Immigrant story

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There is a Mediterranean grocery store in the town I live. It is owned by a Syrian. I do not know his story, but I think his family came to the US before the conflict started in Syria. Whenever I go to his store, I seem to have a back-in-the-past experience. Regardless of what he does at that moment, the owner, who is at the same time helping other people  or doing anything else that needs to be done, turns his head and greets me, intently, not because he is doing his job. He takes me in, together with all the others, regardless of how busy he is. It feels as an acknowledgement that we are all together in the store and that the experience of each one of us is touched by the presence of each and all the others.

I have met various people in Saad’s store. Many of them are immigrants. Many also come from Middle East–some of them are Muslims, others Orthodox Christians, other Catholics. People are not silent about what they believe in. They do not hide their identity and, what is even more, celebrate the others. There is always joy in that store. I may feel this way because I find Romanian food :). But I sometimes think that it is because of Saad and his friendly countenance. Or perhaps because of his ability to take his customers into his care, a care that makes one feel no longer a customer, but a friend.

From time to time, there is one more person in the store: Saad’s father. He speaks no English, but he comes to you, shakes your hand with both of his hands, while looking straight into your eyes, saying, “good! good!” You have no idea what is good. But it is good. And he brings you something; first time we met, he made me a coffee. Today, he gave me an orange, an orange so fresh that it seemed he just got it from a tree. Then he comes back and he shakes your hands again, still looking intently into your eyes. “Romania good, America good.” Everything is good, and in Saad’s store it truly seems like there is no evil in the world. When I left the store, he hugged me.

“I think he has seen things that are not so beautiful,” my son said today, after we left from the store. It may have been my impression, but I thought my son’s eyes were wet. Same wetness that I see in the hard, resolved, but also warm and melancholic eyes of Saad’s father.


Beautiful New Year

Photo by Aida Matei, used by permission. 

White flowers sing at the gate of the heart. Whoever has lived divine love will understand me and will be happy for my happiness. (…)  Man is not saved in the monastery only. (…) The helplessness of human nature pains me, but love makes me happy” (Valeriu Gafencu)

These words were written 71 years ago by Valeriu Gafencu, on the new year’s night, in a communist prison in Romania, where starvation and terror were daily ingredients of life.

Alice Herz Sommer, Holocaust survivor: “Every day in life is beautiful. Every day.” “I knew that even in these very difficult situations there are beautiful moments. […] Even the bad is beautiful, I would say. Even the bad is beautiful… It has to be.

A beautiful new year to all.

It’s all in the eating

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At times, instructors bring food to their last class. There is something about sharing a meal together, and I find the idea very suggestive: after a journey of learning, people share a peaceful meal. I never do this, except for one class, in which hunger sits at the center of our discussions.

We read about a Jewish boy, Eli, who, having nothing to eat, gathers the crumbs of bread left by birds at the window of a house in one ghetto during WWII. The boy is taken to the gas chambers, under the pretext of building a kindergarten.

We read about Fr. Calciu, who, being imprisoned during communism, confesses hating a suffering cellmate because he, Fr. Calciu, had promised to give him his piece of bread until he would mend. We read of other Romanians who were thrown in prisons because they were considered enemies of the communist regime. After being famished for days, one individual in a cell with five or six people received a piece of bread, so that the temptation to be a wolf and give to others a smaller piece would eat at the human dignity of that individual. Even worse, as in the prison of Pitesti, they were forced to eat their own feces.

There is also another hunger: the hunger for human dignity, for being still perceived as a human being. That hunger comes with a temptation: the one of thinking that those who eat at your flesh as wolves are no longer able to recover their own humanity. To see them as essentially predators.

Strange thing: that hunger for human dignity seems to be quenched when one offers oneself as nourishment for another, even in spite of the other’s savage attack. “At the beginning, you give from what you have; after a while, you give from what you are” (Fr. Arsenie Boca).

I bake bread for that class on our last day. And, as someone once said, the bread is broken and divided among us, and then becomes one again in our communion. Communion with Eli, with Fr. George Calciu, a communion that is ready to accept even the wolves, because it does not refuse anyone. I am the only one who can bring refusal with me, in the manner of my approach: as wolf or as shepherd.


The icons formed by others in my soul


A friend of mine asked me once whether I would join a prayer group: we would each read a kathisma of the psalter per day during the lenten periods.

I have no discipline in prayer, so I thought this would be a good occasion to build some. And I kept the rule well: I have not missed one day. But I often surprised myself wandering in thought, losing focus, and uttering the psalms with my mouth, but not with my soul. This is pretty bad, especially because other people depended on me: I was not praying just by myself.

From time to time, however, the words of prayer took life within me. It was not due to an increased level of concentration from my part. In fact, this was not connected at all with my ability to focus. Instead, it was due to others–and I have often discovered that everything that is good in my life is so because others have brought it to life.

Today, for example, I was reading my kathisma, often losing the train of thought, when I discovered that I started to sing. I did not really know what I was singing and why, so I focused on the text and realized that it was Psalm 102. It felt as if the psalm founded something in me and, while I was wandering in thought about what I would need to do tomorrow, it started to sing by itself.

Those of you who are familiar with orthodox thinking should not imagine that it was something like the prayer of the heart. This is far away from it. But this is what it may have been: I experienced beauty when I heard these words chanted, and they have thus remained within my soul (here is the version of the psalm chanted in Romanian). Their icon was in me, and, when I pronounced them mindlessly, they found that icon and began singing of God by themselves.

