elena for many years. I have watched the video of the Ceausescus’ 1989 downfall more times over the years than I can count. It began with the dictator giving a speech from a balcony at the Communist Party headquarters. There was a vast crowd below, compelled to turn up to support him in the face of protest from the country’s far west. As the old man spoke, there were shouts from the crowd. Soon, the secret police are urging him to get out of there. A day or two later helicopter took the couple away. They ended up in Army custody in the countryside. There was a mock trial, then execution. You can watch the entire drama of the Romanian Revolution unfold here.
“I don’t know why I have been so electrified for years by that footage of Ceausescu on the balcony,” I said to some Romanians here.
“Because you can see how quickly absolute power can disappear,” said one man. Of course he was right. For nearly 25 years, the Ceausescus held the entire nation in a death grip. In the confusion that sweeps Nicolae’s face as he struggles to comprehend jeers from the crowd, you can watch everything change in a matter of moments. It hardly ever gets more dramatic than that.
When I landed in Bucharest, I told the two guys from the publisher who were there to meet me, Catalin and Ninel, that if possible, I would like to see the balcony from which Ceausescu delivered his last speech. Sure thing, they said; we’ll be driving right past it. And so we did.
[To catch you up on what happened next, here is a lengthy excerpt pasted in from my subscription-only Substack newsletter, sent out Friday night.]
Hello from the heart of the old town in Bucharest, the Romanian capital. I took this photo a few minutes ago, on my walk back from dinner with my hosts. They pointed out this “Russian Church” — so called because it was the last religious building authorized and funded by Tsar Nicholas II of Russia — is the university chapel. We checked to see if it was open late at night (it’s coming up on midnight here), and indeed it was. It was much darker in the church than the photo indicates (I’ve adjusted the light level so you can see details of the interior). Notice the back of a woman in a headscarf at the lower left of the photo. She was on her knees with a worn prayer book in front of her, praying into the night.
One of my hosts said to me, “Sometimes, I think people like her are the only thing that keeps everything from falling apart.”
I’m here for the weekend to give talks and interviews about Live Not By Lies. Here’s the Romanian cover:
I’ve never been on the cover of any of my books. Golly. My hosts took me on a walking tour of Old Town on our way to the restaurant. We passed a beautiful chapel built in 1724, which makes it practically new in this city. It’s called the Stavropoleos Church, and having been founded by a Greek monk, it’s built in a semi-Byzantine style. Here is a corner of it:
No doubt that one is in the East, is there? Here is a detail from the carved wooden doors:
Somehow, the Communists didn’t destroy this jewel box of a chapel, though the larger monastery of which it was once a part fell largely into ruin in the 19th century.
We had dinner at Manuc’s Inn, a big open-air restaurant that in the Ottoman past had been an inn where traders, emissaries, and others lodged when they were in town. It was kind of kitschy, but I really loved it! It felt to me like I was in a Patrick Leigh Fermor story.
I had beer, stuffed cabbage rolls, polenta, and sour cream (my Orthodox hosts were happy to indulge this traveler with meat on a Friday). We had great conversation about the political and cultural situation here, and in the world. I heard some of the same sadness about America’s self-destruction that I’ve been hearing in Budapest. One of my dining companions said, “Maybe I’m cynical, but I don’t really care if America destroys itself. I worry that it’s going to destroy us too.”
“Yes,” said the man across the table. “Everything that starts in America eventually comes here.”
The group talked about how hard it is for Romanians to hold on to being Romanian against the gravitational pull of the West’s culture. They told me that Romanians measure themselves against the US and Western Europe all the time, and are constantly afraid of being thought of as country bumpkins. So much of what makes Romania Romania is disappearing in this mindless attempt to be like the West, they said.
A university professor was at our table. He spoke at length about how distressing it is to deal with students today. “They know nothing,” he said. “They don’t even read! They are so conformist. They just want to be told what to do. I’m not talking about liberal or conservative things — I would be happy if they just wanted to step outside of themselves and think. But they don’t. Not even the best students.”
Later, as we were strolling back towards my hotel, I brought up the subject again. He said that he and his professor colleagues generally agree that the advent of smartphones has a lot to do with it, though he said that he believes pedagogical reforms made things much worse. I asked him what he thought I should emphasize most of all for Romanian audiences in the rounds of book interviews on national media I’ll be doing tomorrow.
“Tell people that this is serious,” he said. “That this crisis of soft totalitarianism is not a joke. It is real, and it has everything to do with their liberty and their basic humanity. You have to make people understand that you are trying to wake them up to the danger of something very real.”
