A Book to Read: Valeriu Gafencu
The Saint of the Prisons: 334 pages, Sibiu 2009
Valeriu Gafencu, ‘the Saint of the Prisons’, was born in what was then, and in many ways still is, devout north-eastern Romania on 24 January 1921 and died aged 31, as a result of TB, torture and mistreatment on 18 February 1952. There is today a strong movement in Romania for his canonisation, as for that of many others who suffered atrociously in Communist camps, prisons and torture chambers.
Born to a devout Orthodox family (his father was martyred by Soviet Communists), as an ardent and very idealistic schoolboy, he joined ‘The Legion of the Archangel Michael’. This organisation spanned many interest groups. In some ways it resembled nothing more than similar movements in the inter-war years in the rest of Europe. That is to say that with its greenshirts, it was a rather fanatical, militaristic and moralistic boy scout movement with hero-worship of its founder, marching songs, spartan living conditions, keep-fit exercises and hiking in the mountains. However, at another extreme it also attracted some very nasty anti-Semitic elements who, known as the Iron Guard, were nothing but Fascists and were responsible for several political assassinations during the late 1930s.
However, there was also a very strong Orthodox and spiritual element among the ‘Legionnaires’, which distinguished the bulk of the movement from nationalistic groups elsewhere in Europe at the time. The emphasis on national salvation, moral principles, hard work, sacrifice, seriousness, respect, self-discipline and teamwork were reflections of a monastic side to the movement and it was to this side that Valeriu belonged. Indeed, later in his life he regretted his youthful and idealistic association with the Legion, in which he had seen nationalism and politics, the inherently anti-Christian pride of a code of ‘honour’, spiritual impurity and from which, like many others, he had gone on to the fullness of Orthodoxy.
In any case, it was for mere membership of this movement that in late 1941 Valeriu, a twenty year-old law student, was arrested, stood trial on absurd charges and was then sentenced, incredibly harshly, to twenty-five years imprisonment. It was this injustice which, in the eyes of many, purified Valeriu and made him into a saint. Here, for example, he read the Roman Catholic work ‘The Imitation of Christ’, widely available in Romania, a Latin country much affected in its western parts by Hungarian and French Catholicism, before going much, much deeper and entering into authentic Orthodoxy. His prison in fact became a monastery and it was here that he read the Scriptures, the Fathers, the Philokalia, learned the prayer of the heart and understood the importance of confession and communion.
In June 1943, having already cleansed himself, he received enlightenment, turning from the merely moral to the deeply spiritual. The last nine years of his life brought wisdom, prophecy and clairvoyance. Here are some extracts from the book:
‘Valeriu was an enthusiastic sort. He was one of those people about whom it was frequently said that he walked around with his head in the clouds. He did no have a practical nature. 1 never saw him sewing or knit ting, he didn’t know how to wash his clothes, which usually fell apart in rags. He was very much preoccupied with spiritual concerns and he was very vigilant with himself. He had the soul of a poet. Some thinkers believe that on the ladder of perfection, poets occupy the lowest rung, followed by heroes, prophets, and finally saints. I read this somewhere - Iovan Ducici - and 1 think it’s true. Poets that fulfil their vocation as they should beautify life and elevate man. Valeriu even wrote poetry. He wrote blank verse but also in classical form.
Valeriu showed us the path that leads to salvation: Christian love. Love was a byword for him. He said it in all circumstances, whether verbally or when writing. He used it instead of hello and good-bye’ (P. 94).
‘He saw beauty even where there was none. Or maybe there was, but we didn’t see it. He had eyes to see it. Nature is indeed beautiful, but you must be gifted with special antennae in order to pick up on the hidden mysteries of creation. Valeriu, had this capacity to perceive the beauty of nature, because Valeriu loved nature, and nature reveals itself only to those who love it sincerely…He did not seem to be a part of this world’ (p. 96).
‘For the sake of my spiritual freedom I have decided to die. It is good that the truth be told plainly, and 1 serve the truth. I am not the judge of others, but a confessor of God. There is nothing under the sun that can survive without God. You cannot accept Christ. 1 cannot accept spiritual death…. Understand well that Christ is the only power at can deliver mankind from suffering and sin’ (P. 141).
During the night of his last Christmas, towards dawn, Valeriu testified to his friend loan Ianolide:
‘…Amazed by this, 1 lifted my gaze and at the head my bed I saw the Mother of God, clothed in white, vivid, real. She was without her child. Her presence seemed material to me. The Mother of God was actually beside me. I was happy. I forgot everything. Time seemed endless. Then she said to me:
‘I am your love! Don’t be afraid. Don’t doubt. My Son will be victorious. He has sanctified this place now for future life. The powers of darkness are growing and will frighten the world still more, but they will be scattered. My Son is waiting for people to return to faith. Today, the sons of darkness are bolder than the sons of light. Even though it may seem to you that there is no more faith left on earth, nevertheless, know at deliverance will come, albeit through fire and devastation. The world still has to suffer. Here, however, there is still much faith and I have come to encourage you. Be bold, the world belongs to Christ!’ (P. 155).