The same thing takes place when I get to Psalm 33, although I do not sing it. This memory is not connected with a song. I watched a documentary on Fr. Ilie Cleopa’s life, and he shouts the beginning of Psalm 33: “Bine voi cuvânta pe Domnul în toata vremea.” I wrote it in Romanian because this is how I hear it. And my heart shouts it, really, whenever my kathisma includes the psalm. Still, it is improper to say that my heart shouts it; perhaps it is better like this: it is shouted within me.

It is perhaps odd to say this, but I think that, even if I promised a kathisma per day and even if I actually utter the words of a kathisma every day, I am not the one praying, but rather those people who have formed icons within my soul. They wake me up from my indifference and bring me back to present, to the word that I utter at that moment, bringing it to life. Terrible thing, really, to become indifferent to what you actually do at that present moment and live instead in the realm of the future and so of the imaginary.

This reminds me of what Aspazia Otel Petrescu, imprisoned for ten years by the communist regime in Romania, said in her With Christ in Prison. Thinking about what the words of a prayer meant in prison, she wrote, “The one who  helped me understand that words are alive and that they are aged and enriched by previous experiences and meanings was Fr. Arsenie Boca. He spoke to people using living words. When he was asked a question, he would answer in very short sentences, without using theological theories. His sentences were short, but you could feel the living words” (25).

And she continues, “That is what prayer meant for us in prison. In other 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.”

It may be this connection with people who have come before me that brings me back to present. And yet, I can’t avoid thinking that this phenomenon takes place even when the icons are not beautiful memories, when they are not living words, but rather ugly ones, and this ugliness is resurrected in us whenever we encounter a similar script…

We write in the souls of others, for the good or for the bad. I have much to thank for and much to ask forgiveness for.

Carol from prison

I need help. I am translating some poems, and this one gives me problems. I would be happy for any suggestions.

The poem was written in prison by Valeriu Gafencu. The photo below is taken in Jilava. To my knowledge, Gafencu was not imprisoned in Jilava.


Photo taken by Ioana Hasu


On the bank of the Trotush,

The Lord’s servants His yoke push,

And they sing, and push… and push…

Their singing is slow, silent

For their suffering is violent

And their hearts with tears vibrant.


In the humble servant’s heart

The Lord makes His manger: light

On this peaceful Christmas night.


From heavens it rains with lilies;

All of them His manger seizes,

Dew from flowers feels like breezes.


At the horizon, a small child

Looks at us, his gaze is wild:

In prison we are exiled.


But an angel comes to him.

Seeing that the child is dim,

He sings gracefully a hymn:


“Today, Christmas has arisen

Not in palace, but in prison,

For the Lord has been imprisoned.”


So the child from the far east

Comes to us, his soul released,

To rejoice in the great feast.


In Romanian now:



Pe malul Trotuşului

Cântă robii Domnului,

Înjugaţi la jugul Lui.


Dar cântarea lor e mută,

Că-i din suferinţă multă

Şi-i cu lacrimi împletită.


În inima robului,

Domnu-Şi face ieslea Lui,

În noaptea Crăciunului.


Flori de crin din ceruri plouă

Peste ieslea Lui cea nouă

Şi din flori picură rouă.


Stă un copilaş în zare

Şi priveşte cu mirare

La fereastra de-nchisoare.


Lângă micul copilaş

S-a oprit un îngeraş,

Ce-i şopteşte drăgălaş:


“Azi Crăciunul s-a mutat

Din palat la închisoare,

Unde-i Domnu-ntemniţat.”


Şi copilul cel din zare

A venit la închisoare

Să trăiască praznic mare.

Zacchaeus – a poem by Dumitru Ichim

I expected

you to be just. What, no?

I am a desert,

hated by all, and most by me,

with heavy bags of sand within my soul.

If I were you, under the sycamore,

I would have showed my fist toward the wretch:

“You, brood of vipers,

embittered to the core,

you sucked the blood of orphans,

and of widows…”

“Come down,” I would have shouted to that self.

I had so stepped on others,

And now you could have showed

that You are the just judge.

The multitude You could have soothed

with my impure cloth, giving them justice.

And now, You stand on sycamore

with arms extended in a large embrace.

You’re ready

like an eagle.

How easy would it be to fly

from death!

But now, above, You are Zacchaeus,

and his entire love

you must return fourfold,

just as you promised.

Dumitru Ichim

And the poem in Romanian:


Mă așteptam,

cu câte-aveam în cârcă,

urât de toți, pustiu fără pripor,

dar mai ales de mine,

ca Tu să fii mai drept. Cum, nu?

În locul Tău m-opream sub sicomor

și-aș fi-nălțat către nemernic pumnu’ :

”Pui de năpârcă,

înveninată până-n măduvă,

ce-ai supt din sânge de orfan

și văduvă…”

Să țipi la mine, să scobor,

că prea mă ridicasem peste gloate,

și să le-arăți

că Tu esti dreptul lor judecător,

cu cârpa-mi murdărită începând,

să-i ostoiești, făcându-le dreptate…

Acum Tu stai pe sicomor

cu brațele întinse-a-mbrățișare.

Ești gata

ca o pajură spre cercul mare.

Cât de ușor

ar fi din moarte ca să zbori,

dar astăzi, sus, Tu ești Zaheu,

și-ntreaga lui iubire

va trebui s-o-ntorci de patru ori

așa cum i-ai promis lui Dumnezeu.