He told me that as we were standing across a busy boulevard from this church (it’s blurry because the light was low):
This is the parish where the late Father George Calciu preached a famous series of sermons. I wrote about them in Live Not By Lies. Excerpt:
For Viktor Popkov, that meant enduring years of harassment from the secret police, culminating in a 1980 prison sentence.
“Maybe this will sound strong,” he says, “but the principles and the things that you confess, you need to be ready to die for them—and only then will you have the strength to resist. I don’t see any other way.”
This truth is what the Romanian Orthodox priest George Calciu proclaimed to the youth in Bucharest in one of his 1978 Lenten homilies—a sermon series that earned him a second stint in prison:
Go, young man, and tell this news to all. Let the light of your angelic face shine in the light of the Resurrection—for today the angel in you . . . has overcome the world in you. Tell those who until now have oppressed your divine soul: “I believe in the Resurrection,” and you will see them coil in fear, for your faith has overcome them. They will fret and shout to you in despair: “This earth is your paradise and your instincts are your heaven.”
Do not stop on your path, but go on, shining and pure, giving the light of that Resurrection on the first of Sabbaths to all. You, my friend, are the unique bearer of your deification in Jesus Christ, and with yourself you raise up the entire Romanian people to the height of its own resurrection. From death to life and from earth to heaven!
Shortly after giving that sermon, the Romanian dictatorship slapped Father George with a ten-year prison sentence. He served five, was given early release, and then he was expelled to the United States by the regime.
Here is Father George’s mugshot after one of his arrests:
And here he was towards the end of his life, as an exiled priest in America:
I highly recommend this paperback collection of his sermons, interviews, and essays.
[End Substack entry — RD]
Catalin picked me up at the hotel on Saturday morning, and we went to a small Orthodox church for the day’s round of interviews. I can’t remember the name of the church, but it was a jewel box lodged into a leafy neighborhood. I don’t know what it is about these churches here, but every one I visited deeply impressed me with an intense feeling of spiritual power. They were beautiful in their interiors, of course, with beautiful icons everywhere, but that’s not what did it. This was something unseen but so tangible I could feel it. These places were radiant from centuries of prayer, some of it made under extremely painful conditions.
To me, Romania is Ceausescu, but Romania is also Father Calciu, and other confessors and martyrs of the Communist yoke. Here is a passage from Live Not By Lies that gives you an idea of the spiritual depth of this country:
In a lengthy 1996 interview, Father George told about his encounter with a fellow prisoner named Constantine Oprisan. They met when Calciu was transferred from Piteşti to Jilava, a prison that was built entirely underground. The communists put four prisoners in each cell. In his cell was a man named Constantine Oprisan, who was deathly ill with tuberculosis. From their first day in captivity there, Oprisan coughed up fluid in his lungs.
The man was suffocating. Perhaps a whole liter of phlegm and blood came up, and my stomach became upset. I was ready to vomit. Constantine Oprisan noticed this and said to me, “Forgive me.” I was so ashamed! Since I was a student in medicine, I decided then to take care of him . . . and told the others that I would take care of Constantine Oprisan. He was not able to move, and I did everything for him. I put him on the bucket to urinate. I washed his body. I fed him. We had a bowl for food. I took this bowl and put it in front of his mouth.
Constantine Oprisan—“he was like a saint,” Father George said—was so weak that he could barely talk. But every word he said to his cellmates was about Christ. Hearing him say his daily prayers had a profound effect on the other three men, as did simply looking at the “flood of love in his face.”
Constantine Oprisan was a physical wreck because he had been so badly tortured in Piteşti for three years, reported Father George. Yet he would not curse his torturers and spent his days in prayer.
All the while, we did not realize how important Constantine Oprisan was for us. He was the justification of our life in this cell. Over the course of a year, he became weaker and weaker. We felt that he had finished his time here and would die.
After he died
every one of us felt that something in us had died. We understood that, sick as he was and in our care like a child, he had been the pillar of our life in the cell.
After the cellmates washed his body and prepared it for burial, they alerted the guards that Constantine Oprisan was dead. The guards led the men out of the windowless cell for the first time in a year. Then the guard ordered Calciu and another man to take the body outside and bury it. Constantine Oprisan was nothing but skin and bones; his muscle tissue had wasted away. For some reason, the skin pulled tight over his emaciated skeleton had turned yellow.
