American writer Rod Dreher, who converted to Orthodoxy in 2006, spoke on Friday to Basilica.ro about his conversion and about the lessons offered by the martyrs of the Romanian communist prisons to contemporary people – including his children.
Rod Dreher has come to Romania to promote his book, Live Not By Lies, recently translated into Romanian by Contra Mundum Publishing House.
Basilica.ro: What does it mean to “live not by lies”?
Rod Dreher: Living in the modern world today means accepting things that aren’t true. For example, gender ideology is a big one: we are compelled to say a man can be a woman and a woman can be a man.
People who live in America, who emigrated from communist countries, are saying that we are living now in America and in the West, in general, a new kind of totalitarianism, that requires us to live by lies. In the same way, under communism, you had no choice but to agree with the communist ideology. Or, you would suffer.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in 1974, just before he was sentenced to exile by the Soviets, sent a message out to his followers in the Soviet Union, saying: “Live Not By Lies!” That was the name of it.
He told them: We can not overthrow this government, but at least we can speak honestly about what we believe. Or, at least, not say things that we do not believe. Solzhenitsyn said: If we have the courage to do this, we can change our country.
I feel this message is so important for us today in the modern world, in the West and beyond. When we see things and hear things that we know are lies, we have to stand against them for the sake of honouring God, Who is Truth, and for the sake of our own dignity.
Conversion has to be primarily in the heart, not in the mind
Basilica.ro: How was your first encounter with Orthodoxy? What attracted you most to it?
Rod Dreher: I was formerly a Roman Catholic. But more than a decade ago something happened and I was afraid I was losing Christ. One day, my wife and I decided to take our children and attend an Orthodox Cathedral in Dallas, Texas, where we were then living. When I went into that Orthodox church, I knew that this was what I have been looking for all along.
What attracted me the most was the overwhelming sense of holiness there. I don’t think the Orthodox Church is free of problems, we are human beings. But in Orthodoxy, there was this idea that God is present in a way that I never encountered Him.
It was the beauty of the liturgy, the holiness of the liturgy, and the way of Theosis, the Jesus Prayer. They drew me in. I began to say the Jesus prayer even when I was a Catholic. And I could see the changes that God was making to my soul.
After a year of worshipping as an Orthodox, my wide and I made the decision to convert. It was in 2006.
The great gift of Orthodoxy it was that it made me aware that conversion is not primarily intellectual. Conversion has to be primarily in the heart. I had never felt closer to God than I have now as an Orthodox Christian.
An experience many Americans are unknowingly looking for
Basilica.ro: How did you get to know Father Calciu-Dumitreasa’s work and how did this influence you?
Rod Dreher: He was the spiritual father of my dear friend, Presbytera Frederica Matthewes-Green, probably the best-known American Orthodox writer. She told me about him and gave me his book with sermons, writings and interviews. I was overwhelmed by the courage and holiness of this man.
When I read about his experience in Pitești Prison, I couldn’t believe how evil men can become. But also God preserved him and others like him. His testimony about how he and the other cared for Constantin Oprișan as he was dying (while imprisoned – ed. note) made a powerful impression on me.
And I wanted to repeat that story for my American readers so they can see what God and the Orthodox faith did for Father Gheorghe (Calciu) and how we can have the same thing if we open our hearts to it, if we open our minds to it.
Orthodoxy is so foreign in America. It is an expression of Christianity and an experience of God that so many Americans are looking for, but they just don’t know it.
One can talk apologetics, talk about the ideas, but that’s not as important as telling the story.
When you tell the story of what Father Gheorghe (Calciu) did and other Romanians did under communism, the witness that they showed, their willingness to suffer for the Lord and to do so in love, that is the sort of thing that shakes people to the foundations and opens their minds and their hearts to the Holy Spirit.
To be like Fr. Gheorghe (Calciu), who was like Christ
Basilica.ro: What do the martyrs of the Romanian communist prisons represent to you, personally? What do we have to learn from them?
Rod Dreher: My book Live Not By Lies is about the lessons that we, in the West, and modern people today, even in the East, have to learn from the communist experience, from the martyrs and the confessors who withstood it.
For me, their stories show not only the worst of humanity, but also the very best: What can we withstand for the love of God.
I remember during Lent one year I was reading to my children from Father Gheorghe (Calciu)’s story about what happened in the Pitești Prison. Not the worst of it, of course. I wanted them to know that these things did not happen hundreds or even a thousand years ago, but it happened in our own time. So they can see the evil that man is capable of, but also what God gives us to withstand it.
I wanted them to know that we have to be like Father Gheorghe (Calciu), who was like Christ. For me, that is the greatest gift of the story of the Romanian martyrs and confessors. They tell us what to do when we are put to test.
One thing is to have these abstract ideas, but when you see it in flesh and blood it makes a big difference.
On my first night in România, after dinner, we stood across the church where Father Gheorghe had his famous sermons. Standing in the street across the church where Father Gheorghe said what he said made me realize that, in a small way, I have to try and have the courage that he had, to tell the truth, no matter what happens and to encourage Romanians and everybody else to realize what God has given us.
We don’t have to bend the knee in front of this ideology. If we are willing to suffer as Christ suffered, we can be victorious. And we have to.
Back in my hotel room I prayed to God for that courage and I also asked Father Gheorghe to pray for me here, in Romania, and for the rest of my life, that I can do whatever God asked me to do, no matter the costs.
Romanians offer Orthodoxy to the world – a gift from God and their ancestors
Basilica.ro: What do Eastern-European countries of Orthodox tradition represent for an American Orthodox Christian?
Rod Dreher: Orthodoxy is very-very small in America. There are more Muslims than Orthodox Christians in America. And we don’t really know how to do it, how to be Orthodox. We’re trying our best. We have to learn, though, from our brothers and sisters who have been living Orthodoxy for many centuries.
So we have to come to the Est, to Romania, to Orthodox countries with humility. And say: “Show us what you’ve been doing. Show us how we can do it, too”. I think that this is something unfamiliar for Americans.
We, Americans, to be honest, can be quite arrogant. We think that we know better than everybody else. But in the case of Orthodoxy, we are just (unknowing – ed. note) children. And I don’t say that in an unkind way, but we just are. We need to learn from older Orthodox cultures.
For me, waking into Orthodox churches here, in Romania, you can feel the depth and the intensity of spirituality. I texted my wife: ‘We have to come back to this country’.
The spiritual richness here is something I’ve never experienced in America. You know, God is everywhere. But God has been with the Romanians for so long and so intensely that I, as an outsider, as an American, I can feel it.
And I hope that Romanians will cherish what they have and be proud of what God has given them. Not just proud, but also grateful, because this is a gift of God, this is a gift of your ancestors, who have suffered and died for the triumph of the Cross. And what a gift your country has to give to us!
Rod Dreher is a Senior Editor for The American Conservative and an Orthodox blogger. His articles have been published in the New York Post, National Review, Wall Street Journal.
He is the author of five books, of which the best known is the bestseller The Benedict Option (2017), named by David Brooks from the New York Times as “the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade”.
Photo credit: Cătălin Sturza