Brian Morgan – Surprised by the Power of the Poem – A Tribute to Traian Dorz

Vasile Suciu, Traian Dorz, Ioan Pop, Ionatan Ille

In 2023 we will celebrate one hundred years from the birth of the Lord’s Army, a pietistic renewal movement within the Romanian Orthodox Church. It is in view of this anniversary that I publish this text written by Brian Morgan, Pastor of Peninsula Bible Church in Cupertino, CA, who knew personally Traian Dorz, one of the leaders of the movement. [Warning: this is a long article.]

August 13, 2013

Surprised by the Power of the Poem

How one touch from a Romanian poet transformed a church in California

Besieged by poetry

          Like most of my discoveries in life, the gift of poetry in a word-soaked world landed upon me much later than I would have preferred. But as is often the case, the wait only served to increase my capacity for joy. I studied economics at Stanford University with the intention of going into business but, through the ministry of Peninsula Bible Church, I changed course and became a pastor. Shortly after Emily and I were married in 1972, we lost our firstborn son (David Jonathan – nine days after birth) due to a rare enzyme deficiency. The following year our daughter Jessica endured the same fate. Nothing prepared me for how to process my grief until 1988, when poetry found me. Of the many paths of discovery, mine was not unlike that of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda:

Ajunsesem la acea vârstă … poezia a sosit În căutarea mea … nu știu, nu știu de unde a venit, din iarnă sau de la un râu nu știu cum sau când nu, nu erau glasuri, nu erau nici cuvinte sau tăcere, ci am fost luat de pe stradă pe neașteptate de lângă ceilalți, din ramurile nopții, printre focuri violente, sau întorcându-mă singur, eram acolo, fără chip, și m-a atins.And it was at that age… Poetry arrived in search of me. I don’t know, I don’t know where it came from, from winter or a river. I don’t know how or when, no, they were not voices, they were not words, nor silence, but from a street I was summoned, from the branches of night, abruptly from the others, among violent fires or returning alone, there I was without a face and it touched me.[1]

I was that age, thirty-seven, when poetry arrived. On the outskirts of hell a poet had shaped the soul of his nation to sing. The place was România and the year 1988, a little more than a year before the brutal, 20-year regime of Nicolae Ceausescu would come to an end with his execution on December 25, 1989. The poet was Traian Dorz, born exactly seventy years earlier on December 25, 1914, a man of profound and abiding faith who watched in horror as his beloved country was ravaged, raped and left to grope alone in the darkness, her dignity stolen, her faith mercilessly stomped out. Working in this wasteland, God gave Dorz a voice powerful enough to pierce the oppressive darkness of Communist Romania and energize his silent, suffering countrymen. So powerful were his poems that the Securitate brutally confiscated every page of them, piled them in an oxcart and burned them before his eyes. Then, they imprisoned the poet. But they could not silence his voice.

             Over the next seventeen years of imprisonment, house arrest and brutal torture Dorz worked with relentless energy. Equipped with only his memory, a glass shard for a pallet, lime and spittle as his paint, and a matchstick for a brush, he resurrected his poems from the ash heap––some 4500 poems.

             Just as in King David’s story, this poet “would have the last word, not to mention the silence after.”[2] Ceausescu, the dictator, and Traian Dorz both died in 1989. Ceausescu has no lasting legacy from his fleeting, vulgar shadow, but today, thousands of Romanians sing Dorz’s immortal songs as the sacred expression of their faith. Hearing them for the first time, I felt that I was transported to another place and time where one touches the face of the Holy. In every resonant syllable of a language I could not yet understand I “felt a grim energy verging on elation.”[3]

Those songs inside the window,
songs that magnify the light,
those songs inside the window,
haunt my soul this very night.

Embraced by the poet

And then I met the man. It was a warm summer evening in Cluj. I just had returned from a secret meeting, full of song and Spirit and entered my host’s home. As I opened the door to my room, I saw him standing there––Traian Dorz, seventy-three years of age. He was a man of small stature, but he possessed a powerful presence––a peasant yet a king. Here was a man who endured more suffering and swallowed more evil than I could comprehend. Seeing him, I felt conflicting emotions warring within me. Repelled by my own sense of unworthiness, I felt like dust on the scale, and at the same time, drawn by a holy love. I showed him a photo I had taken of the Roman pavement stone in Israel where Pilate presented the scourged Jesus to the crowds, saying, “Behold the man” (in Latin ecce homo). He took it and held it with unspeakable tenderness and wept. Then he took me into his arms, looked deep into my eyes and said, You teach about the cross….we live under the cross.” Then in an act of extreme tenderness, he gently pressed his cheek to mine and prayed for me. I needed no translation. Like the apostle Paul, he was praying that I might “have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth of the love Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge” (Eph 3:17-19), a love that hehad come to know in suffering living under the cross. The words rolled off his tongue in dream-like cadences. The soft timbre and pulsating rhythms of his voice seized me and tore my heart like water.

