A while ago, Reflection Publishing published a small but precious book, Aspazia Otel Petrescu’s With Christ in Prison. The book is about one of Mrs. Petrescu’s experiences in communist prisons in Romania, but it is also about more than this: suffering and forgiveness, personhood, and genuine life in communion with all people. In fact, if we listen attentively, I think we discover that, while seemingly describing suffering in prisons, Mrs. Otel Petrescu talks about love.
My wife, Elena, translated the text from Romanian. I copy here a short passage from the introduction I wrote for the book.
Aspazia Oțel Petrescu’s With Christ in Prison is a testimony for how one finds one’s true freedom, how one remains a person. I refer here to only one aspect of her book for it brings with itself a beautiful concept: the fact that people are connected over centuries as in a constellation. Oțel Petrescu talks about the power of the words of prayer because through them we enter into a connection with the people who came before us, the people who are contemporary with us, but also with those who have not yet come to be. She says, “In our prayers there were other people’s prayers, other people who had probably been in similar situations, who prayed with the same words, who used those words to connect with the Divinity. The prayer’s words allow me to be on the same ‘frequency,’ the same channel that connects me to God.” If we take her words further, I think we can say that we are all connected in various constellations, the constellations that are themselves the beauty of the world. In a constellation every star has its own meaning. While it is a star, and in this sense the same as all the others, it has its own personal importance. I call it personal for stars are persons, not individuals; stars are fully understood in their beauty when we perceive them connected with other stars. In itself, a star is no different than any other star. There may be shades of brilliance, but there is nothing special about them in separation. They are just bricks, as Fr. Calciu described the people of a totalitarian regime. Personhood is gained through belonging to a body; stars are persons in their connectedness with other stars, because we discover them as what they are in their own constellations. Constellations show both the uniqueness and irreplaceability of every star, for there is no other star in the sky that can take its place. They also show that a star is the star that it is only in communion with the stars of its constellations. Oțel Petrescu reminds us that constellations are formed not only with the people in our contemporary world, but also with those who came before us. Furthermore, we are not the source of these constellations (as communism and fascism erroneously think when they want to create the world as they want), but we are responsible for that which is already given to us.
Oțel Petrescu’s book shows us how ugliness comes into the world by the breaking of connections. To refuse to accept another person in your heart is to refuse an already given constellation; it is refusing to love your neighbor. We do not choose our neighbors: they are given to us. In this sense, the beauty of this world is already created for us; it is already present. For the neighbor is the face, to use a term consecrated by the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, that calls on you to acknowledge the presence of a constellation. Refusing the neighbor (who may happen to be your torturer) is refusing the participation in beauty; is accepting ugliness, separation, and, I may add, objectivity.