Dr. Porumb’s article is the second in our Academic Papers series. It first appeared in 2017 in Forerunner, the journal of The Orthodox Fellowship of St John the Baptist.
In the year 1960, 48 year-old Jewish erudite intellectual Nicu Steinhardt is imprisoned and joins the vast contingent of political prisoners in communist Romania (where approximately 17,600 people were detained at the time by the oppressive government). A refined scholar – among many other scholars, scientists, priests, writers – is thrown in a cruel grimy cell in the prison of Jilava. Political prisoners throughout Romania at the time – as well as in other parts of the communist world – were subjected to a life of continuous pain and humiliation, they were kept in unsanitary conditions (with no medical care) in dirt and cold and constant hunger, they were subjected to regular torture and beatings, and suffered indignities and insults on a daily basis. It was, in a sense, a slow process of extermination and thousands of political prisoners died in excruciating anguish. Steinhardt the intellectual finds himself first in cell 34 in the Jilava prison, which is, in his own words, ‘a sort of long dark tunnel, with plentiful and potent elements of nightmare. It is a strip, a canal, a subterranean intestine, cold and profoundly hostile, a barren mine, a crater of an extinct volcano, a rather accomplished image of some discoloured hell.’ And yet, he continues, ‘in this almost surreally sinister place I was to know the happiest days of my entire life. How utterly happy I was in room 34! Neither in Brasov with my mother as a child, nor on the endless streets of mysterious London, nor on the beauteous hills of Muscel, nor in the blue postcard scenery of Lucerne – nor indeed anywhere else in the world.’
Indeed the book Steinhardt was to write later, describing his prison experience was to be called The Diary of Happiness. What makes Steinhardt’s story different from the stories of other political prisoners of the time and what makes his joy and his experience unique is that it is inextricably connected with the fact that he became a Christian while in prison, his narrative centring on his subsequent discovery and exploration of faith and on his personal relation with Christ. His Diary wavers between literature and theology, between reflection on cultural themes and insights of faith. Steinhardt – later to become Father Nicolae as a monk at the Rohia Monastery – lived between 1912 and 1989, and his diary was written in the beginning of the 70s, although it could only be published in 1991, after the fall of communism. He is considered in the literary world to be one of the major writers of modern Romanian literature. Seen from a secular point of view, his work happens to have a theological, religious focus – triggered by his extraordinary prison experiences. For the faithful and scholars of the Romanian Orthodox Church he is placed somewhere between being a modern father of the church, and a somewhat ‘liberal’ theologian with strong literary and cultural proclivities, perhaps outside the ‘norm’ of Orthodox theological writings. That is why, perhaps, his work has not been popularised as strongly and persistently as could have been expected. Nicolae Steinhardt remains however a Romanian national hero, a spiritual mentor, in particular for the transitional generation which followed the fall of the communist regime in the early nineties, and for whom Steinhardt’s book was – and still is – an essential manifesto, as it came from a legendary ‘dissident’ of the rough years of communist dictatorship.
We are faced with an immediate problem. How are we to discuss an author whose work has not yet been translated into English? It would be pointless to speak about Steinhardt without referring to his main important work, however special his life and personality were, as these shone through and acquired meaning through his writings. However, since this presentation is meant to introduce to you Steinhardt’s work, it is fitting, I think, to allow the author to introduce himself through his own prose – a glimpse into his literary personality, into his style, into his vision, into his faith. Which means that I will present many fragments from Father Nicolae Steinhardt (some of them rather extended), in my own translation – a great privilege for me, and a huge responsibility. I can only hope my translation has done Father Nicolae’s poetic prose some justice.
Who was Father Nicolae Steinhardt? During his historic visit to Romania in May 1999, Pope John Paul II – the first Pope to visit an Orthodox country since the times of the Great Schism – mentioned Nicolae Steinhardt, the monk from the Rohia monastery, as a witness of Christ who ‘bloomed in the Romanian garden’, ‘an exceptional figure of a believer and a cultivated man who acknowledges the exceptional wealth of the common treasure belonging to the Christian Churches’. As this event garnered some international coverage, foreign journalists must have wondered who this Father Nicolae was. Alas, this exposure did not really bring Father Nicolae’s writings to a wider international public – although, unrelatedly, his masterpiece, Jurnalul Fericirii (The Diary/Journal of Happiness, Happiness Diary, or perhaps The Diary of Joy) has been translated into a number of languages (into Italian: Diario della felicità, into French: Journal de la félicité, into Spanish: El diário de la felicidad; it was also translated into Portuguese, Hungarian, Hebrew).
Nicolae Steinhardt was born in 1912 near Bucharest to a Jewish father and a Romanian mother. He received a diploma in 1934 from the School of Law and Literature of the University of Bucharest; in 1936 he completed his PhD in Constitutional Law. He began his literary career in the 1930s with publications in both Romanian and French. While his interest was mainly in literature and literary criticism, he showed a particular interest in Judaism, and he even co-wrote a book entitled Essai sur la conception catholique du Judaisme, in 1935 (when he was 23). As a young man, then, Steinhardt had explored quite seriously his native faith and identity, before becoming interested in Christianity later in life.
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Razvan Porumb holds a PhD in Theology from the Cambridge Theological Federation and the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies (IOCS), where he is currently Lecturer in Ecumenism and Practical Theology and Vice-Principal. He has been a researcher and a member of staff there for more than twelve years. His doctoral dissertation, Orthodoxy and Ecumenism: Towards an Active Metanoia, appeared in print in 2019 and can be purchased directly from the publisher or from Amazon. See Is Ecumenism Orthodox? at Orthodoxy in Dialogue for a summary of the book.