That one touch was all I would ever experience from the poet. But it was all I needed. “Suddenly I saw the heavens unfastened and open…my heart broke loose with the wind.”[4] I woke up in the middle of night weeping and asked God to give me something of the spirit of this man. Returning home on the train, I had a strange sensation that I had been a secret witness of one of the most precious spiritual creations on the planet. This poet was the Solzhenitsyn of România. Buried deep within my sleeping bag was one of his forbidden hymnals of a thousand songs. I smuggled it out with a promise that we would try to publish it and smuggle more copies back into the country.

The Romanian poet in California

             Coming home, I came to treasure the poem and to recognize its unique power to unlock grief in the soul in a way that doesn’t deny or obliterate it, but rather transcends it by naming and embracing our grief in the presence of God and his people. Besides the Psalms, David’s lament over Jonathan (2 Sam 1:17-27) became a signature text that revealed some of the mystery as to why the poem was such an effective tool to process and transcend grief for the ancients. Like David, I learned to write my own laments, articulating the grief over the death of my first two children, and shared them with the congregation. Then I encouraged others in the congregation to write their own poems/psalms of lament and praise and offer them publicly as acts of worship. Our experiences, rather than being a litany of morbid dirges, became unforgettable moments uniting us in sacred love. Fragmented people who had been living broken lives, disassociated from their pain and trying desperately to live victorious Christian lives began instead to deal with grief head on, to heal, to participate honestly in the large community of faith, and walk with God in deeper intimacy.

On the Wings of the Poem

             For the decades that followed I traveled with teams on the wings of the poem and have never been disappointed as the poem led us to the deepest wells, where “love gushed forth filling every crack” (T. S. Eliot). Over the next twenty-five years we made over a dozen trips into Romania, walking alongside our Romanian friends as they also used David’s psalms and Dorz’ poems to recover their own voices from the ashes of lives that had been horribly crushed and disfigured beneath Ceausescu’s vicious lash.

             Experiencing the power of the poem changed my orientation as a pastor. I have always been passionate about teaching the Hebrew Scriptures in all their beauty. But it never occurred to me that teaching was only first step in making disciples. If God’s chosen way of communicating to humankind was “story” and “poem,” then my job is to equip people to become storytellers and poets. Now my greatest delight is to give God’s people the tools in the art of Biblical narrative and poetry to acquire their own voice. The crowning moment comes when I step off the stage and listen to a symphony of voices, set free to be honest and true, engaging the living God. It is a gift that, as the poet prayed, has enlarged my heart to begin to comprehend the length, breadth, and height of the love of Christ.

             The divine humor in all of this is that I work in a church whose male population is dominated by software engineers, who have little use for poetry. About half our congregation originates from cultures where articulating emotions is not only discouraged, it is unthinkable. Yet, in this hostile, rocky soil the poem planted itself and became strangely treasured.

What will you do, Romania?

             What will Romania do with their national treasure? Since the overthrow of Ceausescu on Christmas Day 1989, Romania has rejoiced in her freedom. But is Romania truly free? From my perspective the vast majority of Romanians define their “freedom” in terms of the illusive and deceitful American dream of independence and wealth. The best of the population is forsaking their homeland, fleeing to other countries that offer better wages and a “better” life. Last summer while on a retreat in Lake Tahoe, California, we ran into a group of young Romanians living on the north shore. They told us there were about 75 Romanians living there ages 20-30, who were making good money and had no intention of going home. We invited two of them for dinner and told them the American dream they were seeking is nothing compared to our life experiences in Romania– of being embraced by the poet, of hearing a heavenly oboe, of adopting children, of encountering angels in a cornfield, of being swallowed by a love so wonderful we can’t stop crying.

             I met Traian Dorz in 1988 in Cluj and now, after 25 years, I feel very privileged to be here again at a symposium that honors the poet and his poetry. In closing I would like to encourage you to do all that you can to make his literary works known around the world. My friend John Felstiner took seventeen years to translate the poetry of Paul Celan. When John completed the last draft of Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew, his wife Mary read it and left a note on his desk that took his breath away – “Now I know what you were put on earth as a Jew for.” Not knowing German, I have been enriched beyond measure by the meticulous care Felstiner gave to his translations and nationally acclaimed biography.

             Like the Canaanite woman in Mark’s gospel (Mark 7:26-30), I came to Romania as a foreigner distraught over the death of my son and my daughter. Not knowing Romanian, I had no capacity to feed my thirsty soul on the poet’s feast. But by God’s grace I was given a crumb. With just one touch of the poet I was able to name my grief, transcend my sorrow, and just as the poet prayed, I was swallowed by the love of Christ. And in the process of losing two children, I gained a nation of children, whom I love as my own.

Just think O blessed Romania, what would happen if you translated Dorz’s poems and gave your National Treasure to the nations? I tell you “the coastlands eagerly wait for his law” (Isa 42:4). For as Traian Dorz said, “Man cannot live without poetry.”

 You may download from the link below the entire text:

[1] Ilan Staven ed., The Poetry of Pablo Neruda (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 659.

[2] John Felstiner’s description of the figure Shulammite in Paul Celan’s poemDeathfuguein Paul Celan, Poet, Survivor, Jew (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 41.

[3] Felstiner’s description of “becoming conversant” with the poetry of Paul Celan. Paul Celan, Poet, Survivor, Jew, xix.

[4] Ilan Staven ed., The Poetry of Pablo Neruda, 660.

Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

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