Romania lives as a people through her deep roots in a millenia-old spirituality which lies dormant in each person, but from time to time erupts as a volcano, being expressed by representative personalities, such as: the hermit Chiriac of Bisericani, Elder George, Saint Calinic, or in Father Dumitru Staniloae’s theology, which will dominate Orthodox theology for several centuries to come. This mystical character of the Romanian people goes back to the Dacian “capnobotes” who lived alone throughout the Carpathian Mountains, or the ascetics of the Christian Middle Ages whose names remain inscribed in the topography of our mountains, valleys, and meadows: Mount Krill, the Chiriac Valley, and the Pachomius Meadow, to name only a few of the picturesque dwellings of the ancient, Moldovan hermits.
The ascetic inheritance of our ancestors, which resides in the soul of every Romanian even if he does not realize it, is sometimes expressed through socio-political currents, as expressed by the asceticism of the elite leaders of the 1922 generation. We talk about this movement as a historical fact. This movement, however, made a multitude of mistakes that led to its disappearance. But, because its founders were sincere and spoke in the name of the Romanian people as a cultural entity, not as a political party, God inspired them to express certain realities that came from the deep past. I have before me an oath taken by their leaders which sounds like the following: “I vow to detach myself from earthly pleasures and to live in poverty”’ or: “Our goal is the Resurrection”; or: “At the Last Judgement all the nations will present themselves with their leaders.” And, because prayer and faith in God were obligatory, I am certain that many of these impetuous exclamations came without thinking, by inspiration, and did not have anything in common with political and economic platforms. Therefore, they were not even accepted by politicians, because no one understood what they wanted, or what they had in mind to do. People called them nationalists, however, this was incorrect because they sought the salvation of the Romanian people as a people, not as a nation. A nation is a political reality, determined by a common territory, language, and goal to fulfill in history. A people, however, transcends history; it reaches toward God and the reason for which God sends it into the world. A people’s identity contains culture, spirituality, religion, and the way in which God is reflected in the life of that people.
The conversion of the poet Sandu Tudor
But let us move on to a phenomenon that is always present in the life of the Romanian people and which reflects, as Father Romulus Joanta said, “the hesychast tradition of the Romanian people”, namely, the Burning Bush Movement.
This article is informative. I do not want to become simply a document in the archives, but rather a guide for young intellectuals by which they can distinguish the characteristics of Romanian spirituality.
The Burning Bush Movement was initiated by a very controversial person in the history of Romanian journalism and literature. I am talking about the poet Sandu Tudor. From his father, who had been the president of the Supreme Court, this poet inherited a good education and an encyclopedic knowledge specific to the Romanian intelligentsia between the two World Wars, as well as enough material means which enabled him to dedicate his entire life to study, research, travels, and contact with everything that was interesting in the culture of the world.
Sandu Tudor was not systematic. He was, in the words of Professor Alexandru Mironescu, “a library in disarray”, however, every word of his was a topic for meditation. His lectures were a disaster, an amalgam of disorganized notes that he would look through for a minute without saying a word. When you thought he was finished speaking, he was only beginning. But he was, however, followed with great interest by the searchers of symbols, because Sandu Tudor had an inborn inclination for the hidden substrata of things, a fact that drew him to the writings of the Holy Fathers and the mystical life of monks. He lived among people of the Church whom he criticized in his newspaper Credința [Faith], sometimes even threatening them with blackmail.
His total conversion to the spiritual life occurred, however, as a result of a trip he made to the Holy Mountain. At that time, there was a woman journalist in France who wrote defamatory articles about the monks of Athos, claiming that she had visited the Mountain disguised as a man. Intrigued, and at the same time curious and hungering for any novelty, as would any journalist, Sandu Tudor came to the monastic port of Daphne and stepped off the boat dressed in summer clothes with shorts, a sport shirt, and a rucksack on his back.