My friend took a flower and put it on his chest—a blue flower. The guard started to cry out to us and forced us to go back into the cell. Before we went into the cell, we turned around and looked at Constantine Oprisan—his yellow body and this blue flower. This is the image that I have kept in my memory—the body of Constantine Oprisan completely emaciated and the blue flower on his chest.
Looking back on that drama nearly a half century later, Father George said that nursing the helpless Constantine Oprisan in the final year of his life revealed to him “the light of God.”
When I took care of Constantine Oprisan in the cell, I was very happy. I was very happy because I felt his spirituality penetrating my soul. I learned from him to be good, to forgive, not to curse your torturer, not to consider anything of this world to be a treasure for you. In fact, he was living on another level. Only his body was with us—and his love. Can you imagine? We were in a cell without windows, without air, humid, filthy—yet we had moments of happiness that we never reached in freedom. I cannot explain it.
In terms of sacramental theology, a mystery is a truth that cannot be explained, only accepted. The long death of Constantine Oprisan, which gave spiritual life to those who helped him bear his suffering, is just such a mystery. The stricken prisoner was dying, but because he had already died to himself for Christ’s sake, he was able to be an icon to the others—a window into eternity through which the divine light passed to illuminate the other men in that dark, filthy cell.
This is why I wrote Live Not By Lies: to pay tribute to saints like this, to show my American readers the kind of holiness we are going to need to make it through what’s to come, and to raise interest in connecting with these modern confessors and martyrs. Their experience is a gift to us from God. To be here in the land of Constantine Oprisan, of Father Calciu, and so many others is one of the greatest privileges of my life.
I did one interview after another, for hours. Naturally the reporters wanted to know about my book, but about half the questions were about my journey to Orthodox Christianity. Romania is a predominantly Orthodox country, and the idea of an American Orthodox is so exotic to them. In the evening, as I signed books for nearly two hours, one old woman waited in line for well over an hour, not to buy a book, but to ask me to talk about how I discovered Orthodoxy. “It’s a long story,” said Catalin, on my behalf, trying to move the woman along, because there were scores of people with books still waiting in line. The old woman shot a gimlet glance at me and asked, “Do you wear a cross?” I pulled my cross out from under my shirt to show her. She seemed to leave satisfied.
One of my interviewers was Mihail Neamtu, a writer and public intellectual, whom I had met back in 2017 in New York, at the book launch of The Benedict Option. He presented me with a portrait of Solzhenitsyn that he had commissioned for me. I was absolutely stunned:
That great Russian face. I will be looking at it in this portrait for the rest of my life, thanks to the generosity of my new Romanian friend, Mihai.
The schedule said that at six pm, I would speak from a table to a gathering of people in the church’s garden. After my final interview, I sat quietly in the church hall, making a few notes from which I would speak to the crowd. Five minutes before I went on, I checked my e-mail. There was a letter from an old Dallas friend from St. Seraphim cathedral. He said that he had been going through an old file of photos, and found one of my family with Archbishop Dmitri, who died in 2011. Because I have a policy of not sharing family pictures on the Internet, here’s the detail with me and Vladyka Dmitri. I’m guessing this was from late 2009, or 2010, just before we moved to Philly. This would have been the last time we saw him alive.
In 2016, they disinterred his body from the ground for reburial in a tomb constructed in St. Seraphim, the cathedral he built in Dallas. His body was discovered incorrupt — that is, undecayed, which is considered by us Orthodox as a sign of sanctity. He has not been canonized, but we who knew him and loved him consider him to be a saint.
Now, imagine that you are me, about to address a crowd in an Orthodox country for the first time ever. Just before you go on, a Dallas friend writes out of the blue to share with you a photo of you and your family with the beloved Archbishop Dmitri, from the last time you saw him on this earth. What do you think? I smiled, thinking that I had his blessing, that he was proud of me.
So, I walked out of the church hall and rounded the corner of the church to see who had come. My publishers said that that talk had not really been advertised, but word of it had spread by word of mouth on Orthodox social media in the country. They expected a hundred people, and said that if they sold fifty books, they would be happy.
To my great shock, there were between 400 and 500 people gathered there in the garden, waiting to hear me. Among them was my friend Titus Techera, known to a lot of us online American conservatives for his commentary about film and culture:
With Catalin at my side interpreting, I talked to the crowd about my book. As I was preparing my remarks, I reflected on something I have picked up on a lot in my nearly two months here in Central Europe. The peoples of this part of the world looked to the West for hope and direction when they suffered under Communist dictatorship. They still hold the West in high esteem. Yet they also experience a great deal of Western arrogance, mostly from western Europeans, but also Americans — liberal elites who treat them like primitive children who need to be taught how to be proper moderns. Perhaps the main source today of Western contempt has to do with the natural conservatism in this part of the world vis-à-vis LGBT rights. Billionaire George Soros, among others, has poured money into countries like Romania via his NGOs to try to undermine traditions on the family, and religious authority. I had heard on my first night in Romania, and in various conversations throughout the day, that political elites in Bucharest routinely mock social and religious conservatives, in particular over their views on family and sexuality.
