Fall 2013 Newsletter
The Monastery of St. John of San Francisco
WE RECENTLY CELEBRATED a little service of thanksgiving on the one-year anniversary of God’s deliverance of us from the forest fire last year. It provides a good time to reflect. We see something wonderful as we look out over the areas behind our monastery where the fire raged last year and where the lumberjacks came afterwards and harvested the partly-burned trees: new growth. Not only weeds, though we do see weeds; and not only little flowers and patches of grass, though we see that as well; but little baby oak trees, too. The earth has not remained bare. The topsoil will hold against the rain when the rain comes. And the tiny oaks will become big strong oak trees in time.
We see the same thing in our brotherhood. We are growing in all sorts of ways, both literal and figurative. New men are coming to visit us, to explore the possibility of joining our brotherhood. And members of the brotherhood are growing, too, stretching upwards, just like the plants and tiny trees we see on the other side of the fence.
But something even more important is happening. We, too, are sinking our roots into the soil. In the readings we do during meals, we are placing a special emphasis on especially solid monastic texts, we are going chapter by chapter through the Ladder of Divine Ascent in weekly brotherhood meetings, we each meet one-on-one once a week with our father superior to talk about how our spiritual life is going and any counseling we might need... It’s “back to basics” here at the Monastery of St John in so many healthy ways.
October 17, 2013
THIS YEAR IS THE 1700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan, which granted toleration to Christians. This edict was very important in the history of the Church and marked the beginning of sweeping changes within the Roman Empire. Although persecution of Christians still persisted, this once small Jewish sect would soon take center stage in the culture of the Empire. One significant change that occurred with this sea change in the history of Western civilization was that it proved that Christianity was truly an inclusive faith. Christians, having “put on” Christ and become “little Christs” were shown to be capable of blessing and sanctifying all that was around them—even the Empire itself.
It is easy to forget that the Christian faith started small and grew quietly on the fringes of society. St. Paul’s letter to Timothy written at the end of his life indicates that many disciples had left him. “Luke alone is with me” (II Tim 4:11). Had Christianity been merely a sect, it would have been easy for it to follow the anticulturalist approach. Believers could have isolated themselves and remained hidden from the predominately pagan Roman culture. The Church, however, is not merely a sect. It is the “pillar and foundation of the truth” (I Tim 3:15). Like the leaven which a “woman took and hid in three measures of flour” (Matt. 13:33) the Church was destined to influence everything around it. The Emperor became a Christian, religious toleration was proclaimed, the Church was effectively invited to center stage, and at that pivotal moment in history, she rose to the occasion. The very place where people tend to draw the line of separation, that is, between Church and state, was done away with at that moment. The Body of Christ on earth became the channel of grace and healing—even for the government itself.
Persecution of Christians lifted, laws were written favoring the Orthodox, and many church building projects were undertaken. Yet there remained those who would yearn for the time when persecution compelled them to hold their faith dearly. It was not long after the Edict of Milan that many monasteries were established. The deserts of Egypt became like a city with so many monks and nuns settling there. They left the cities not out of disapproval of the Empire’s endorsement of Christianity. The movement was not a protest against the establishment. Is it not fitting that the ruler of the people should give what is good to his subjects, and what could be better than the true faith, the true path to God? Yet there will always be those who are drawn to the ultimate. Like the young man in the gospel, men and women felt called to renounce everything in this world in order to follow Christ (Matt. 19:21). The monastic aspirants were quietly turning to a life of anticipation of the coming age.
