A Lutheran Pastor’s Firsthand Account
of Prison Life
of Prison Life
by Pastor Richard Wurmbrand
I am a Christian from an Orthodox country — the country of Romania. Having been in prison for fourteen years for my faith, it is now my missionary work to help persecuted Christians in Communist countries. I would like to tell you the stories of several Orthodox Christians with whom I was privileged to come into contact during my time in prison. Their examples and their deeds have been a constant source of encouragement to me throughout the years.
The first man was a priest who was put in jail at the age of seventy. His name was Surioanu. When he was brought in with his big white beard and white pate, some officers at the gate of the jail mocked him. One asked, “Why did they bring this old priest here?” And another replied with a jeer, “Probably to take the confessions of everybody.” Those were his exact words.
This priest had a son who had died in a Soviet jail. His daughter was sentenced to twenty years. Two of his sons-in-law were with him in jail — one with him in the same cell. His grandchildren had no food, they were forced to eat from the garbage. His whole family was destroyed. He had lost his church. But this man had such a shining face — there was always a beautiful smile on his lips. He never greeted anyone with “Good morning” or “Good evening,” but instead with the words, “Always rejoice.”
One day we asked him, “Father, how can you say ‘always rejoice’ — you who passed through such a terrible tragedy?”
He said, “Rejoicing is very easy. If we fulfill at least one word from the Bible, it is written, ‘Rejoice with all those who rejoice.’ Now if one rejoices with all those who rejoice, he always has plenty of motivation for rejoicing. I sit in jail, and I rejoice that so many are free. I don’t go to church, but I rejoice with all those who are in church. I can’t take Holy Communion, but I rejoice about all those who take. I can’t read the Bible or any other holy book, but I rejoice with those who do. I can’t see flowers [we never saw a tree or a flower during those years. We were under the earth, in a subterranean prison. We never saw the sun, the moon, stars — many times we forgot that these things existed. We never saw a color, only the gray walls of the cell and our gray uniforms. But we knew that such a world existed, a world with multicolored butterflies and with rainbows], but I can rejoice with those who see the rainbows and who see the multicolored butterflies.”
In prison, the smell was not very good. But the priest said, “Others have the perfume of flowers around them, and girls wearing perfume. And others have picnics and others have their families of children around them. I cannot see my children but others have children. And he who can rejoice with all those who rejoice can always rejoice. I can always be glad.” That is why he had such a beautiful expression on his face.
Let me interrupt to tell you about another Orthodox Christian. He was not a priest, but a simple farmer. In our country, farmers are almost always illiterate, or nearly so. He had read his Bible well, but other than that he had never read a book. Now he was in the same cell with professors, academicians, and other men of high culture who had been put in jail by the Communists. And this poor farmer tried to bring to Christ a member of the Academy of Science. But in return, he received only mockery.
“Sir, I can’t explain much to you, but I walk with Jesus, I talk with Him, I see Him.”
“Go away. Don’t tell me fairy tales that you see Jesus. How do you see Jesus?”
“Well, I cannot tell you how I see Him. I just see Him. There are many kinds of seeing. In dreams, for instance, you see many things. It’s enough for me to close my eyes. Now I see my son before me, now I see my daughter-in-law, now I see my granddaughter. Everybody can see. There is another sight. I see Jesus.”
“You see Jesus?”
“Yes, I see Jesus.”
“What does He look like? How does He look to you? Does He look restful, angry, bored, annoyed, happy to see you? Does He smile sometimes?”
He said, “You guessed it! He smiles at me.”
“Gentlemen, come hear what this man says to us. He mocks us. He says Jesus smiles at him. Show me, how does He smile?”
That was one of the grandest moments of my life. The farmer became very, very earnest. His face began to shine. In the Church today there are pastors and theologians who can’t believe the whole Bible. They believe half of it, a quarter of it. Somehow they can’t believe the miracles. I can believe the whole of it because I have seen miracles. I have seen transfigurations — not like that of Jesus, but something apart. I have seen faces shining.
A smile appeared on the face of that farmer. I would like to be a painter to be able to paint that smile. There was a streak of sadness in it because of the lost soul of the scientist. But there was so much hope in that smile. And there was so much love and so much compassion, and a yearning that this soul should be saved. The whole beauty of heaven was in the smile on that face. The face was dirty and unwashed, but it held the beautiful smile of heaven.