Well, in my talk, I told the audience that they may hear from the West, and from their Western-oriented elites, that they should be ashamed of their faith, of their traditions, and of their moral beliefs. This is one of the big lies that they must reject with all their heart, soul, and mind, I said. You have looked up to America for so long, but look at us now: we are destroying ourselves, because we have forgotten God. With this woke ideology, we have nothing to offer you but destruction. You don’t need to learn anything from us; we Americans need to learn from you, and your saints.
I worried for a moment that I might be flattering the crowd, but I actually believe every word of this, one hundred percent. I felt the anger rising inside me — anger at American and EU elites, their NGO agents, and progressives within institutions and political life here, all doing their best to make these people ashamed of themselves, their history, and their traditions. I’m truly beginning to understand what Ryszard Legutko meant in his great book The Demon in Democracy, about how the Communist nomenklatura did an about-face after Communism’s fall, and easily re-invented themselves as Eurocrats. They already shared a common faith in materialist modernity, and a contempt for religion and tradition. The Western left is eager to condemn 19th century colonialism, but it hasn’t the faintest sense that what it’s doing now is a 21st century cultural version of the same. No, it considers what it’s up to today as liberation from ignorance and the chains of the past.
I exhorted the crowd in the churchyard to refuse and reject this, and to embrace what God has given them, without apology or shame.
During the question-and-answer period, a Romanian man asked the Orthodox priest sitting next to me, a man who had introduced me, and who wrote the introduction to the Romanian edition of my book, why it was that an American had to come to Romania to say these things. Where are the Romanians saying them? The priest responded at length, telling the man, and the audience, the stories of Father Calciu, Lutheran Pastor Richard Wurmbrand, and other confessors and martyrs of the Communist era. When he finished, I took the microphone and said that if God has used me to come to Romania and open the eyes of my readers here to the spiritual riches of their own tradition, well then, glory to God!
“You have everything you need right here to resist soft totalitarianism!” I said.
To my shock, the line for people wanting me to sign their books stretched around the building. They kept coming, one by one. A young woman and her father asked for my signature, then gave me a copy of this book, Cancer, My Love, by the late Mioara Grigore. Here is a description of the book:
This memoir of personal transformation has changed countless lives in Romania since it was first published there in 2014. Author Mioara Grigore describes how, as a self-absorbed religion teacher with thoughts of becoming a nun, she began an unlikely courtship with an atheistic math teacher. The math teacher found faith, the two were happily married, and within six and a half years five children were born to them, one with Down syndrome. Mioara’s life was full, her home brimming with love. Then came the devastating cancer diagnosis.
With unflinching honesty, a keen eye for detail, and endearing humor, Mioara recounts her intense struggle with cancer. With the help of her husband and children, of her spiritual father, and then of new friends who sacrificed themselves for her and her family, she turned that struggle into a journey of spiritual self-discovery. In the agony of her cross-bearing, she found what it means, at the deepest level, to love and be loved by others and by God. Ultimately, hers is a story not only of growth but of indomitable joy and triumph.
I had read about this book earlier in the spring, and wanted to get a copy because it reminded me of my sister Ruthie’s story. For some reason, I wasn’t able to. And now, here I was in Romania, with someone handing me a copy.
Then it hit me. “Wait, are you her daughter?” I asked the young woman.
“Yes,” she said, smiling. And that was Mioara’s husband, standing next to her.
I very nearly burst into tears. In fact, as I’m writing this now, tears are filling my eyes. I could have spent the rest of the night talking to them, but they had to move on, because there were scores of people behind them. I took the book, and gave them my e-mail address. I hope to hear from the family, and I will start the book on the flight back to Budapest later today.
I signed books for at least an hour and a half, until past dark. As I was wrapping up, I felt a hand on my left shoulder squeezing it as if to say, “Well done.” I looked to see who it was. Nobody was standing near me at all. I could be wrong about this, but I think it was Vladyka Dmitri.
