Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Remembering Words of Truth: An Unusual Rosary Story

In yesterday's post, I wrote about Mary's love, the little things of daily life, and the small beads of the rosary. If we learn from Mary's heart, and if we persevere in staying with those little beads — even in the darkest and most difficult times — we can be confident that Mary will work in our lives and in the world, helping God to overthrow the oppressors and lift up the lowly.

Mary's works often begin with silence and grow over time. And her love works itself deep into the earth, into circumstances.

It's often surprising to discover Mary's gentle hand and heart at work in unlikely places, through very humble people and their fidelity to those little beads.

I want to illustrate with the story of a prisoner in a deadly labor camp during a time when a violent ideology and a violent dictator sent millions of innocent people to their deaths.

This prisoner was an atheist. He had conceived the desperate hope that, if he survived, he would convey to the world the horror and the destruction of human dignity that took place behind the barbed wire. He wanted to remember the experience and give a testimony. But of course these prisoners  — barely living, on the verge of becoming corpses — were lucky to get bread; they certainly didn't have paper to write things down.

Perhaps he could "write things down" in his memory, and learn the words by heart. But how?

The atheist prisoner encountered something unusual in the prison camp. It sowed a seed in him. Here is what he said:
"I saw Catholics... busy making themselves rosaries for prison use. They made them by soaking bread, kneading beads from it, coloring them (black ones with burnt rubber, white ones with tooth powder, red ones with red germicide), stringing them while still moist on several strands of thread twisted together and thoroughly soaped, and letting them dry on the window ledge.
I joined them and said that I, too, wanted to say my prayers with a rosary but that in my particular religion I needed one hundred beads in a ring... [and] with true brotherly love [they] helped me to put together a rosary such as I had described, making the hundredth bead in the form of a dark red heart.
I never afterward parted with this marvelous present of theirs; I fingered and counted my beads inside my wide mittens—at work line-up, on the march to and from work, at all waiting times; I could do it standing up, and freezing cold was no hindrance.
I carried it safely through the search points, in the padding of my mittens, where it could not be felt. The warders found it on various occasions, but supposed that it was for praying and let me keep it. Until the end of my sentence (by which time I had accumulated 12,000 lines) and after that in my place of banishment, this necklace helped me to write and remember."
Thus, this atheist prisoner said "his rosary," and remembered — bead by bead — what he saw and heard and felt. He remembered the misery, but also the beauty that he discovered, the beauty of the transcendence of the human person. The most monstrous forces of power in this world could not erase this transcendence.

Catholic prisoners who had committed no crime, who had been rounded up like cattle along with many others and thrown into the jaws of death, were faithful to the rosary. They made coarse beads of dried bread for Mary, which meant  — of course — a little less bread for themselves.

Then a stranger came and asked for help, and they responded "with true brotherly love." And what was it that moved them to the effort to make that hundredth bead "in the form of a dark red heart"?

Perhaps it was because they loved him.

Surely, Mary loved him.

The atheist survived, and eventually wrote his 12,000 lines and thousands of pages more.

He also found God.

And he wrote the most monumental prison memoir of all time. Above all, he tore the mask off the face of Communism and revealed all its ugliness, but also its ultimate powerlessness. Years later he said, "One word of truth outweighs the whole world." Alexander Solzhenitsyn spoke and wrote many, many words of truth. And the world of lies that was the Soviet Union shook under the weight of The Gulag Archipelago and heard the first rumblings of its own destruction.

The Lord "has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly" (Luke 1:52).

Solzhenitsyn, the former Marxist and atheist, eventually became an Eastern Orthodox Christian, which means that he learned to sing the Akathist and all the beautiful liturgical hymns honoring the Theotokos, Mary. He learned to pray the Byzantine "liturgical rosary" of litanies with its continual turning of the heart to the Mother of God.

Still, he probably never learned exactly how those Lithuanian Catholics in the Gulag used their precious bread beads. He may never have realized that the love learned on those beads led to the simple gesture of a gift with a dark red heart — a gift that helped him to survive and to hope and "to write and remember."

He did not know that Mary was his companion in those dark days of the Gulag. But it was Mary who heard the prayers of his comrades and sowed the seeds of truth in him.

This is only one of the countless little ways that Mary accomplishes her victory. She continues to work wisely and gently, working out the triumph of her mother's heart by leading her children to healing, renewal, and joy.