Mary of Egypt and the communist prisons

Room 4 Hospital (Camera 4 spital), the place where tortures began in the Prison of Pitesti. Now, it is a chapel.


Mary of Egypt had lived a dissolute life, giving herself to excessive sensuality. “Every kind of abuse of nature I regarded as life,”[1]she confesses to Fr. Zosima, from whom Dostoevsky may have taken the name for his character. One day, out of curiosity, Mary joins a large crowd that was running toward the sea to go to Jerusalem, for the day of the Exaltation of the Cross. She pays for the trip by using her body. On the road, she seduces many youths, “even against their will,” she says. When the feast day comes, she follows the crowd to the church, still out of curiosity, but she realizes that she cannot enter the church, as some force would stop her, even if she tries several times. For someone who has chosen to be outside of the church, who has not considered what other people may think of her, this would have no importance. However, Mary of Egypt weeps, and when she raises her eyes she beholds the image of the Mother of God. At the moment of her lowest point, Mary of Egypt appeals to the one who embraces and prays for the entire humanity, even if it crucified her own son. The mother of the Lord accepts her as she is.

The embrace of the Mother of God is one of the recurrent themes of prison testimonies. She is the protector of those who had lost all hope. It is to her that they turn in prayer because she receives all. When you can no longer look at yourself in the mirror, as the people in Pitesti could no longer look into the mirror of their souls after they experienced the horrors from Camera 4 Spital,[2]when you feel so low that you believe that you can no longer have any connection with any human being, when even the saints have left you, there is always someone who would never leave you, and that is the Mother of God. Fr. Arsenie Boca, who also spent prison time, said it this way: “When God abandoned you and when the saints no longer pray for you either, there is still someone who does not abandon you: the Mother of God, and the Mother of God is heard.”[3]

Fr. Arsenie Boca’s words may have many interpretations. As one often hears, there is one prayer that a man can never deny: the one that comes from his mother. In our weakness, knowing that our prayers can no longer reach God, we ask His mother to intercede for us. Jesus always does what she asks, as He did in the wedding at Cana in Galilee, where He transforms the water into wine at her request, even if He tells her His hour had not yet come (John 2:1-5). Then, she is a mother, and a mother never leaves her sons—all of them—behind. But there is something else. Theotokos is a birthgiver of God—she is a birthgiver of beauty. She gave birth to Christ in her just as all human beings are called to give birth to Christ in them: to refashion their theandric nature. Fr. Alexander Schmemann says, “When she received the news that she would give birth to a Son without having known any man, without having been married, Mary could have rejected it. She could have seen herself as victim, as someone who cannot choose the life she wanted. She could have been scared—and perhaps she was scared—because she was in the danger of being stoned as a woman who is found pregnant before marriage. Nevertheless, her answer is, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.”[4]

Mary is the one who emptied herself so that God can have life. She is the one who emptied herself to the point in which Love itself is born in her. There is no judgment in her, but only love and acceptance.

Rejected by the world and accused for their beliefs, the inmates of communist prisons often found that the one they could turn to was Mary, the Mother who never leaves her sons. Having no information from home—the authorities broke any connections the prisoners could have with the outside world—and being told that their own families turn their back on them, the youths turn to the Mother of the Lord and prayed to her for comfort.

During one of the nights spent at the prison-hospital in Târgu-Ocna, Valeriu Gafencu confesses to his best friend, Ioan Ianolide, an encounter with the Mother of the Lord. I will cite it here:

“I was awake, lucid, and serene, when I realized I was holding Seta’s picture in my hand (Seta was the girl with whom he was in love).[5]Surprised by this, I raised my eyes, and I saw the Mother of the Lord, dressed in white, standing, alive, real. She was without the Child. Her presence seemed material. The Mother of the Lord was truly next to me. And I was filled with joy. I had forgotten everything. Time seemed unending. She then told me: ‘I am your love! Do not be afraid. Do not doubt. The victory will be of my Son’s. He sanctified this place for the things that will come. The powers of darkness increase and will continue to frighten the world, but they will be shattered. My son is waiting for people to turn to faith. Today, the sons of darkness have more courage than the sons of light. […] But take heart, the world is Christ’s.’”[6]

It was the connection between those who were emptied through violence with the one who emptied herself out of Love. This connection could render to them the possibility to turn the dirt into fertile ground: a humble heart.