When it was all over, the publisher said they had sold 400 or more books — this, even though they had hoped to hit fifty. I have never in all my years writing books sold so many at an event. The only thing close to that was 187 at a Dallas event for The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. The publishers discovered that people came from all over Romania to hear me. Some took train journeys of twelve hours! Can you believe? I was so humbled I hardly knew what to think or say.
We went to a restaurant for a late dinner. At the table, the publishing team was still shocked by the turnout. One of them said to me, “Your book might start a movement in this country.” He was serious. Alas, I was so tired that I asked to be taken home before my meal came around midnight. It had been an exhausting, but exhilarating day. As I was falling asleep, I thought about what it was about Live Not By Lies and my talk that appealed to people. The best I could figure is that they are responding to someone articulating things that they believed, or at least sensed, but couldn’t quite put into words. And they appreciated someone from the West — one of them, an Orthodox Christian — coming over to tell them not to be ashamed of who they are, and what they have been given by their church and their ancestors, but on the contrary to be proud of it, and to stand firm on it to reject the lies that our toxic, godless elites are trying to force on them.
I received a couple of e-mails from people who had been at the talk. Here is an excerpt from a letter from an atheist who came with her fifteen-year-old son. She had told me in person that her son had listened carefully to every word I said, and had been amazingly attentive. I asked her why, and she said she didn’t know, but would ask him. She did, and wrote to me:
Basically, there are three main insights he says he got from you, and felt sort of stricken by how clearly you’d articulated something that was floating in his mind for some time without him being able to put a finger on it.First and foremost comes the idea that what we’ve now come to call wokeness is more of a pseudoreligion than an ideology. Or even a Weltanschauung (no, he hasn’t used this term as such, this is my contribution, I think it does express what he was trying to convey better than ‘mindset’).Wokeness looks and feels and makes itself felt like a cult. There’s nothing to discuss or debate or Woke forbid! doubt about what it preaches.Second is the idea that in the absence of a superior goal, of an aim so dear to you that you’re ready to take lots of risk to attain it, people will choose safety, security, before freedom.And third, pornography is really a serious problem in how it affects kids and the way they develop as adults. Pornography in the sense of not just sexual imagery, but also in the sense of a grossly sexualized way of looking at other people as objects or instruments of sexual fulfillment.My son was really attentive to you and what you said, and I was very happy about that, because he usually loses interest very quickly, if what’s in front of him doesn’t move or change after a few minutes.After we left the church yard, I told him: From now on, every time you’ll hear a Progressive label Romanian Christians as ‘rednecks’, ‘backward people’, ‘bigoted ignorants’, `relic-kissers’, please remember the kind of people you saw and heard at Mr. Dreher’s launch. Every religion has its bigots and ignorants, but today they were not a majority here. On the contrary.Thank you again for everything and keep doing what you do. I’m a supporter!
I want to to sincerely thank you for your conference. I felt that those were the right words with the right emphasis and I’m simply glad that I witnessed this moment of confession. And I really felt that all those people gathered around were actively engaged in the things you talk about. And I haven’t felt that for a while — not only because of the pandemic restrictions, but also because this kind of active interest in subjects that pertain to the “signs of the times” and to our totalitarian future seemed somehow lost.I used to say to my self that a book like yours (Live not by lies) should have been written by an Eastern Orthodox. By “us”. Because we actually lived, read, write, discussed for more than a decade (and probably others before us even earlier) about a new totalitarianism (we also used the “soft totalitarianism” idea) that was rising in the West, about the special meaning of the life of the martyrs and confessors from the communist persecution and, yeah, about the stringent necessity of forming small communities, strong families and a way of counter-cultural way of life. And still… my deepest concern and my deepest regret is that we were not able to build up nothing of the sort. We are, indeed, a small group of friends, we strive to live with our families as Orthodox Christians, but we definitely didn’t make it to form a community (or multiple communities). And that has practical consequences — but maybe we’ll circle back on that and on the causes for such a situation.Anyway, this days I realised that yes, it’s a real blessing that this book was not written by somebody in the East, but by an American. No other than an American could make the case that the current threat to our faith and to our souls comes from the ones we used to see as true saviours – the USA. No other than an American who knows the American Soul can point out to the roots of the new totalitarianism. And it’s a blessing to see that a man from the West deeply understands the meaning of the communist persecution and, even more important, the meaning of the Christian resistance to that. So thank you again.Concerning my questions, especially the first one, in fact I rather poorly formulated them. In my first question my intention was to point out that there is this conservative view, pretty much in vogue also in our culture, that blames all the evils on “neomarxism”, “the Frankfurt School”, “Soros” (they are to be blamed, of course, in various degrees, but not be transformed in The Cause). Is the mainstream conservative view, in fact, and a way to elude the bigger problem, the structural problem of the totalitarian drive of our world. From this mainstream conservative perspective, the West is seen as a stable civilisation and that only the “leftist” are the problem. This is a way to minimise the evil we face.I don’t think that the West has only an ideological problem — and neither does your book share that view. The cause is deeper: the great cultural shifts, the lost of (traditional) faith, the loss of a way of life with a meaningful telos that gives you a sense and a motivation to delay the gratifications, to sacrifice your self, to dedicate, to commit. That’s why Arendt seems so relevant today. And in such a context, boredom is, indeed, an explanation. Dostoyevsky had in his journal some interesting observations of the passions cause by boredom, which is, in fact, a way of letting your soul be captured by destructive passions and poisoning thoughts. So perhaps the superfluous man is the precursor of the woke man, the man who desperately needs a cause to dedicate himself to, an idol to worship, a ritual to perform.