God, Who is a hunter of rebellious souls–those who have something of the Holy Apostle Paul’s zeal–caused Sandu Tudor to come upon a wandering Romanian monk from the category of “beggars”, who wander from monastery to monastery, working for food and clothing. This monk said to Sandu Tudor: “If you want to know the mystery of the Holy Mountain, put on long pants, let your beard grow, and come with me; but you must do everything that I do. Many like you to see the libraries, treasures, or holy relics and return home knowing nothing. Monks do not reveal the secrets of the monastic life to tourists; these leave in the same way they came.” This proposal seemed logical to Sandu Tudor, and from that moment he began to do what the monk Averky did.
When they would enter the monastery’s gates, they would make three prostrations, another three prostrations on the church’s steps, and inside they would venerate all the icons from the door to the altar. The monks appeared as if out of thin air from behind the columns, they looked through the windows, and the abbot was immediately informed. The rumor spread throughout the whole Mountain that Averky was wandering from monastery to monastery with a very pious pilgrim. The doors and hearts of the monks who practiced the prayer of the heart opened to him. He returned from there with a small stool, the method of breathing, and the whole mystery of the hesychast’s inner Liturgy, taken not from books, not from the volumes of the Philokalia, but directly from the anonymous maestros of our days: the hesychast monks themselves. There Sandu Tudor learned that our “I” is infinite and that, in the existential center of our being, which monks call the heart, meaning depth, God exists; and that God is the seal of our personality. To that center in man where God resides do monks concentrate when they incline their heads toward the left side of their chest, reciting in rhythm with their breathing the words: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” He understood that prayer is a state of being and not a formal activity. It is the natural state of the man who feels God’s presence in him, because in God we live and move (Acts 17:28), and the way to true authenticity, to discover our true identity, is to descend within ourselves. Every conscious action must be tied to that existential center in us, otherwise, it becomes superficial and loses its authenticity.
Sandu Tudor now began to reconsider the entirety of human culture and the intellectual process, which, having other points of reference than God in man, become not only superficial but also demonic. His conversion was not theoretical. Sandu Tudor reached these conclusions by practicing prayer day and night. He used to say that in order to enter the realm of the Spirit, one first must become “dumb,” giving the example of another wanderer from the Way of a Russian Pilgrim who became a walking prayer. He would relate in minute detail how on Mount Athos he began making prostrations not sincerely, but to play the part of a pious pilgrim; however, with each prostration, something changed in him.
One night, at two o’clock in the morning, when the Mountain begins to pray, he was at Saint Anne’s Skete. Sounds of bells and semantrons were heard from all the dens and valleys, from the monasteries, sketches, and cells; and over all this beauty and harmony there was a full moon shining over the Calcidic Sea, creating a silvery wonderland. The sensitivity of the poet, touched by the wing and fire of the Holy Spirit, overcame him. The rebellious Sandu Tudor began to weep. The abbot of the skete, seeing his emotion, addressed him with a question like the blow of a hammer: “Brother Sandu, tell me, what were you doing in the world at this hour of the night?” Phantoms that he would have wanted to expel, like demonic visions, began passing through Sandu Tudor’s mind: Capsa Restaurant in Bucharest, nightclubs, cabarets in Paris, literary meetings, parties, etc. And the abbot concluded: “Those of us on Athos have a belief: if God preserves the world, it is because, at midnight, monks are praying.”
Returning to the Capital, he dedicated himself to studying the Philokalia, which he did not only read, but also practiced, uncovering documents on the existence of hermits in the Carpathians, and discovering the specific character of Romanian hesychasm in the Testament of Elder George and The Monastic Rules of Saint Calinic.
In 1944, when I was officially accepted into his circle of friends, Sandu Tudor entered Antim Monastery in Bucharest as a novice, with the clear goal of becoming a monk. He renovated the cells and Monastery chapel painted by Nicolae Stoica. He chose as his patron the most controversial of all the Orthodox Church’s mystics, Saint Symeon the New Theologian, who was also rebellious and a non-conformist in his relationship with the formalism and legalism of the official Church; and, like him, he built a cell under the belltower, which one could enter only by bending over. The first headquarters of the “Burning Bush” Orthodox Association was in that room. Later, through the goodwill of the abbot, Archimandrite Vasile Vasilache, this group that studied, held conferences on, and practiced the prayer of the heart moved to the Monastery’s library.
