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2017 Grateful 49

While out on Friday night, a Hungarian friend mentioned that the Monk of the Gulag had died earlier this week (January 15th), aged 100. As I’d never heard of him, I asked her to tell me some more.

He was born Károly (Charles) Olofsson on 23 December 1916 in Rákosszentmihály  in Budapest’s XVIth district. When he was 16, he entered the Benedictine Order and when ordained, took the name Placid. He studied in Pannonhalma and later in Munich. During WWII, he served his time as a military chaplain and spent some time at Komárom, in the military hospital there. During his 11-month term there, he was demoted for speaking out from the pulpit against officers’ mistreatment of enlisted men. After the army, he went back to school, this time to head one in Budapest. His post-war activism drew some media (and other, unwanted) attention and to remove him from the public eye, the outspoken priest was called back to the Abbey in Pannonhalma, where he was arrested in June of 1946 by the ÁVH, Hungary’s then Secret Police.  

Despite their best efforts, they failed to extract a confession from him but this didn’t stop them. [1946/2016 – have we come any further at all?] Fr Placid was sentenced to 10 years in a Gulag on trumped-up terrorism charges.  He served his time in a camp about 900 km outside Moscow, not allowed contact with friends or family outside until  his final year when he could legally send a postcard.

In 1955, Fr Placid was allowed to return to Hungary but forbidden to teach or work as a priest. What ministering he did was done in secret. He spent his time variously as a factory worker making boxes in Pesterzsebet, as an ambulance driver at the at the Országos Reumatológiai és Fizioterápiás Intézetben (National Institute of Rheumatology and Physiotherapy), and later as a laundry worker.  Finally, in 1977, he went back to being a priest as auxiliary chaplain of the Cistercian parish of St Emeric.  [An aside: In Cleveland, OH, USA, a church by the same name offers mass in Hungarian – it was founded in 1904 to minister to the many Hungarians in the city – who’d have thought eh?]

My friend told me of the four rules that Fr Placid had shared, his secret to surviving the Gulag. He once apparently joked that for ten years, the Soviet Union had tried to destroy him, but that he had the last laugh as he survived and it didn’t, thus proving that God has a sense of humour. In the Gulag, he said he found his true vocation – not to teach but to keep the souls of the prisoners alive. The Soviet Union taught him how to live, he said. And these are his rules for living: (in translation)

  1. Don’t dramatise suffering because it makes you weaker.
  2. Recognize and consciously look for the little joys of life.
  3. Do not believe that you are better than others but when there is an opportunity show that you actually are.
  4. Hang on to God. With His help, you can survive every hell on Earth.

When he turned 100 last year, Fr Placid described himself as a ‘simple man of average abilities’. And this simple man has been lauded with just about every award the country has to offer from the Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary to being one of four people to hold the Hungarian Order of Honor. He survived against the odds, with spirit and in faith.

And today, when the future is looking bleak and tantrums are being thrown, it is the likes of Fr Placid to whom I’ll turn when I need an example of humility, strength, justice, courage, and empowerment… all the qualities great men need to inspire and to lead. RIP, Fr Placid. RIP.

Thank you, my friend, for sharing. I’m truly grateful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Placid Olofsson, the Benedictine monk who was imprisoned in a Soviet Gulag from 1946 to 1955, passed away yesterday evening.


In a book published on his 100th birthday, Father Placid described his life in the following terms:

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 rules of surviving GULAG: 1. Don’t dramatise suffer because it makes you weaker. 2. Recognize little joys of life. 3. Do not believe that you are better than others but when there is an opportunity show that you actually are. 4. Hang on to God. With his help you can survive every hell on earth.

Humanizing Hungarians

IMG_0538 (800x594)I knew little, if anything, about Hungary before I moved here. Gradually, as I met more and more people, my list of places to visit grew longer. It’s still growing. PM was the first to mention the Benedictine Monastery at Pannonhalma to me but it took a while to make my way to  the town in western Hungary, in Győr-Moson-Sopron county, about 20 km from Győr, home of the famous painting of Our Lady that allegedly cried tears of blood.

IMG_0516 (600x800)History tells us that the first Benedictine monks (who had arrived from Italy and Germany) settled here in 996. They have a series of firsts to their bow: the first to convert the Hungarians to Christianity, the first to found a school, and in 1055, the first to write a document in Hungarian. It’s been in continuous use for more than 1000 years – no mean feat given today’s disposable society.

When the monks arrived, the locals were Bavarian and Slav farmers, who had settled here in the wake of Charlemagne’s armies. The monks apparently came to help Prince Geza and his son Stephen I, the first king of Hungary, in their efforts to humanize the Hungarians, who were terrorizing the settled peoples of Europe and sacking the towns and monasteries of northern Italy, Bavaria, and Franconia. I read this on the Unesco site and stopped to wonder at the translation. Humanizing Hungarians seems such an odd term to use.

IMG_0515 (800x576)Pannonhalma is also the smallest, but oldest wine-making region in the country – the monks did more than teach and convert. They, too, had their hobbies. Today, they’re cashing in on the tourist dollar and the gift shops are full of  lavender, chocolate liqueurs, soaps and creams, natural remedies, herbal teas, wine and liqueurs. If you’re interested in taking a virtual tour, Petern66 has an excellent blog post that’s worth a read.

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We made it in time for mass. And while part of me had been really looking forward to this, I came away disappointed. Is it right to be disappointed in a mass? The church was beautiful – the singing exquisite – but the reverence was missing. I found myself comparing it to mass at the Abbey of Timadeuc, in France, and found it sorely lacking. It seemed to me that the celebrants were more interested in who was in the congregation than in offering up the mass.

