I was doing an internship at the Kolegium Antonia Neuwirtha in Slovakia when I unexpectedly encountered this book. It was given to me to provide some background on the recent history of the country. I was initially reluctant to read it because I thought there were more efficient ways of knowing something about the subject – Wikipedia is just one click away after all. As I started reading, I was immediately drawn to the story, however, as it gave an intensely personal account of the author’s faith in his battle against injustice.
The book narrates Silvester Krcmery’s personal experience as a prisoner under the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia for 13 years (1951-1964). He was a medical doctor by profession and a member of a lay Catholic group that continued to organize Church activities under an anti-religious state. He was arrested and charged with treason primarily for being active in this group, which was far from a political movement – of course, under Communism, everything is political.
Dr. Krcmery’s account focused on the ways in which he was able to “survive” the physical and psychological torture employed to force the political prisoners to divulge information about their groups. “Survived” here means that he did not end up breaking down mentally, and he never compromised his moral convictions to end or even mitigate his sufferings. The book partly aims to expose the dirty tactics and lies employed by the regime as it attempted to obliterate anything in the culture that threatened the integrity and complete domination of Communist ideology – thus, the subtitle, How to Survive Brainwashing.
What Really Saved Him
Even more than the historical and political angle, what really caught my attention was how Dr. Krcmery’s Christian faith not only helped him to endure the brutality of the regime, but also to find meaning in the face of blatant injustice. His life in prison was a testament to the nobleness of a human spirit committed to truth and goodness, a commitment founded on faith in Christ. This book led me to reflect on the distinctness of the Christian answer to the question of existence and the problem of suffering.
This Saved Us, as the title implies, claims that what really saved and sustained Dr. Krcmery in those moments of extreme cruelty and ingenious deception was neither a psychological technique nor a political strategy, but rather something that was beyond his own abilities, something external to and greater than himself. “[T]he most effective way,” he mentions in the Foreword, “not only to defend oneself, but to grow even to find happiness as one encounters grievous situations of human hopelessness and extreme suffering…” is “a life centered on God” (1).
Dr. Krcmery’s story reminded me of Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Part of Frankl’s book deals precisely with the different ways in which prisoners (including himself) in the Nazi concentration camp existentially grappled with their suffering that was born out of sheer hatred, and examines the impact of such suffering on the prisoners’ behaviors. This similarity prompted me to revisit Frankl’s book to see if it would bring about some fruitful insights into the uniqueness of Christianity demonstrated by Dr. Krcmery’s story.
Man’s Search for Meaning
Like Dr. Krcmery’s Czechoslovakian experience, Frankl narrates his experiences as a Jewish prisoner in the Nazi concentration camp during the Second World War. As a psychologist, he saw the camp as a type of laboratory where he witnessed how far human behavior can go, in its baseness as well as its nobility, in the face of the cruelest system in human history. The book’s thesis is that “Man’s search for meaning is a primary force in his life and not a ‘secondary rationalization’ of instinctual drives. This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning… [He] is able to live and even to die for the sake of his ideals and values.”
In the camp, Frankl saw how the majority of prisoners, people who had no other “purpose” in the camp but to mitigate their own sufferings, even at the expense of other prisoners, also tended to act like beasts: They easily broke down, and some of whom eventually committed suicide. On the other hand, the prisoners (including himself) who had something or someone more than themselves to live for were able to keep their humanity, if not their lives.
After the war, Frankl developed the so-called logotherapy, a psychiatric method based on the understanding that man is “a being whose main concern consists in fulfilling a meaning and actualizing values, rather than mere gratification and satisfaction of drives and instincts, or in merely reconciling values, rather than claims of id, ego, and superego, or in the mere adaptation and adjustment to society and environment.” In this method, the task of the therapist is not to impose a value judgment on the patient, much less to answer the question about the general meaning of existence — the task is to help the person situate himself within a reality that is bigger than himself.
Anything Unique in Christianity?