It was difficult to be around Sandu Tudor. If he did not find anything of value in you, he despised you; but he helped you acquire a genuine way of thinking. It was his belief that a man of prayer, no matter how simple he might be, becomes a person because he lives the Truth; for this reason, he greatly admired the humble, unsophisticated monks. A man of culture is not characterized by beautiful words, but by theophoric [God-bearing; God-given] knowledge. If we truly are temples of God, then the Holy Spirit must speak through us. Triviality and superficiality are the traits of people who do not live in God. Christ said: “Remain in Me and I in you” (John 15:4). How can branches bring forth other fruits than the vine?
On account of the fundamental changes that took place in him, Sandu Tudor became a point of attraction for the intellectuals of Bucharest. Those who frequented the conferences were Ion Marin Sadoveanu, Alexandru Mironescu, Paul Sterian, Anton Dumitru, the poet Dr. Vasile Voiculescu, Rev. Dr. Dumitru Staniloae, Dr. G. Dabija–Lecturer at the Faculty of Medicine–, Archimandrite Andrei Scrima–today professor at the Jesuit University of Beirut–, Architect Constantin Joja, all bringing their families and circle of friends.
The Burning Bush conferences and the Soviet Beast
The name Burning Bush was chosen not simply because it is a symbol of the Mother of God, but, more specifically, because the Mother of God is an image of perfect prayer, as the Akathist of the Burning Bush says: “in her, for the first time, the heart of God and the heart of man beat and remain beating together” (Kontakion 8). During prayer, man enters a Divine rythm–in him beats the pulsation of the Holy Spirit. The crisis of modern man is arrhythmia. I remember one of Ion Marin Sadoveanu’s conferences held at the Burning Bush about the religious dances of primitive people. The speaker asserted that they expressed existential rhythms like the succession of seasons, or the cycle of life and death. The same thing also happens in prayer: man enters the rhythm of the Holy Trinity’s life. And it cannot be any other way once we are in the Church, that is, members of the Mystical Body of Christ, because we breathe in and with the Holy Spirit, Who is the life of the Church.
The Burning Bush Movement was a mystical volcano in Romania, from 1945 to 1948. It was a reaction of the intellectual elite in a moment of crisis: the country was occupied by Soviet troops, and Romanian culture and education were experiencing a loss of values. This Movement started in a moment of anxiety, out of fear that we would cease to exist as persons, as spiritual entities in this world on which God had placed the seal of His Being. We suddenly found ourselves in the presence of Communism, this Soviet beast with an apocalyptic stench, with an odor of vodka and military sweat, which filled the country with posters, carnivals, gatherings, dirty media, political prostitution, and an overturning of values. We were overwhelmed with horror that this juggernaut would transform us into an anonymous, formless mass without personal conscience or responsibility. Where could you flee, except into the depths of your being? Where could you hide, if not in the chambers of your soul?
And here a miracle occurred: man, searching for himself, met God; he entered the realm of the Spirit. However, it was not easy. In the turbulent atmosphere of those years, the world sought refuge in forms of false spirituality. Spiritualist groups multiplied, as did false prophets and visions. At the Coltea Hospital, Dr. Vlad led a movement of psychoanalysis. He published a book with pictures representing the Holy Trinity in the shape of male sexual organs. He said in lectures that both holiness and art should be explained by the Freudian theory of sexual sublimation. Scientific, artistic, and religious surrogates invaded the theaters and literature with insane plays and frustrated heroes. Confusion reigned among students at the University of Bucharest: no predominant philosophy, no spiritual leader, no direction. Political sycophancy, atheism, and immorality were the norm, surrounded on all sides by Communism which had begun to impose itself.
Exploring the inner universe
Being students at the time, together with Father Nicolae Bordasiu, we tried to do something that ended up costing us our first five years in prison: we drafted some bylaws for an eventual Association of Orthodox Students (ATOS). We brought them to the Burning Bush and they confiscated them, saying: “Bring students here, the best ones. Man’s conversion does not take place through statutes, associations, or lectures. You need to descend into yourself and explore the inner universe in which we meet God.” The mentor of this fledgling group of students from all the colleges who frequented the Burning Bush was Archimandrite Benedict Ghius, who helped us transform our nominalistic theology into prayer. The Holy Fathers did not theorize; they were practical men: fasting, prostrations, confession, and communion were not merely words for them. Since then, I have remained convinced that God is neither an acquisition of the human intellect nor is Christianity a manual of rules or ethical principles, but God is life and our actions become authentic only when we can say, together with the Holy Apostle Paul: “it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).