On Sunday morning, my new friends here took me to the liturgy at St. Gregory Palamas church, which is known for being particularly traditional among the Orthodox in Bucharest. It was one of the most remarkable liturgical experiences of my life. The church itself was illuminated only with candles. It was like going into a cavern to meet God. The deep, rich sounds of the priests chanting behind the iconostasis filled the interior. It was utterly otherworldly. I took this short clip when they began swinging the chandelier. This is a practice from Mount Athos, meant to symbolize the angels dancing in heaven when the liturgy is celebrated:
Compare that to this 2012 clip going around Twitter recently, produced by Catholic “womenpriests” pushing for women’s ordination:
Which kind of Christianity has a future? I ask you. I told my Romanian friends that being in that church, lost in prayer while listening to that chanting, I felt like I was present to witness God collaborating with those priests to keep the world turning.
I spotted this little girl face down with her head on a pillow, in the crowd for liturgy. I thought she was devout, but it turns out she was just sleepy. I love this image, which is blurry because it was so dark, but I think that improves it:
Later, my friends drove me to the heart of Bucharest. First, we had to see the grotesque Ceausescu-era Palace of the People. It’s the world’s heaviest building, a Pharaonic socialist realism pile that Ceausescu ordered after visiting North Korea and being impressed by its socialist glories. He razed huge parts of old Bucharest to build this monstrosity, which today remains 70 percent unoccupied, and costs $6 million annually to heat and cool (the Romanian Parliament meets here). I expected it to be awful, but really, words cannot express the immensity of this monument to Commie megalomania.
Here’s a short Michael Palin clip talking about the thing. You can get a better view of its gigantism. Next to the Pentagon, it’s the largest building in the world. In 1984, when construction commenced, Ceausescu destroyed 26 churches and 7,000 homes to make way for this monster. Five years later, Communism ended. This hated building remains.
We walked over to the Antim Monastery, an 18th century treasure that survived Ceausescu’s demolition by some kind of miracle (and by being physically moved out of the way of his bulldozers). This gives you an idea of what it’s like there: a beautiful old church surrounded by hideous Communist housing blocks:
In any case, the church itself is beautiful. The monastery was founded by Metropolitan Antim, an emigre to Romania from Georgia who was a gifted icon writer, typographer, and artist. In the monastery’s museum, you can see books from the early 18th century that he printed, including an early printed Bible in the Arabic language, for Christians in the Holy Land. Here,from the collection in the monastery’s museum, you can see the coat of arms of Met. Antim. The snail is a symbol of Christ; he carries his home with him wherever he goes. This is how the immigrant Georgian, who died as a martyr of the Ottomans in Constantinople, saw himself:
Here is his signature:
Here, also from the museum, is an old photo of the neighborhood Ceausescu demolished to build his hideous monument to himself and to Communism:
Seeing this, I was reminded of something Ninel said on the drive in from the airport: that as horrible as Ceausescu was regarding architecture and demolishing valuable old buildings and neighborhoods, more ugly buildings have gone up, and more of Romania’s architectural heritage has been demolished, since the end of Communism than under Communism. Think about that.
Met. Antim — now St. Antim — wrote (the word Orthodox use to describe painting icons) an icon in the church. Notice the decoration within the halo of St. Nicholas. This is a St. Antim innovation, I was told by a priest-monk:
Look at this Romanian icon of Christ Pantocrator (Christ the Ruler of All), I think from the latter part of the 18th century. It’s not by St. Antim. I love the vividness of the colors, and the simplicity of the face of Christ:
The guilelessness of the eyes.
