Thanks for the tip, George.
The Wounded Torturer
“It was during this part that the majority of us tried to kill ourselves.”
They buried my spiritual father last November. I have never seen a body in a casket look so not-there; the indistinct pale husk he left behind looked like something a breeze could lift up and carry away. It was the contrast, I suppose. Few people in life are as radiant and vigorous as Fr. George Calciu, or as full of joy. He was a few days short of his 81st birthday, still full-time pastor of a church in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, still traveling world-wide to those who sought him as a teacher and spiritual father, still diligently reaching out to the poor and unchurched around him.
Fr. George’s radiance was a lasting rebuke to the darkest intentions of torturers. In his native Romania he was imprisoned twice by the Communist authorities, for a total of 21 years. He was a survivor, in particular, of the brief but appalling “Pitesti Experiment”—the most intensive program of brainwashing to take place behind the Iron Curtain.
The plan at the prison in the Romanian city of Pitesti was to take promising young men, 18 to 25 years old, and utterly break them down—then rebuild them into the ideal “Communist man.” In the book Christ is Calling You! (St. Herman Press, 1997) Fr. George explained to an interviewer that the Pitesti experiment involved several distinct steps.
Incoming prisoners would be handed over to a team of guards and experienced prisoners, who would beat them and kill one or two, whoever appeared to be a leader. Then the “unmaskings” began, in which prisoners were required under torture to renounce everything they believed. Fr. George recalled being compelled to say, for example, “I lied when I said ‘I believe in God.’ I lied when I said, ‘I love my mother and my father.’” This was extremely painful, as it was designed to be. The intention was to undermine the prisoner’s memory and personality, to infiltrate his consciousness with lies until he came to believe them.
A few months ago I was able to talk with another survivor of Pitesti, Fr. Roman Braga, when I visited the Michigan convent where he now is in residence. The Communists had arrested Fr. Roman on an inventive charge: he was accused of trying to overthrow the government by discussing the writings of St. Basil the Great, St. John Climacus, and St. Gregory of Nyssa. He spent his first year in solitary confinement, and in the dark, narrow cell could not tell one season from another, nor could he look out the small, high window and see a horizon. “You had to go somewhere; you had to find an inner perspective,” he said, “because otherwise you would truly go crazy.”
Fr. Roman told me that religious beliefs were particularly mocked. Tormenters would set obscene lyrics to the tunes of familiar hymns, and celebrate parody liturgies designed to break believers’ hearts. His sole clue that Christmas or Pascha (Easter) might be near would be the appearance of their themes in the torturers’ arsenal.
Neither man would describe what they’d endured. “It is secret, intimate,” Fr. Roman said, “I saw saints fall, and I saw the simple rise and become saints.” Fr. George admitted that he gave way under torture. When a victim is out of his mind with pain, he doesn’t know what he is saying. Fr. George told his interviewer, “It was a spiritual fight, between good spirits and evil spirits. And we failed on the field of battle; we failed, many of us, because it was beyond our ability to resist … The limit of the human soul’s resistance was tried there by the devil.”
This emotional and spiritual damage was even worse than the physical pain. Fr. George went on, “When you were tortured, after one or two hours of suffering, the pain would not be so strong. But after denying God and knowing yourself to be a blasphemer—that was the pain that lasted … We forgive the torturers. But it is very difficult to forgive ourselves.” At night a wash of tears would come, and with it, returning prayer. “You knew very well that the next day you would again say something against God. But a few moments in the night, when you started to cry and to pray to God to forgive you and help you, was very good.”
Yet the worst was still to come. In order to demonstrate that they had truly become “the Communist man,” in order to fully embody the persona demanded of them, these mentally and physically battered prisoners were required to become torturers. They were compelled to assist in the “re-education” of new prisoners, and any reluctance or leniency was cruelly punished.
“This was the most difficult part,” Fr. George said, “for under terror and torture one can say, ‘yes, yes, yes.’ But now, to have to act? It was very difficult. It was during this part that the majority of us tried to kill ourselves.” In his case, “I was on a big staircase, three stories high. The moment I tried to climb over it to throw myself down, a friend of mine caught me and saved me.”
I asked Fr. Roman whether he was able to forgive his torturers. “Those who suffer much, forgive,” he said. “Those who do not forgive become victims. I embraced my torturers, once I saw that they were controlled by the devil. The devil is real, not a bedtime story.”
That would be one piece of the puzzle which Orthodox Christians would bring to a discussion of torture. We still believe in a real devil. Not a pitchfork-and-tail cartoon, but a vicious malevolence who gorges on human suffering. The person who feels an inner compulsion to acts of sadism is not being driven by human nature. As even the Army’s “War Psychiatry” says, mammals have “an aversion…to killing” their own species.
Fr. Roman concluded, “Man is a sacrament; he is a mystery, too. We do not know what we are.”