Two events were responsible for the influence of the Burning Bush Movement among the intellectuals of Romania: the translation of the Philokalia and the exodus of Russian priests following the defeat [of the Germans] at Stalingrad.
Father Dumitru Staniloae initiated a course on Orthodox Mystical Theology at the Theological Institute in Bucharest which today constitutes the material of the third volume of Orthodox Moral Theology.
This course, together with the Philokalia, surprised us. It was everything we were missing at the time. They formed a perfect gnosis [knowledge], an anthropological system based on the journals of prayer, that is, the experience of the Eastern Church Fathers on the art of descending within ourselves and the intimate meeting with God at the ontological center of our being, which is, in fact, also the center of the human personality; the method of breathing during prayer, controlling the emotions, the descent of the mind into the heart, and finally the vision of the uncreated Light through the practice of the Jesus Prayer. The Holy Fathers named this discipline hesychasm and it is as old as Christianity itself. Spiritual fathers kept this art a secret; they transmitted it from spiritual father to son with economy and special initiations. For the group at Antim, however, hesychasm was the method of healing modern man’s insanity, whose tragedy lies in fleeing from himself, fleeing from a confrontation with God, to the confused daze of the outside world’s mirage. According to the eastern mystics, the flight from oneself is equal to the expulsion from paradise.
Father Staniloae’s commentary on Saint Gregory Palamas’ theology also changed the way dogmatic theology was taught in Romania, which until then had limited itself to the Catholicized scheme of the Catechism of Peter Moghila. The presentation of the Divine attributes and Grace as uncreated energies, just as man’s deification “according to grace”, not to substance, brought us back to the sources of the Holy Fathers and Scripture. Expressions such as: “Be gods”, “Remain in Me, and I in you”, “I am the vine; you are the branches” and “We are partakers of the divine nature” are not simply figures of speech, because the Holy Spirit reveals these truths; He does not write poetry.
Following the retreat of the Romanian army from Russia, Metropolitan Nicolae III of Rostov, with a group of thirty priests and several nuns, took refuge in Bucharest, seeking asylum from Patriarch Nicodim whom the Metropolitan knew from the time they both had studied at the Academy of Peter Movila in Kiev. The Patriarch assigned the priests to Cernica Monastery and the nuns to Pasarea [women’s] Monastery. In the meantime, Metropolitan Nicolae died and was buried next to the chapel of Saint Lazarus. In 1947, Patriarch Nicodim died as well. Among the Russian priests there was an experienced monk, Father Ioann Kulighin. He came to Romania with two Russian manuscripts, which had never been published. It was all he was able to save from the library before the Red Army closed Valaam Monastery and killed the monks with axes.
The first volume, titled Sbornik, is a compilation of writings of holy men experienced in the prayer of the heart, gathered by Igumen Chariton of Valaam, on the significance of the Jesus Prayer and its practice. It has been translated into English by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware [under the title The Art of Prayer]. The second volume is titled A Conversation Between a Monk and a Married Priest on the Practice of Prayer. One night, Father Ioann came to the Burning Bush accompanied by his spiritual disciple and Romanian translator–a Basarabean corporal who had fled the Soviet army. We considered Father Ioann a saint.
He knew so much about prayer, the psychology of sin, and the technique of dispassion, that one could stay up entire nights listening to him. The manuscripts were immediately translated and copied, and thousands were spread in secret. We speak too much about Russian samizdat, forgetting that in Romania, during the entire Communist period, books on mystical theology, asceticism, prayer, and the lives of saints circulated in secret. They were tracked by the Secret Police in order to destroy them, and their owners were threatened with prison.