In his Oration on the Thirtieth Anniversary of Constantine the Great, Eusebius of Caesaria wrote that the emperor is, “invested... with a semblance of divine sovereignty... and frames his earthly government according to the pattern of that divine original, feeling strength in its conformity to the monarchy of God.” For the state to conform itself to the heavenly pattern and to accept Christianity would serve to spread the faith to ends of the known world. Yet there remains a temptation to regard this heavenly-oriented, yet earthly kingdom as an end in itself. The human soul knows instinctively that this earth is not our real home. “[God] has put eternity into man’s mind” (Ecc. 3:11). One of the heresies denounced by the Church in the 4th century was Chiliasm. Based on a literal interpretation of Apocalypse chapter 20, it taught that Christ would reign on earth for a thousand years. This heresy was renounced at the 2nd Ecumenical Council in Constantinople, and phrases were added to the creed: “whose kingdom shall have no end” and “I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come.” These words were inserted to refute any notion of the Kingdom of God in its fullness as being of this earth. The universal nature of the Christian faith was proven best with Constantine’s conversion and the Christianization of the empire. Paradoxically, this normalization of Christianity in the common culture led many to abandon such a culture. The flourishing of monasteries following the Edict of Milan answered the innate need of men and women to anticipate the coming of the Kingdom yet to come.
OUR MONASTERY HAS ITS ROOTS in Orthodox tradition in various ways. Among the most meaningful are the personal connections with monastics from other communities. We find a particular reason to reflect on those connections when one of our brothers from another monastery falls asleep in the Lord. One such monk was Fr. Antonios of Dionysiou Monastery on Mount Athos, whom Fr. Cosmas had an opportunity to get to know in the fall of 2011 when he spent two months there. Since Fr. Cosmas is a small-schema monk or stavrophor, while the monasteries of Mount Athos generally bypass the small schema and usually go directly from rasophor to great-schema, at meals he sat between the rasophors and the great-schema monks. This put him next to Fr. Antonios, who was a great-schema monk.
Fr. Antonios fell asleep in the Lord a shortly before old calendar Transfiguration. Fr. Cosmas remembers him fondly because of Fr. Antonios gave him guidance with the Jesus Prayer while he was at Dionysiou Monastery.
Here is how that happened. One day after breakfast, Fr. Cosmas asked Fr. Antonios if he could speak with him. The conversation went like this:
— Father, I’d like to ask something of you. I have problems in my prayer life. I think I’m making a lot of mistakes.
— Yes, I understand. That is a big problem for us monks.
— So I am wondering if you could give me some guidance.
There was a long pause, and then he said in a soft voice, looking down at the ground bashfully:
— But I’m not very spiritually advanced. I don’t know very much.
This was, of course, a great-schema monk, a man who had been an Athonite monk for some forty years or so. Fr. Cosmas was afraid that out of humility he would say no, thinking that he had nothing to offer. So he replied quickly:
— Oh, Father, the problems I am having are very basic. I’m sure you could help me if you would be willing.
And of course Fr. Antonios was willing, and Fr. Cosmas gained a great deal from his guidance. May his memory be eternal.
by Monk Cosmas
THE MORNING OF TUESDAY September 17, along with Fr. Jim Pappas, my old parish priest at St George Greek Orthodox Church in Fresno, I entered Unit 4A4R at California State Prison Corcoran for the first time. Handshakes and hugs all around. I recognized some of the guys because they had sent me photos, but others needed introductions. Even though we were meeting in person for the first time, with some of the men especially it felt like we were getting together again after time apart. Several of them and I, after all, had have kept up a correspondence that dates back seven years.
It surprised me when the possibility came up several months earlier. I didn’t suggest the idea, after all. I had given up hope for such a visit years ago. Our previous two abbots had always said that a monk belongs in his monastery, and if I am going to do prison ministry, I should do it exclusively by correspondence. Of course that viewpoint does make sense. I never argued against it. But what a delight when our new father superior himself suggested that I visit these guys that I have been writing to for all these years. “Why not?” I replied. “I would like that, and so would they, I imagine.”
So we got the ball rolling. I contacted Fr. Jim and explained the new development, and he sent me paperwork to fill out. You can’t just waltz into a medium or high security prison, you know. In fact, the prison administration and the guards and all the other staff have two main jobs: keeping some people in, and keeping other people out. They accomplish this primarily with red tape and formalities. Therefore we began the process several months ahead of time, and we checked on it over and over. Half a week before the planned visit the prison still hadn’t provided official notification that they had cleared me, so Fr. Jim redoubled his efforts and also asked “the boys” to pester the administration from the inside.