If we examine Dr. Krcmery from Frankl’s perspective, he would certainly fall into the class of those who chose to keep their humanity because they possessed something worth living and suffering for, even when giving in to one’s animality seems to be the most convenient and even “rational” thing to do. Frankl himself was not unaware of the capacity of the Christian faith to bring out heroism in such a situation; he even gave the example of Maximilian Kolbe’s martyrdom at Auschwitz in his book.
What I find problematic in Frankl’s approach to existential problems is its implicit pragmatism. The value of a worldview, its capacity to give meaning, is relative to the individual. What is important is that the person believes in something that gives meaning to his life. I would not charge Frankl with being a relativist here; I think it was only because of his role as a psychotherapist that he refrains from asserting anything about absolute value. Nevertheless, his approach has the tendency to blur the distinctions between belief systems, and it certainly poses a challenge to Christianity’s uniqueness.
Reflecting on Dr. Krcmery’s life made me ask, is Christianity just one among the many meaning-generating systems that humanity have come up with so far? Is it just another pharmaceutical drug that helps us escape the emptiness of existence and forget about our pains? Is there really anything unique in Christianity?
Life as a Mission
Dr. Krcmery’s account showed me that Christianity is neither escapist, nor fatalistic. To the contrary, it leads one to confront reality as it is, with eyes wide open. It does not back down to the apparently insurmountable challenges, because it sees one’s life as a mission, a unique role that one must play in the whole story of redemption, in a battle that is certain of victory, with God as the main protagonist. The problem of evil is not a theoretical puzzle to be explained away, but rather, as part of one’s mission, it is a problem that is meant to be solved: by avoiding it at all costs and drowning it with good acts, striving to reinforce the presence of God in this world.
Even meaningless suffering becomes meaningful, for faith sees the hands of God behind it when human eyes cannot. Even though the Christian knows that ultimately eternal happiness can only be found in the afterlife, that does not lead him to run after death, because even dying is a decision that belongs to God alone. As long as one lives, his mission continues. This sense of vocation as the driving force for living as well as dying is unique to Christianity, as it is unique to each Christian.
The sense of vocation is the thread that brings unity and significance to everything that Dr. Krcmery did in prison. It was what allowed him to endure thirteen years of apparently pointless cruelty. What allowed him to understand his vocation, or to know God’s purpose in putting him in that despicable situation, is prayer. It is in prayer, in reflecting on the life of Christ, in constantly asking God for His reasons for allowing things to happen, that he was able to find the role he had to play. It is in prayer that Dr. Krcmery found the meaning of his life.
Something More than Meaning
There is one passage in the book that I think sums up the great importance of vocation in Christian life:
I believed that the Lord had sent me there. He had given me appropriate medical and psychological experience, ability and knowledge, and through an unusually prolonged interrogation period with almost all its coercive variations and diversity, I received a sufficiently long preparation so that I could adapt to anything. Therefore, I repeated again and again, ‘I am really God’s probe, God’s laboratory. I’m going through all of this so I can help others and the Church.56
Dr. Krcmery embraced the whole prison experience because he saw it as God’s will for him. The good things that came out of that obedience to God – such as people being inspired to embrace the Christian faith because of his book – would have been beyond his comprehension at the time it was happening, but still he tried his best to follow God. I am convinced that had he died in prison, considering all that he had to endure, he would have been a Christian martyr.
The heroism of Dr. Krcmery returns the question to the Franklian challenge posed earlier: Is man searching only for meaning? Does man need only an ordering principle where things, including suffering and evil, somehow make sense?
Dr. Krcmery’s life tells me that man wants something more. He wants the Truth, the Good, he longs for perfection, for some kind of paradise, and he wants to understand himself in the light of such Truth in order to know the way to paradise. There are a wide variety of options out there if one is only looking for something to hold onto as he passes through this life. The search for meaning is man’s search for his place, his purpose, within the wider scheme of Truth. Christianity provides that wider scheme, and I know of no other belief system that does it better.