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IMG_0530 (800x600)IMG_0520 (600x800)Tourism seemed to have usurped the religious rite, the distraction it offers proving too strong. Yes, there were screaming babies, and kids running around, and cameras going off – enough to distract Job himself – but still!

Not for the first time, I wondered at the commercialisation of the church and the pros and cons of places of worship becoming places of attraction. I strongly object to paying to enter a church as a tourist when all I simply want to do is light a candle and say a prayer and yet can see the need for entrance fees to maintain the premises.

In fairness, unless you’re taking a tour, you can wander the grounds freely – which is nice. And nice and all as the grounds are, that lack of reverence left me feeling a little empty. It wasn’t quite the spiritual experience I’d hoped for.

The new 19th?

Golfers everywhere refer to the clubhouse as the 19th hole. The last place of refuge. A place to celebrate their victories or drown their sorrows. Back in the day, when I was no stranger to fairways and bunkers and talked animatedly about birdies and eagles, I, too, enjoyed a tipple and the accompanying reflection at the 19th.

On a roadtrip recently through northwestern Hungary, we’d booked ourselves in for a night at the Forest Hills Golf and Country Club. While the English translation of the website leaves a lot to be desired, I caught the essence of what was on offer and for once didn’t cross it off my list of options because no one took the trouble to check the grammar [and you know how difficult that was for me….]. That it was a reasonable €65 pn B&B wasn’t the deciding factor either. What swayed me  was the fact that it had its own chapel  in the grounds. This I had to see.

I had visions of golfers invoking the protection of St Andrew, the patron saint of golf, before teeing off, perhaps even asking him to favour them over their matchplay opponent or praying that their mixed partner would be on form. The idea of providing a pit-stop for prayer before the first tee or after the last green had me completely intrigued.

The history of the place (or what I could glean from the website) dates back to the post-war years when the owner moved from Budapest to the nearby village of Bakonyjákó. Building a golf course was a dream project… one he made come true. Kudos due for that alone.

 The chapel itself is tiny – but does the business. It was built to commemorate the birth of his son and stands in the grounds near the clubhouse. I’d had visions of a restored ruin so although it wasn’t quite what I’d expected, I’m glad we made the choice we did. The staff were lovely – I felt completely at home and would happily have stayed a week. They’ve managed – one and all – to hit on just the right amount of attention and are very much on the ball. The food was excellent. It even inspired me to add gnocchi to my culinary repertoire.

 

 

 

 

I counted six others at breakfast; it wasn’t a packed weekend. But apparently the weekend before had been booked solid. Were I asked to make a suggestion or two or two for improvement – I’d add some English-language books to the library and do something to improve the WiFi connection.  Minor really. There’s plenty to do and it’s a great base for seeing the likes of Zirc and Pannonhalma. If you’re in the neighbourhood, drop by.

Grateful 8

I’ve managed to get myself into trouble on occasion but never anything so serious that I couldn’t be extricated, more or less intact. I still have all the organs with which I was born and have never, to my knowledge, undergone an operation. I did break my sacrum in a snowmachine accident in 1998 and memories of life at that time are coated in a morphine haze. Apart from the odd pain when I stand too long on concrete or sit too long anywhere  or lie down for too long … in fact, as long as I keep moving, I’m grand. Had the break been a couple of centimeters higher, though, I might be telling a different story.

I was reminded of my mortality recently when driving the winding roads between Zirc and Pannonhalma (aka Highway 82), in Veszprém country in northwestern Hungary.  I passed underneath Csesznek castle and was suitably awed. Built around 1263 AD  soon after the Mongol invasion, it changed hands many times, housing the Habsburg troops in the early eighteenth century. The Turks captured it at one stage and then it was won back by Hungary. It managed to get through hundreds of years of conflict to be damaged by a force majeure – an earthquake – in 1810. Some time later, a fire caused by a lightning strike completely destroyed it. In 1635,  Dániel Eszterházy bought the castle and village (nice to be able to think in such terms) and it remained part of the Ezsterházy estate until 1945. It’s been under excavation and restoration since 1967.

One this sunny Sunday in November, I navigated the bends of Route 82 at speed, doing my best impression of Rosemary Smith (I was late for mass…)  I  love to drive and I love to drive on deserted, winding, country roads in a real car with a manual gearbox. It was an unseasonable 17 degrees and the radio station was playing hits from the 1980s. I was in heaven. Late or not, I had to stop to take a quick photo of the imposing castle. It was then that I noticed that someone else hadn’t been so lucky.  Losing a life, any life, to the roads, is a sad thing, especially when nine times of out ten, it could have been avoided.

I was struck by the juxtaposition of the twelfth-century castle on the hilltop, testifying to the durability of medieval architecture and construction and the modern-day monument on the roadside testifying to the fragility of life and twenty-first century living. I started to think of legacies and what we leave behind and was reminded of something I read somewhere about legacies, deeds, and monuments. I tracked it down:

If I have done any deed worthy of remembrance, that deed will be my monument. If not, no monument can preserve my memory.

I wonder how right Agesilaus II was. I think of how statues are torn down, destroyed or relocated on the whim of political or national fervour. I see neglected graves in cemeteries everywhere, no-one left to remember or to care. And I wonder.

This week, I’m inclined to be grateful that I made it to mass on time… and in one piece. While I doubt that given such a road again I’d drive more sedately, at least I might be a little more aware of the possible consequences. And I’ll certainly be giving more thought to legacies and good deeds.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52