- Ilinca Stroe
Arsenie Boca: Meeting the Romanians’ Need for Miracles
The long slender nose, the pale cheekbones emerging from under his silky long beard, the dark hair carefully combed back like an interwar movie star’s, and above all the eyes: the sapphire blue eyes, uncannily serene and intense like two X-rays reading right through you from behind the picture, behind time. The iconic portrait (quite literally iconic, as so many religious Romanians include it in their home altars among other icons of the Mother and God, of Jesus and the main Christian saints), with its piercing eyes, is vaguely reminiscent of another legendary cleric’s, Rasputin. But whereas the latter was a top player in making and unmaking the Russian tsars’ policies, Arsenie Boca conquered the hearts and minds of tens of thousands of ordinary Romanian Christian Orthodox devotees. Even today, his tomb at the Prislop monastery draws scores of pilgrims daily, all hopeful that “the saint of Transylvania” will cure their diseases, heal their spiritual wounds and guide them from beyond his grave.
Born Zian Vălean Boca into a rather poor rural family in the western county of Hunedoara in 1910, the boy who was to become a national myth was apparently a brilliant student who flew his way through school and the Theological Academy (Sibiu, 1929), graduated in Fine Arts too (Bucharest 1938), and also did some undergraduate studies in Medicine. Drawn to religion since childhood, he gets anointed as deacon in 1935 and, in order to prepare himself for the monastic life, he travels to Mount Athos in 1939.
That is, reportedly, when the first miracle happened in his life: while one day he was praying deep in the forest that he should be given a strict and demanding spiritual guide to enlighten the path of monkhood for him, Saint Seraphim of Sarov appeared, who had died a couple of centuries ago, and the Romanian novice spent the following 40 days of fast and prayer with him in the woods. Hence, Arsenie Boca was initiated into the depths of faith by the Saint, who also bestowed on him the gift of prophecy.
Back in Romania, the dean becomes a monk at the Sâmbăta de Sus monastery, where his fame as a prodigious preacher, a fantastic father confessor and a rising-star wonder-worker is only increasing in the 1940s. They say he could cure the paralytics and restore the sight to the blind. They say he saw right into people’s souls, “reading” their past and secrets, revealing what they meant to hide. They say once the faithful were queuing for confession, but he picked one particular man in the crowd and scolded him: “Oh, Ion, your confession isn’t complete. You’re not telling this and that…” and the sneaky man’s sins were brought to light. They say once a woman came to see him and he presently told her: “What you are carrying in your womb will not be yours, but the monastery’s.” She was two day pregnant and her son was to become a bishop.
But among the faithful who seek his advice and support there are also legionari – militants of the Iron Guard movement, the German Nazi’s adherents in Romania. A fact that the secret services will not let go uninvestigated. Arsenie Boca is therefore repeatedly arrested and questioned in the 1950s for his alleged “far-right sympathies” and, on one occasion, for harbouring and failure to denounce a runaway legionar. He spends all in all a year and a few months in prison in 1951 and then again in 1955. When he returns to his monastery, he tries to keep a low profile and live as isolated as possible. But in 1958 the communist authorities urge the Holy Synod to get rid of the politically undesirable clergy who through their activity may “harm the Church’s interests”. The Synod duly obliges: father Arsenie Boca is asked to leave; money will be provided, the official note reads, for him to purchase civilian clothes…
He spent the rest of his life working as a religious painter and sharing his Bucharest accommodation with a nun who had been expelled at the same time as he (and who apparently was a secret police informer). Detractors say they were romantically involved; followers maintain he lived his life as a saint even after he had become a layman. His painting is probably the best expression of his faith after he was forced to leave the pulpit, with its crowds of devotees: departing from the Byzantine art canons and featuring modernist elements, it carries an eschatological tension which disturbs as much as it fascinates. As if viewers were meant to be emotionally shaken into repentance and remorse for their sins, in a decaying world spinning globally out of control.
Arsenie Boca passed away in November 1989, not before warning the Ceaușescus, who had mockingly asked him to prove he could foresee their future, that “On a great holiday you will both be killed.” They were executed at Christmas barely a month after his own death.
That being his biography, what exactly, one might ask at the end of the day, made it possible for him to become the iconic figure so many Orthodox Romanians today call “the saint of Transylvania”, lobbying for his canonisation? Was it “his extraordinary will, his formidable memory, his being such a hard worker, his out of the ordinary resilience”? Was it the hearsay about his miraculous appearances and disappearances? The numerous eyewitness reports about his mind-reading and healing powers?
Arsenie Boca himself, interrogated by the Securitate about his spiritual doings, repeatedly downplayed his alleged gifts. “After I joined the ranks of the monks, something happened to me that I hadn’t sought for: a great influence over the people, a fame as preacher and priest. Thanks to the knowledge I had acquired during my studies and which I was applying wherever I could, the people trespassed the boundaries of adequate appreciation and thought I was exceptionally gifted. Numberless times have I tried to smother the fantasies of their rampant faith, which pertains to fancy and does not redeem.”
Today a registered brand and a hugely popular product of religious marketing, Arsenie Boca might still be quzzically musing, as he did: “they consider me a wonder-worker”… Alive or dead, he has definitely been wearing that mythic hat. And the Romanian people still need him to.
International House Bucharest, through its Romanian Language Department, runs online and face-to-face Romanian courses and cultural integration workshops for foreigners living in Romania or interested in the country’s culture, language or history. For more information, click here. To enrol, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also watch our video series “Your Romanian Class” and subscribe to our YouTube channel, or listen to our series of podcasts “Ascultă româneşte”.