When we drove down that Tuesday morning, we had 99% confidence that no obstacles lay ahead of us. Well, that little 1% doubt transformed into reality at the entrance gate, where the officer informed us that my name didn’t appear on his paperwork. Fr. Jim persuaded him to make a phone call, the warden’s office faxed my paperwork to him, he cleared us, and we drove to the next point on our itinerary, where we signed in, got our passes, and walked through the metal detector. I had emptied my pockets and left everything in the car except my driver’s license. I took off my monastic belt before trying the metal detector, because it has a big metal buckle. The alarm still went off. So I took off the belt holding up my pants, and grabbing hold of my pants with one hand, I attempted it again. Off went the alarm. “I don’t have any other metal on me as far as I can tell,” I said. “What about a cross?” Fr. Jim asked. Yes, I did have a little metal cross, so I removed that, and no alarm sounded.
Guess what happened next. Right—absolutely nothing. We waited. We waited some more. And then we waited some more. Finally, a friendly officer came along to escort us to 4A4R. We engaged in a pleasant chat along the way, and he explained the numbering system, which had seemed so mysterious to me over all the years of my writing letters to the guys there. “It starts with 1A on this side,” he told us. “On the other side it starts with 1B. Each section has several buildings branching out from it, and that’s why you get the second 4 in 4A4R.” Pretty sensible, I thought. “Okay,” I then ventured, “what about the R at the end?” Well, it turned out that the left-hand group of buildings had L, and the right-hand group had an R. Not quite as complicated as I expected.
We went along concrete paths with bare earth on each side. No vegetation to speak of. No bushes, no trees. Any grass or weeds were purely accidental. High fences everywhere with multiple rows of concertina wire—the kind I recognized from working in Guantanamo years ago, what most folks call “razor wire”—on the tops of the fences, with the spirals intertwined with one another. Not very many people around.
We finally reached 4A4R. The wall outside, on the exercise court, had a beautiful mural. Wasn’t that painted by one of the men we were visiting?, Fr. Jim and I asked each other. Later, when I talked to them, I confirmed that it was.
We signed in again just outside the door leading into the big room where the boys were gathered, waiting for us. We stepped through. The door clanged shut. No, this was not what you see in the movies—we didn’t talk to them through a thick sheet of glass, with or without a telephone. Just a big open space, all concrete and steel, with the cells along one wall and a huge observation area along the other, with unseen guards behind bullet-proof glass. We had entered their world, where they lived out each day. They even showed me their cells. No bed like you would expect, that is, an industrial steel thing bolted to the wall. Nope—the bed, the walls, and the floor were a single piece of concrete. And yet later, as I was talking to them, I noticed that one of the men never referred to his little living space as his cell. Instead he always called it “my home.”
Fr. Jim put on his epitrahelion and went off to a corner to hear confessions one by one. The other guys and I sat around table in the center of the room and talked. Mikhail opened the conversation by saying, “O Holy Father Cosmas, give us a word of monastic wisdom.” I laughed. “Come on. You know I haven’t got any wisdom. But if you like, I can share my stupidity and tell you what I have learned from my mistakes.” Mikhail reminded me that our correspondence began in that very same way seven years ago. We had a great discussion, very lively, several hours long, mostly about the difficulty of dealing with other people and forgiving them, especially when other people around you don’t care about living in peace with you or reconciling with you.
As I said, what I saw bore little resemblance to prison life as we see it in the movies. I’ll just relay one little story that gives an idea what life is like for lifers—since most of these guys will remain where they are (unless they get transferred to another prison) until they die. One of them told me about what happened a few weeks earlier when he needed medical care at a facility outside the prison, in another city. Naturally he had a couple of guards escorting him. Well, they were walking up to the front of the doctor’s office or hospital or clinic or whatever it was, and he asked one of the guards, “Would you mind if I went over there and touched that tree?” The other guard didn’t quite understand, but the two guards thought it was okay. So they walked him over there and he touched the tree. “It has been thirty-five years,” he explained, “since I touched a tree.” Yes, thirty-five years. I did a little quick math in my head. 2013 minus 35, that would mean 1968. Yes, I believe I recall that was the date he was convicted.