The professor bowed his head and said, “Sir, you are right. You have seen Jesus. He has smiled at you.”
Now, to come back to this priest, Surioanu. He was always such a happy being. When we were taken out for walks, in a yard where there was never a flower, a piece of herb, or grass, he would put his hand on the shoulder of some Christian and ask, “Tell me your story.”
Usually the men would talk about how bad the Communists were. “They’ve beaten me and they’ve tortured me and they’ve done terrible things.”
He would listen attentively; then he would say, “You’ve said plenty about the Communists; now tell me about yourself. When did you confess last?”
“Well, some forty years ago.”
“Let us sit down and forget the Communists and forget the Nazis. For you are also a sinner. And tell me your sins.”
Everybody confessed to him — I confessed to him, too, and I remember that as I confessed to him, and the more I told him sins, the more beautiful and loving became his face. I feared in the beginning that when he heard about such things he would loathe me. But the more I said bad things about myself, the more he sat near to me. And in the end he said, “Son, you really have committed plenty of sins, but I can tell you one thing. Despite all of these sins, God still loves you and forgives you. Remember that He has given His Son to die for you, and try one day a little bit, and another day a little bit, just to improve your character so it should be pleasant to God.”
My experiences with this priest were among the most beautiful encounters of my life. He is no longer on this earth. He was an example of what real Orthodoxy is all about. There exists such Orthodoxy. I don’t see much point in becoming an Orthodox from a Lutheran background or from a Baptist background or from any other background unless one desires that kind of Orthodoxy. His was an excellent Orthodoxy, a pure Orthodoxy. May God help us all to be truly Orthodox, after the example of so many saints who are depicted on the icons, and after the example of so many saints alive today.
This is the mug shot of Pastor Wurmbrand taken in 1947. It clearly shows that he is of the people of Israel, and so I want to share these photos also, as it is an evidence of his martyrdom. As I have said and written many times in this blog, Orthodoxy is the heritage of all followers of Jesus, but there is a man-made kind of Orthodoxy which saves no one, and an Orthodoxy which is of the Spirit of God, where men worship the Father in spirit and truth and are thereby transformed by Him and taken up into the life of the Holy Triad, even while they live on earth. It is the second kind of Orthodoxy that I want, because only that kind is real.
When Pastor Wurmbrand was dying, he confessed to Romanian Orthodox presbyter Fr George Calciu that, in his heart, he loved Orthodoxy, but considered he was not worthy of it, and because of this he did not succeed in becoming fully Orthodox. This was his own opinion of himself, and it held him back, but surely not in the eyes of the Lord whom he served, of whom he witnessed, and for whom he suffered. As I have written elsewhere, true Orthodoxy cannot be contained in its vessel, but continually overfills and overflows it.
Glory to You, O God, glory to You!
So what does one do to enter the Orthodox Church seeking this kind of Orthodoxy?
One may not meet there the kind of Christians we think we are, or hope to be, only religionists and ceremonial spectators. One may not find priests like Fr Surioanu or Fr Calciu, only businessmen dressed in clerical collars or fancy robes. One may be annoyed or scandalized by what seems unorthodox or superfluous, nationalistic or impious, or, as one woman put it to me recently, "It's just wrong!" My response is the only one I have a right to give, because I did it myself.
You just go forward as to an altar call. You enter and lay down your life, trusting in the Lord whom you serve now and whom you want to serve better, trusting that He will always be your Lord, that no one can ever change that or stand between you and Him, and that what the Church is, who it is, will be revealed to your eyes, as you begin to find your place in it, keeping your eyes on Jesus, the Author and Finisher of your faith. The Lord will send to you, or send you to, people like yourself, with whom you can work out your salvation, serving Him together, according to your call. No fear that anyone will take this from you, and never mind those people or things that would have kept you out.
As I said to myself, putting on my tie in front of a mirror on the morning I was going to be received into the Orthodox Church by chrismation, and as Pastor Wurmbrand thought of himself, "How can I do this, I'm not worthy," you too will hear the words spoken to you as you are baptised or chrismated, "Axios! Worthy!"
Now, the new life really begins. Go where He sends you, and always say, "Yes," when He calls.