The fate of the Russian priests who had taken refuge at Cernica Monastery was tragic. At the end of 1947, they were arrested and brought to the Soviet army tribunals, which summarily convicted them for the crime of high treason and condemned them to death. Father Ioann and his disciple, the Basarabean corporal, were deported to Siberia. Several postcards were sent to Professor Alexandru Mironescu’s address. Then silence fell. We understood that Elder Ioann Kulighin had died, and we did not hear anything about the Basarabean corporal.
In the meantime, a decree to abolish all religious and cultural associations appeared. The meetings and conferences at Antim ceased; however, fire, once lit, continues. Something in the lives of the Romanian intellectuals had transformed. They became more Orthodox, more conscientious that the Romanian people had grown and developed in the tradition of the monasteries, that is, in prayer and the Holy Sacraments; and that the tradition of hesychasm had existed from the beginning in the life of this nation. Never had the Teachings of Neagoe Basarab to His Son Teodosie, which is a treatise on mystical theology and asceticism, been read with such interest. Painters, archeologists, experts in byzantine studies, and experts in paleography brought to light such a wealth of religious material from the country’s past, which, even if they were not permitted to interpret, remained a source of inspiration for proceeding generations. Without this material, neither Ana Blandiana, a priest’s daughter, nor Marin Sorescu, nor Ioan Alexandru could have written their prose. Major poetry, authentic poetry, is a prayer that comes from the spiritual depth of a people.
Sandu Tudor became a monk and, given the name Daniel, was later made a hieromonk. He was appointed abbot of a small skete on top of Mount Rarău. There he gathered twelve disciples of various backgrounds: restaurant cooks, waiters, former soldiers, and even some vagabonds. With these kinds of people Sandu Tudor practiced the Prayer of the Heart and discussed high theology.
Ten years trickled by following the time that the formal activity of the Burning Bush had ended. We ourselves had almost forgotten about it. Many of these young men had dedicated their lives to God by entering a monastery; today one of them is the Metropolitan of Transylvania. Each one, no matter where he found himself, attracted others to himself. Considering the political situation, some expressed themselves through silence, suffering, and their profoundly warm and humane attitude. I think of men like Alexandru Dupu and Virgil Cândea, who, while they occupied positions of high cultural responsibility in the Communist government, at the same time studied theology secretly and published theological articles under pseudonyms. These kinds of people did all that was in their power to save the dignity of Romanian culture. Neither noise nor religious demagogy strengthens the faith; these are rather a manifestation of vainglory and a desire for affirmation. The Church does not have heroes, the Church has saints, and saints do not beat their drums on the streets. The Burning Bush was not a mass movement but a personal conversion, an interior revolution.
During this time, personal contact and communication between Romanian and French intellectuals was rare because only Communists had the right to travel; however, and we do not know how, Professor Clement Olivier, who was on the faculty of St. Sergius Theological Institute in Paris, published an article about this spiritual movement entitled “L’Eglise Romaine et le Buisson Ardent“. Only then did the agents of the Romanian Secret Police begin showing interest in us. The Romanian intellectual refuge in Church, in religion and especially in the deep theology of the Holy Fathers, produced a panic within the ranks of the Communist Party. According to their mentality, intelligent people should be atheists; Only stupid people believe in God. Now we can explain the failure of the Communist Party; it is not only an economic failure, it is spiritual. All of their doctrine is based on a false foundation.
The Romanian Patriarchate had organized massive rallies to celebrate the canonization of the new Romanian saints, in which hundreds of thousands of people participated. Because foreign delegations were invited, the Secret Police could not intervene. We were, at that time, living in the spirit of the Geneva Conference. People began to express themselves freely. Many entered the monastic life, especially young girls, such that Patriarch Justinian was compelled to open three monastic seminaries, one for monks at Neamt Monastery, and two for nuns at Agapia and Hurezu. Until this time the government had repaired the monasteries, which were historical monuments, with the intention of convincing young students that religion would become simply an archaeological relic, like the Egyptian pyramids—a false deduction, because now these monuments were filled with a living presence and became focal points of faith.
