Father Alexie – Priest of God

When I really approached the Church, through Ioan Alexandru, the problem of choosing a confessor arose, on the list of “candidates” that Mihai Urzica, my godfather in marriage and a respected teacher of Orthodoxy, had drawn up for me, Alexie Bârcă (there were also Father Galeriu from Silvestru, Father Iulian from Flămânda – whom I chose out of an inner impulse, beyond any immediate explanation, Father Gherontie from the Patriarchate, Father Sofian from Antim).

And so, one Sunday, I climbed the hill on which stands the delicate church of Bucur, theoretically the oldest in Bucharest, founded, as a plaque tells us, by Bucur the shepherd, who, according to legend, also gave his name to our city. At that time, in the Lent of 1975, the church had not yet been crushed by the current blocks of flats, built during the construction of the subway line.

It stood small and elegant, beautifully designed, on a hill that made it stand out and was a joy to behold. To the right was a military fire station, to the left not too tall houses along with small gardens, a quiet neighbourhood from the normal Bucharest of the past. The Bucur church was extremely delicate in its absolute immediacy. Its walls, unpainted, were covered with dozens of well-preserved icons. The icons, few in number, were placed one behind the other, facing the altar. The Holy Masses had an extraordinary peace, the light always seemed to come down from the Taboric one. The vespers even carried you on a soft light. Then there was the heavenly garden around the church, where you could relax before or after the Holy Mass, admire the flowers and chat with friends. The staircase with its wisteria arch was fabulous. The water from the cistern was almost alive – you always wanted to drink it, even when you weren’t thirsty. Up and down the steps, around the church… It was a delight for the children. They wanted to put their huts there. I don’t know how it was done, but everything was like Father Alexie, everything looked like you were in the antechamber of heaven. Through Father Alexie, the Church of Bucur had acquired something of the mystery and sweetness of a hermitage, a solitary and miraculous apparition in a Bucharest beset at every turn by dramatic architectural and spiritual demolitions.

It was with an immediate and gentle emotion that I discovered Father Alexie Bârca, who, in retrospect, seems to me to be the typical figure of a priest as we might imagine him if we were not confronted with the different concrete types of priests we have met along the way. For those who have not met him, I could help them to imagine him by referring to the face of Theophanus the Greek in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Andrei Rubliov. Every time I watch the film again, the resemblance is just as striking. His face was full of light. He gathered light and gave it out. Nowhere, more than in his presence, was light at once ineffable and tangible.

Father Alexie was part of a wonderful phalanx of extraordinary priests that the oppressed Bessarabians gave to Romania, where they were exiled, not without sorrow and eternal misery, to escape the Soviet prisons, prepared and offered with “generosity” by the atheist invaders to the servants of God and the nation.

With his withered body, his long figure, his slightly dishevelled hair, his penetrating gaze full of protective kindness, Father seemed to come straight from the friezes of great ascetics painted in the pronaos of monastic churches. That’s why, at first glance, he seemed a little austere. His physical and mental thinness made him appear even taller than he was. I don’t know why, but I remember he wore only blue, a celestial blue. He liked to keep order at the Holy Mass, and not once did I see him interrupt the service to reprimand minor disturbances caused by intruders. But he would have preferred the peace of the house to be the concern of the faithful, so that he would not have had to intervene.

The church of Bucur was not a parish church, it belonged to the Patriarchate, a subsidiary of the Patriarchate. It was no bigger than an average room in our flats. But around Father Bucur, Sunday after Sunday, a small parish gathered, made up of believers who came from near and far corners of Bucharest. Of course, this Sunday community could not have been very large because of the small space. But, apart from the regulars, there were enough of those who came with a certain regularity, and even more who wanted to confess to Father Alexie. That is why, in times of great demand, he would not go home, but spend some time in the small chapel in the church garden.

The priestess, modest and warm-hearted, was always close by, devotedly watching over Father, for whom she always felt a tender and protective understanding, sensing him in everything. She also kept the breadbasket and looked after the cleanliness of the church, with the help of the other faithful, especially on feast days and important occasions.

Father did not usually preach. There was a small, gentle man, always the same, who read from the Cazanie (Homily), a book that is rather neglected today, but which is a true exegetical and homiletical treasure. At the end of the Holy Mass, Father always added a short word of great use, a light and encouraging message, a paternal instruction. He maintained a charming Bessarabian accent, rooted in our ancient language, so rich and full of holiness in its structural composition. His words were spread out, charged with their full content. And just looking at him was healing. When he spoke your name (in direct conversation or while reading your homily), you felt whole in him, as if you were being carried straight to the Synaxarium. You left Father Alexie overwhelmed with an inappropriate joy. When someone wanted to celebrate a baptism or a wedding in a more discreet, peaceful and orderly way, they went to the church of Bucur, to His Holiness.

Once, with some concern, it was learned that Father was suffering from leukaemia. There were many crises and many wonderful uplifts from these crises, with the accompanying sorrows and joys of the spiritual sons.

Unfortunately, his death caught me outside of Romania, so I wasn’t able to attend his funeral.

Mrs. Elena Teodoreanu entitled her book about her father Father Dimitrie the Unknown. The same determiner – “the unknown” – would also be appropriate for Father Alexie, also from Bessarabia. Why were they so ignored, especially in view of their absolutely angelic spiritual stature? Was it just the times? Or does the humility of others often represent a threshold too difficult to cross for our gentle and understanding attention? Surely we could say that this was also the status of his model, Christ, whom when He came “the world did not know” (Jn 1:10). I realise that I don’t know much about Father Alexie, but at the same time I hold him in my heart as one of the dearest of all those I have known. Where does this feeling of endless tenderness come from? From his perfect service, from the way he carried you with him, simply and unashamedly, in the Blessed Sacrament, the highest, in the bosom of the Holy Trinity. Who and how could one explain prayer? […]

I think the name suited him perfectly because, like the dear and modest St. Alexius of Rome, he was a man of God in the most appropriate sense of the word. Simple, profound, utterly humble, selfless till the end, sincerely religious, one with prayer, boundlessly and unceasingly devoted to God, glorious throughout his life, beautiful…

So beautiful!

(Costion Nicolescu – Salt of the Earth – Crossings, Encounters, Accompaniments, Doxologia Publishing House, Iași, 2011, pp. 67-69)

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