Here is an image of a book the monks there today still use for their chanting. The notation is Byzantine. It takes a long time, and hard work, to learn:
At lunch with a priest-monk in the inner garden of the monastery, I noticed St. Antim’s snail charmingly carved into the fence:
After our time at the monastery, we went to the National Village Museum, an astonishing exhibition of rural Romanian life, founded in 1936 by Dimitri Gusti, the father of Romanian sociology. He attempted to preserve aspects of traditional Romanian peasant life, which he saw was in danger of disappearing in modernity — this, even before the coming of Communism. Walking through it, you can see real examples of traditional peasant houses and interiors, from buildings moved to the capital from various parts of Romania. They are breathtakingly beautiful. The people of this country have so much to be proud of, and grateful for. As we sat on the porch of one of these farmhouses, one of my friends told me about Mircea Vulcănescu, a sociologist who was one of Prof. Gusti’s academic disciples. He died in a Communist prison. His last words were: “Do not avenge us! Only remember us.”
Later, back in my hotel room, I found this 2013 interview about Romanian Treasury, a local organization trying to defend and revive Romanian traditions of all kinds — arts and crafts, as well as religion and folk consciousness. Excerpts:
Why did you start all these projects?
Dimitrie Gusti, the founder of the internationally renowned Sociological School of Bucharest, focused on rural monographs, said that “Knowing one’s nation is the best means of serving it”.
Our nation cannot develop itself if we don’t strive to profoundly know and understand the nature of the Romanian people, if we aren’t able to preserve our ethnic and spiritual identity, our memory; all these aspects represent the basis for developing our national culture. Especially in these times of intense dissolution of national identities, we have a duty to protect and promote them. Romanians need to remember their own roots, in order to recover and build an authentic national culture. We strongly believe that this is the only way in which we can assure a sound future for our country
We all have a sacred duty both to our ancestors and our descendants. Moreover, Romania has so many beautiful things to show, all at our fingertips, that it would be a pity to pass by them with indifference.
It all started with a conversation among friends, late at night, about what we would actually want to do and how we would really like to be. This is how the Romanian Treasury project took form. Initially the name seemed a bit pretentious to us, but it eventually imprinted itself in our minds and we just couldn’t change it. Moreover, we jokingly called ourselves “the treasurers” (“tezaurienii”). A great enthusiasm filled our souls. It is hard to explain the motivation and animating force when you really do what you have always wanted to do. This has also helped us to get closer to our parents and our grandparents.
What is the beauty of Romania?
The beauty of Romania comes from what makes it unique.
Dumitru Staniloae, the greatest Romanian theologian, said, in his book, Reflections on the Spirituality of the Romanian People, that Romanians are unique because we unite Latin lucidity with a sense of mystery specific to the peoples of the Eastern Europe.
We have a kind of “bright depths”, a kind of serenity, there is a brightness in our people, a decency (“cuviință”), a balance, a delicacy, a generosity and a warmth that many foreigners have noticed in our people particularly; they have appreciated our hospitality.
This kind of enlightened understanding is also full of “a profound respect towards the endless mystery of people and of the world in general”. All these qualities are reflected in our popular culture, in our folklore, in the Romanian fairy tales, where good always wins over evil, in the Romanian carols and ballads called “doine”.
We also have a word in which all these features are united: the Romanian “dor” – longing- , which – as Dumitru Staniloae said – “is associated with the communitarian spirit of our people”, something completely different from both the Western individualism and the Asian collectivism.
Without the strength faith, the Romanian people, who have always been “in the way of evils” ,as the Romanian scholar Miron Costin says, wouldn’t have resisted so many hardships.
“Without Orthodoxy our history wouldn’t have known the glory in the times of Mircea cel Bătrân, Mihai Viteazul, Ștefan cel Mare and other voievodes” (Dumitru Staniloae). As a testimony, we have the numerous monasteries founded by Romanian voievodes such as the monasteries of Bucovina, with exterior paintings, many of them raised by Stefan cel Mare, and which have amazed many foreign tourists with their remarkable paintings and rich symbolism.
Another interesting feature that distinguishes Romania from other countries is the maintenance, in certain areas of our country, of the villages of free peasants (yeomen – “răzeși”) until the Interwar period, which is a unique phenomenon in Europe.
In our country, the peasant commons (“obști țărănești”) were a form of resistance of the Romanian people, an example of strong solidarity, which often made the Romanian peasants capable of defending themselves against feudal enslavement.