The government in Bucharest was in a panic. It was more afraid of the Burning Bush than of all the centers of resistance in the Carpathian Mountains. For the revolutionaries it had prisons and capital punishment. But what could be done about this “center” in man that could not be controlled, and about which Lunaciarski wrote in one of his letters to Lenin: “If you want to dominate people, kill their intimacy”. All these events were leading to the great blow given to the Romanian Church in 1959. The second wave of imprisonment began. The first one had occurred on the 15th of May, 1948, with the intention of abolishing the remainder of the historical political parties and the so-called “bourgeois mentality.” This time, however, the attack was directed precisely against God. The targets were priests, monks, and intellectuals who attracted others to themselves, who exhibited great spiritual influence. In January 1959 the government published a decree on the first page of the journal Scânteia stating that all monasteries and sketes which were not historical monuments were to be closed. A second point of the decree expelled monks younger than the age of fifty-five and nuns younger than fifty from all monasteries and forced them to work for Socialism.
At this time, the so-called leaders of the Burning Bush were also arrested. Although I was never among those leaders, I too was arrested. After one year of interrogation, we were brought to a court-martial hall in Bucharest: Professor Dumitru Staniloae, Hieroschemamonk Daniel (Sandu Tudor), Archimandrite Benedict Ghius, Archimandrite Sofian Boghiu, Archimandrite Felix Dubneac, Hieromonk Adrian Făgețeanu, University Professor Alexandru Mironescu and his son Serban, who today lives in Switzerland; Dr. Vasile Voiculescu (the poet), Dr. Gheorghe Dabija and many others I do not remember. The trial was a mockery, behind closed doors, because we called as witnesses people who were in the government, such as Atanase Joja, for example, who was the Secretary of Education at that time, and whose involvement with the Secret Police did not want to be made public.
The district attorneys opened by accusing us of wanting to burn the government on a bush, alluding to the title of the Burning Bush association. Then we were charged with gathering and commenting on inimical texts against the regime—texts by St. Basil the Great, John Climacus, and Gregory of Nyssa. I do not think it was ignorance on the part of the district attorney, but rather a diabolic cynicism specific to Communism. The sentences were long; for practicing the Prayer of the Heart, Hieroschemamonk Daniel was condemned to twenty-five years of forced labor at Aiud Prison, where he died a martyr’s death. We must never forget that during this regime of terror many people sacrificed their lives, not for politics but for God.
Let us follow in the footsteps of our People’s great ascetics!
It is a great responsibility to write about the Burning Bush when many members of this group are still alive. However, I did not want to keep silent about the work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of a large group of Romanian intellectuals during a period of crisis when our people had lost all spiritual direction. When the Rarău Skete was closed by force and all its monks imprisoned, Hieroschemamonk Daniel distributed all that was in his cell. He gave his books to those who loved reading. My share of his possessions was the icon of the Mother of God of the Burning Bush painted by Nicholae Stoica, the icon which he loved so much, and the original manuscript of the Akathist of the Burning Bush with corrections in his own hand. Perhaps these things prompted me to write the present article.
In any case, the fact that these men strove to find the Romanian formula of hesychasm is important for us. They intensely studied the “Paisian manuscripts” from Neamt, the “Testament” of Elder Gheorghe of Cernica, and the chapters from The Philokalia written by Elder Vasile of Poiana Mărului, bringing to light the integral, harmonious character of Romanian hesychasm. In the tradition of Carpathian asceticism, there is no place for self-mortification, belts with nails, self-flagellation, not even the obligation of celibacy. There are very many married people in Romania practicing the Prayer of the Heart. The exercise is purely spiritual.
Today, when our country wants to follow the way of Democratic reform, what if we leave aside all arguments, all accusations, all desire for revenge, and all the demagogic discourses which, in fact, are nothing else than our own weaknesses and inability to enter within the “Temple of the Holy Spirit within us”? We can only defeat Satan by God, Who is within us. In these moments of crisis, let us follow the way of our people’s great ascetics. Our salvation will only come from this.
This article was first published in Romanian in the theological journal, Lumina Lină, in May, 1991. It was included in the volume “On the Road of Faith,” Archimandrite Roman Braga, HDM Press, 2006, Holy Dormition Monastery, Rives Junction, USA. The subtitles are our own.