‘At the beginning of May 1951, sick with TB, I arrived at Targu-Ocna. During the three and a half months that I spent in this prison, I came to know Valeriu Gafencu. The others had informed me that he was a living saint. I myself felt this to be true and I also bear witness to it. I will mention only a few of the many extraordinary events that I experienced in his company.
In our discussions, he often encouraged me to say the Jesus prayer. He advised me to say this prayer using a certain technique, with my hand on my pulse, every heartbeat accompanied by a word of the prayer. I also tried to say the prayer when I was stretched out in bed and had no other preoccupation. When we met, Valeriu always asked me about the prayer. I would tell him that I was making an effort, but despite all my endeavours, I had not succeeded in saying the prayer as it ought to be said, that is, with the heart.
‘Listen’, he said, ‘a moment will come in your life when, without any effort on your part, your heart will sing the prayer on its own and you will hear it’.
Although 1 didn't pay much attention to it at the time, these words of his turned out to be a real prophecy’ (P. 165).
A: ‘Atheistic materialists, obsessed with pleasure, the desire for domination, and egotism, have created modern civilisation, which culminates in technology, They have isolated human nature and have abandoned the commandments of God. Their attempt to create an earthly and sensual paradise has failed. Nature has been exhausted and polluted, and has become unsuitable for life. Technology, in turn, has a much greater capacity for destruction than construction. On top of all this is the worst evil of all: Man’s alienation. In these conditions, the advocates of anthropocentrism (humanism) no longer feel that they are in control of the fate of the world that they themselves have created. And thus the world, alienated from God, bears the punishment for its own evil deeds’ (P. 236).
A: ‘The fulfilment of man is [to be found] in communion with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is called to bring unity into diversity, to bring order into history, to bring holiness into life. Holiness is not something seraphic, unearthly, or esoteric, but is an opening that Christ makes toward a world steeped in the Holy Spirit.
Q: Will the Christian world of the twentieth century accept the vision of creative and messianic freedom?
A: The tragic events through which the modem world is passing will create conditions that favour returning to faith. We must come back to the Holy Spirit, the Gospel, to apostolic force. We have the duty of crying out with all our strength the Truth, repentance, and he world’s return to God. Christianity is being reborn in the ovens of fire and torture of materialistic atheism. It is exactly through his own methods of operation that Satan will lose the world that he thinks he will gain’ (P. 237).
Q: ‘What is the most repulsive aspect of Communism?
A: Its poverty is hard to endure, its imprisonment of man within a system is indeed serious, but nothing is more dreadful than the determination of conscience, which transforms man into a controlled tool.
Q: But doesn't Communism have its weaknesses, its cracks, its fissures?
A: It has many ideological ‘fissures’, but they are kept concealed, for Communist power cannot accept any freedom (outside of it], it cannot give anyone the right to criticise or deny Communism. Communist tyranny is formidable. (Communism was created to be] an institutionali7ed system that holds on to power relentlessly and which seeks at any and all cost to extend itself. The prospects of a triumphant Communist empire in this century are opening up with a degree of darkness never before imagined. ‘Re-education’ at Pitesti is but a symbol of the new Communist world order.
Q: Therefore what future do you see for mankind?
A; God works in the world. Mankind will be delivered through many sufferings and Communism will be defeated, but the world has even more serious problems to solve, The world must change its style of life and its orientation. Therefore Communism will perish, but what is important is what will replace it’ (P. 245).
Q: ‘Valeriu, what is the essence of today’s crisis?
Q: What do you see in today's world?
A: I see internal chaos, a decomposition that is leading toward nihilism, because people are obsessed with the nothingness of matter, with the fiction of forms, with sensual exhaustion, with historicism without transcendence, with ceremonialism without God, with consumerism without spirituality, by the falseness that conceals itself within the self-deification of Man. Disaster is unfolding on all planes of fortitude of human life. Much suffering will be necessary in order to re-orient the world spiritually and to change its way of life,
Q: Why did God allow the world to sink into this present crisis, after some 2000 years of Christianity?
A: This crisis is not from God, nor is it from faith, but rather from the freedom of the human conscience, In the past few centuries, man has profaned the world, devastated souls, encouraged sensuality and has fallen prey to the pride of materialism and atheism. At the same time, satanic forces are more refined and better organised in the 20th century than in the first Christian age. The way in which saints are killed by the beast and perish in the 20th century is much more diabolical, more perverse, more complete, better studied, more horrible than the way in which martyrs were killed during the age of the catacombs’ (p. 248).
‘The desire to rise up to heaven can be seen in all of nature. The mountains, the skies, the skylarks, the eagle, and the soul of man are ever thirsting to rise higher, higher, closer to the Lord, further away from this world.
I long for a quiet, distant place, for a hut or cabin hewn out of rock, for a monastic cell in the foothills, to be with the birds of the sky. With nature as a friend around me and the Lord Christ ever in my heart. To love in peace, humble, and forgotten by the world. Sometimes I think about becoming a priest, but I am not worthy. I look at the soil. One day I will be earth myself and others will dig up the ground. My body will turn into dust. From my body another life will probably grow. My soul will be in heaven, where it will wait to be judged. I want to be saved’ (P. 296).