That interview says a lot about the message I wanted to give to the Romanians: that they have so much here that they should defend in the face of the modernists and the woke totalitarians. On the drive back to the hotel from the Village Museum, one of my friends told me that in Romania today, Orthodox Christians are living with the painful paradox of being described by non-believing Romanians as “Communists.” Why?
Because when young Romanians of the post-communist years ask their parents and grandparents what Communism was like, they hear stories of material poverty and the lack of personal freedom, defined as being able to do whatever you want to do. This makes them see anti-communism as pretty much what we have in the West: material wealth, and no limits on personal choice. This is what they want. When Orthodox Christians tell them no, that is only a different form of slavery to materialist ideology, the young have no idea what they’re talking about. It sounds “Communist” to them. Thus do people whose faith and traditions were nearly destroyed by the Communists in the name of Progress have to suffer the cruel lie of being thought of by postcommunist youth as like the Communists. What a world… .
Well, look, with God’s help, Live Not By Lies — or, Să Nu Trăim in Minciună — will help to remind the Romanians who they are, and give them encouragement to stand firm against the lies coming at them from the decadent West. I heard many times that people who criticize the West here are often slandered as pro-Putin. I am not pro-Putin. I am pro-Christian. I am pro-Orthodox. I am pro-Romanian. I am for these good people, these people who produced Father Calciu, Constantine Oprisan, Richard Wurmbrand, Mircea Vulcănescu, and so many others, will remember their baptism, and remember what they have been given by their ancestors. I am for these people saying a resounding NO to the lie that there is something wrong with them, that they need to learn from godless, anti-family decadents from the US and Western Europe how to be modern. They have big problems here — public corruption is huge — but on cultural matters, they are not as far gone as we in the West are. And the depth of their Christian spiritual heritage is unmatched by anything we have in America. We Americans need for the Romanians to remember who they are so they can help us to live not by lies. We provided hope and light to them during the darkness of the Communist era. Now these Christians who are hanging on here can do the same for us, if we will humble ourselves to look, listen, and learn from them.
What a grace this weekend in Bucharest has been. All of it. I will never forget my time here, and can’t wait to come back to Romania.
UPDATE: Checking in at the airport, the young woman at the airline counter said, “Oh! You are the guy who had the conference!”
“You know about it?”
“Yes. Lots of people are talking about it. Wow, here you are.”
I had a copy of the Romanian version of my book in my bag, and offered it to her.
“No, I can buy it.”
“Let me give it to you.”
Her eyes grew wide. “Thank you!” she said.
“This is a great country,” I said. “I had a wonderful time here.”
She beamed. “You know, they always try to make us feel ashamed.”
I got my ticket and went over to talk to my three publishers, who had come to see me off. I told them what just happened. Their eyes grew big too.
“Something is happening here, guys!” I said. This is going to be exciting to watch. The huge reaction we’ve had to Live Not By Lies in Romania makes me optimistic for how it will be received in other former Communist countries.
UPDATE.2: You remember me saying up above that a prominent neocon commentator in Romania said that my thesis is too pessimistic because we still have liberal institutions committed to upholding our rights? Well, here’s some fresh news from Romania: the Orthodox Bishop of Husi has revealed that an unnamed state institution asked him to remove a paragraph from his introduction to a biography of a holy priest who had been persecuted by Communists — this removal being a condition of publication. The bishop refused, and they had to find another publisher. What did the offending paragraph say? This:
We sincerely hope that the pages of this book will provide an infusion of courage and a testimony in favor of an even more intense and constant confession of traditional values for all those who, 30 years after the dissipation of the moral darkness of communism, (still) resist totalitarianism contemporary neo-communists, disguised as preachers of political correctness; in preachers of humanist-secular tolerance, who, in fact, diligently spread the discourse of hatred and propose the abolition of natural differences between people all the way down the lowest level of complete homogeneity; in preachers of the demolition of the values of Christian civilization and in preachers of the neo-Marxist gender fluid ideology, which establishes idolatry and the supremacy of group rights and triggers the class struggle between the sexes.
Congratulations to Bishop Ignatie of Husi. He is a man who shows that he is willing to live not by lies! And his refusal also reveals the nature of contemporary soft totalitarianism.
UPDATE.3: I see on Twitter that some Catholic readers assume wrongly that I was making a comparison above between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, in contrasting the Orthodox liturgy with the Catholic “womenpriest” dance-off. Uh, no. Catholic womenpriests are not priests, and the Catholic Church knows that. I was making a comparison between Tradition and Modernism. The womenpriests claim that they are the future, that God is calling them. Nuts to that. That’s my point.