But you know what? The thing that struck me about my visit was not how different these men were from me, but how much the same we were, and how much we have the same struggle ahead of us in our lives as Orthodox Christians, whether we live in prison, in a monastery, or in “the world.”
A FEW MONTHS AGO Doren Toma, a member of SS. Cyril and Methodius Mission in Chico, kindly presented us with three relics of individuals who were martyred under the Communist regime in Romania, and was also able to provide us with the following biography of one of these martyrs.
Radu-Stefan Demetrescu “Gyr” was born just south of the Romania’s Carpathian Mountains on March 2, 1905. In 1928 he graduated with distinction from the University of Philosophy and Fine Arts in Bucharest, where he served, first as assistant professor, and then as professor in the Department of Literature, Aesthetics and World Literature.
Between 1937 and 1940 he was imprisoned by King Carol for his adherence to the “Archangel Michael Legion” a Christian-nationalistic movement for which he wrote a series of hymns and poems. Released when the movement ascended to power in 1940, he became director of all theaters in Romania and supported the founding of the only Jewish theater in Bucharest, which still exists today.
In 1941 he was sentenced to 12 years in prison by the military dictator General Antonescu, who later forced Radu Gyr into an active combat unit of the Romanian army fighting against Russia on the Eastern front. Wounded after a short time, he returned to Romania under the watch of a guard who was supposed to kill him under the pretense that he was trying to escape. Possessing the fear of God, that soldier refused to do that and told Radu Gyr about this.
The burial crypt of the martyrs
In 1945 he was returned to prison after the Communist regime found him guilty of being an enemy of the state and sentenced him to 12 years in prison as part of a group of journalists accused of planning to destabilize the country. After a brief release in 1954 he was rearrested and sentenced to death under the accusation of conspiracy to overthrow the existing regime. In reality his “crime” was a manifesto poem he wrote calling the farmers to oppose nationalization by the Communists.
He was kept on death row for about a year with chains on his hands and legs, enduring the psychological torture of potential execution at any moment, until he was informed that his sentence was changed to life in prison. Throughout his detention he and his cell mates were deliberately exposed to an extermination regimen designed to kill them slowly.
Throughout his years in prison he kept writing poetry which was widely circulated by the most incredible means and memorized, since writing was a capital offense. His poetry describes life in prison, continuous hunger and cold, death as a daily presence, a prisoner’s relationship with God, as well as the destiny reserved for him and the other political prisoners, and the faith in God and the afterlife that helped them cope with that existence.
Another view of the crypt
More than anything else Radu Gyr can be credited with giving an entire generation of oppressed and imprisoned people hope that God had not forsaken them. His personal suffering and that of other detainees who were unjustly thrown into prison brought him closer to God. His children have testified that toward the end of his life he forgave all who ever caused him harm.
During the last years of his incarceration he suffered unthinkable tortures in Aiud prison. Having multiple medical conditions such as a gangrened rectal prolapsed tumor, hepatitis, tuberculosis and hemophilia he was denied medical assistance. He lost much weight and his skin turned as hard as the skin of a snake. Everybody thought he was going to die, but through God’s mercy he survived.
In 1962 he was informed that if he didn’t renounce his past, his wife and daughter would be arrested, and after doing so he was released in 1964. After that he lived with his family until his death in 1975.
There is not much information available about the other two relics. We know that one comes from Radu Gyr’s wife and the other from an unknown martyr who died in a Communist prison. It is hard to imagine the amount of torture these prisoners were exposed to. One young man was crucified on the wall by his torturers and beaten until he died. A young woman was beaten till she passed out, and while still alive she was thrown in a burning furnace. Her screams did not convince her executioners to pull her out of the fire. Spouses of those imprisoned for political reasons were sometimes raped, threatened and abused. Many were “convinced” by the political police to divorce and abandon their imprisoned husbands.
This is the sad story of the Communist prisons in Romania and the martyrs who died there or survived the ordeal. Some remains collected at the mass burial sites presented signs of incorruption. Some of the relics are streaming myrrh. A church was built at the site of one of the most infamous prisons in Romania, the Aiud prison. That church houses a reliquary under the altar. That is the place from which these relics have come.
Holy martyrs of Communist prisons, pray for us sinners!