I often turn to this text from Anthony Bloom’s Beginning to Pray. He speaks of such birth-givers of beauty, but he calls them humble persons. He reminds us that humility comes from the Latin word humus, which means “fertile ground.” He continues, “The earth is always there, always taken for granted, never remembered, always trodden on by everyone, somewhere we cast and pour out all the refuse, all we don’t need. It’s there, silent and accepting everything and in a miraculous way making out of all the refuse new richness in spite of corruption, transforming corruption itself into a power of life and a new possibility of creativeness, open to the sunshine, open to the rain, ready to receive any seed we sow and capable of bringing thirtyfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold out of every seed.”[7]It is the life of the martyrs of communist prisons.

The testimonies of communist prisons do not speak of vertical love only. In fact, we are reminded that the cross has a horizontal level as well: the vertical love incarnated as it is expressed in loving those around you. As in Matthew 25:35-36, the love for Christ in expressed in the love for any other human being: “I was hungry, and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a strange and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.” When were all things accomplished? “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.”[8]

In prisons, the inmates experienced emptiness. After being forced to deny their love for God and family, after being forced to commit violence against their own brothers, they were in the danger of believing that they could no longer receive any love because they did not deserve it. It is the danger experienced by the criminal on the cross who can no longer ask for forgiveness—the thief on the cross and by many of those who went through Pitesti and could no longer imagine that love was possible for them. Brought to this state, people need someone like Alyosha from Brothers Karamazov, someone in which love—purity, beauty—has been born. It is also the role that Constantin Oprisan played for Fr. Calciu after Pitesti, when he was sent to Jilava, a prison underground, in a cell with no windows. “We had an electric bulb, day and night. They put four of us in each cell. In each cell there would be either a very sick man or a mad man.” It was a recipe for annihilation. It is, however, in this cell that Fr. Calciu begins to be cured: he takes upon himself caring for another. The first day he enters the cell, one of the other three, Constantine (Costache) Oprisan, “whose lungs were completely emaciated by tuberculosis,” begins to cough up the fluid in his lung. Fr. Calciu narrates: “I was leaning against the door, surprised because I had never seen anything like that. The man was suffocating. Perhaps a whole litter of phlegm and blood came up, and my stomach became upset. I was ready to vomit.” It was at this moment that two words made a miracle: “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.”In forgiveness, we are accepted the way we are; we are embraced, in the same way Jesus embraces us from the cross. Through Oprisan, Calciu was taken into Christ’s arms.

The people in our lives who play the role of Constantin Oprisan in Fr. Calciu’s life remind us that we belong already to the beauty of this life, and that the beauty of this life cannot be accomplished without every one of us, even if, from another perspective, we are nobodies. We are nobodies because we do not find our worth in ourselves, but we are mighty nobodies because we are loved as such from the Cross and by anyone who wants to carry his or her own cross.

The transformation of Mary of Egypt is radical and immediate; it presupposed a cutting off from people of her who lusted connection. To be fully healed required, perhaps, a transfiguration of these connections into communion. For that, she went into the desert. Communist persecution occasioned a different kind of reparation of connection. In this case, relationships were severed so that people lose their personhood. The attempt was to force people to become Mary-of-Egypt-before-going-to-Jerusalem. By their faith in God, traveling through the various torments of their souls, some of them returned home by refashioning within themselves the entire world.


[1] “The Life of our Holy Mother Mary of Egypt.” The Great Canon: The Work of Saint Andrew of Crete. Jordanville: Holy Trinity Monastery, p. 87. The account of the life of Mary of Egypt follows this source.
[2] This is the name of the room in which the terror began.
[3] Fr. Arsenie Boca, Living Words. Translation by Octavian Gabor and Fr. Gregory Allard, Bucharest, Charisma, 2014, p. 127.
[4] Luke 1:38.
[5] Valeriu Gafencu was taken into prison when he was only 20 years old. After years, he found out that Seta got married.
[6] Ioan Ianolide, op. cit., p. 180. The passage is reminiscent of John 16:30.
[7] Anthony Bloom. Beginning to Pray. Paulist Press, 1970, p. 35.

[8] Matthew 25:40.

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About Tavi's Corner

Blogging on ancient philosophy, communist persecution in Romania (including deportation to Siberia), and Orthodox Christianity. I've translated books from Romanian to English, and I also write about them from time to time.
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