God Saved Me From the Bottom of the Abyss
From the day I first knew how to think, I always wondered: “What is the meaning of life?” “Why do I exist?”
I could not find the answers for these questions in the lessons of high schools or in colleges.
Like anybody else, I was following worldly attractions.
The first attraction is love between a man and a woman. I was so deeply in love with my girl friends that I neglected my studying. After the time of first romance, these relationships brought me so many sufferings.
The second attraction is fame. I tried to work hard so that I could achieve a high position in society. Truly, I was somebody in Saigon before 1975, but I did not have the happiness that I had hoped for. Through that false fame, I sometimes had deep pain in my soul.
In 1975, like million of my fellow Vietnamese soldiers, I was put in a re-education camp. I was tortured bodily, emotionally, and psychologically in the camps in North Vietnam. I had sleeplessness, headache, and very serious heart palpitations. For months on end, I did not have any medication to ease these illnesses, and so I became very weak.
One night, when most of the detainees were deep in sleep, I heard Mr. Lai, my friend, talking to somebody: “When I cannot sleep, I just pray the Hail Mary; then I can fall asleep easily.”
Although I was not a Catholic, I knew the Hail Mary.
When I was 17 years old I had a Catholic girl friend, named Uyen. We had a very romantic relationship; we used to meet each other in the courtyard of The Redemptorist Church in Saigon. One day Uyen gave me a piece of paper. On it was the prayer, Hail Mary, which she had written carefully with her very beautiful handwriting. She asked me learn this prayer by heart. To make her happy I learned it, but with no belief whatsoever.
I spent all my time with my romance, and so I could not graduate from high school. Not only had my parents restricted my freedom, but I also told myself that I must return to my studies. Knowing the relationship between us, Uyen’s parents did not allow her to meet me again. Even now I do not know where she is.
Uyen had gone but the Hail Mary stayed, dormant, deep in my heart.
Hearing Mr. Lai mention the Hail Mary, I recalled it and tried this prayer to find out whether it was as effective as Mr. Lai believed. I fell asleep easily and had a long sleep until dawn.
I was very glad, and I was able to sleep normally for a week after that. But more, I felt that I was healed not only bodily but also emotionally. Hope returned to me. It seemed that the black shadow of death was not hanging over me anymore.
One week later, in the morning I was watching the yellow sunlight shining through the window onto the green leaves of the vegetables that my fellow prisoners had planted. I talked to my roommate who lay next to me:
“Uncle Dinh, I would like to become a Catholic! Do you know who is Catholic in this room?” Mr. Dinh introduced me uncle Man, then uncle Man introduced to many other Catholics! I did not know there was such a underground Catholic community right before the eyes of communist cadres.
My new friends showed their love to me and taught me catechesis to prepare me for my baptism.
I hesitated when the given day came near. I felt that I was not ready psychologically. I was afraid. What would happen to me if the communists knew of my conversion? I told my friends that I would like to cancel the baptism.
I pondered and pondered about everything, and I knew that my friends were praying for me. I read a Bible that I borrowed .
I seldom talked to my friends, but began to write songs. The title of the first song was: Father is the True God. Then came O, Mother, Save Me From This Place and Let Us Look Up To The Sky.
After nearly one month of thinking, the answer came to me: billions of people, many of them very clever, have knelt down before God. Who am I but a regular guy?
As for my fear of the communists: I had nothing to lose. If because of following Christ I was punished or disciplined, then God will bless me, since in the Sermon on the Mount the Lord said: “Blessed are you when people abuse you and persecute you and speak all kind of calumny against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven; this is how they persecuted the prophets before you.”
I was not afraid anymore. I decided that I would accept my being put in fetters, or even never being released from that terrible place. I would follow the Lord.
I asked my friends to baptize me on March 21, 1981.
Before the baptism I was very nervous, as a bride before her wedding. I knew that my friends were very glad to prepare everything in secret.
One evening, talking to a friend, I wished: “How glad I would be if the lights would turn on right after the water had been poured!” Very few Vietnamese communist concentration camps had power, but camp Ha Tay where I was imprisoned was one of them. Each night the communist cadre would turn on the lights at random times; some days were early and some days late.
On the given day, when it was still dusk, the clang of a gong called every one to enter their room to be locked in. As we had planned, we were preparing the baptism ceremony in silence. Two kerosene lamps had been lighted at the upper corner of the room, at the place where Mr. Nguyen Van Hung, a former teacher and Mr. Nguyen Van Do, a former police major, had been assigned.
The baptism was solemnly celebrated. It seemed that everybody in the room knew what was happening because there was no sound of talking. No sooner had Mr. Nguyen Thanh Tien, a former police major, poured the water on my forehead saying: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” than the lights blinked twice and then stayed on! This happened exactly as I had wished.
God had given me the first gift to support my faith which was still so weak. Everybody was amazed when I told them my wish had just happened. They gave God thanks and praise. After the ceremony, each one of us had a bowl of sweetened porridge which had been cooked by Mr. Nguyen Van Hung, and I sang four songs that I had written.
After the baptism I was overwhelmed by happiness such as I had never imagined. Never, ever I experienced such a joy. I was in prison with terrible living conditions, but I had a true bliss, the feeling that one can only understand if he has faith. My soul was like being raised to the another world. The suffering seemed to disappear, and there was but gladness, pleasure, contentment… This state stayed with me about a week.
From that time on, I wrote many inspired songs about the Virgin Mary, about Saint Therese- the little flower — I tried to commit all of them to memory, and I asked my close friends to learn them with me, with the hope that upon release we could use these songs to evangelize.
Once I wrote a song I could not keep it for myself; I sang it loudly for my friends and I was sure that I was being watched. I tried not to leave any written evidence that could justify punishment. All the songs had to be kept deeply in our hearts.
One day, Tan, the cadre in charge of my unit — a new one — asked me quietly: “Have you written sacred songs? Be careful, just hide them, because if the security cadre knows, he will put you in chains.”
The act of Mr. Tan, who not only warned me but also told me to hide the songs, surely came from the grace of God. Thank you, Lord. Please give this good man your blessing.
From the day of my baptism, I was living in God’s blessing, which He expressed through the sympathy of my new Catholic friends.
God did many wonderful deeds for me. I should have died, but I was saved. It seemed that I was resurrected. I became a new man with a new soul. I was not in despair anymore, but hope filled my heart. I knew to repent for my sins. I knew to be humble. I knew how to love others. I accepted the hardships of life without complaint.
In 1981, it was impossible to think we would ever be released from the camps. The communists had planned to imprison us for life in the jungle. They had begun to build a system of camps along the borders of Vietnam, the borders with Laos and China. They intended to move all of us and our families there for the rest of our lives.
I should have died over there but now I am in the United States! Only God could change the impossible to the possible. America has opened wide its heart to receive the victims who had suffered all kinds of tortures to get to the United States. I am one of these fortunate people. God has guided me all the way from that time, with many unimaginable and unexpected steps.
Thanks to the abundant grace of God, the already-dead man I was has become a servant for Him. How can I return to Him such miraculous things as He has done for me? Even after a full life, on my deathbed, I will never be able to repay Him.