I suspect every person—at one point in his life or another—has a moment when he reflects on where he’s been, where he is, and muses at where he might be going. Similarly, I suspect that each person also has a moment where he reflects (or even agonizes) on what might have been if another path had been chosen than the one that has brought him to his current state. Decisions made, experiences had, loves lost, loves found, mistakes made, dreams not realized, questions asked, gifts received, gifts rejected, lessons learned—reflections on all of these things in each of our lives points to the complexity of each of our souls. Using the vocabulary of an older and more venerable tradition, these reflections point to a mystery.
“Reflection” and “mystery” are two words that are not in fashion in our sound-bite and social media dominated age. For effort, time, and silence are necessary for reflection and, in turn, reflection is necessary to apprehend and, subsequently, comprehend (to the extent we are able) a mystery. Being a Latin teacher, I would also note that reflection also implies a certain amount of “bending towards” something or a “turning back” towards something. Cato, Cicero, Caesar and the people of their noble civilization were very precise when they spoke and “turning back” to something might also imply that we are turned away from it. Likewise, the apprehension of a mystery—something that is not divulged—requires a clue or an indication of its presence.
The gift of faith given to us at Baptism allows us to know the origin of this profound mystery and the primordial turning away from it; and the same gift inclines us back to the mystery. Even those who have not been graced with Baptism can understand sometimes that not all is right with the world: either in himself or in relationships with others. Look around—it’s rather obvious! The mystery that I am here considering is the very intimate relationship between God each individual person and the fact that it is the God of Hope who constantly “bends towards” us (even bends himself out of shape—just look at a crucifix) and finds us.
The English poet Francis Thompson gives expression to this mystery in his poem “The Hound of Heaven.” Racked and wrecked with a troubled life, he describes the state of his soul as he preferred a life of novelty and new sensations to understanding his relationship with God:
I fled Him down the nights and down the days
I fled Him down the arches of the years
I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind, and in the midst of tears
I hid from him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped and shot precipitated
Adown titanic glooms of chasmed hears
From those strong feet that followed, followed after
But with unhurrying chase and unperturbed pace.
Yet for all his years of turning away, Thompson came to realize God’s unfathomable love and his pursuit of each person—even the most wretched like Thompson himself—and through means that may be painful. In the poem, God says:
All which I took from thee, I did’st but take,
Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might’st seek it in my arms.
All which thy child’s mistake fancies as lost,
I have stored for thee at Home.
Rise, clasp my hand, and come.
Another poet, the Franciscan Friar, Thomas of Celano, captured the same truth in a line from the majestic 13th century Latin poem the Dies Irae—which subsequently became part of the Office of Readings for the Universal Church:
Quaerens me sedisti lassus
Seeking me, you sat down—completely exhausted.
God, if he is anything, is a poet and I have deliberately utilized the poets to purposefully turn the title of this evening on its head to illustrate the reality of God’s pursuit of every human person. (For poetry is oftentimes the only way one can express a mystery.) This is the mystery of which the Servant of God, Fr. Walter Ciszek, S.J. was so conscious: the fact that every moment of our lives—every person we encounter, every suffering we endure, and every situation in which we find ourselves—is an opportunity that God uses to bend Himself down to us, to pursue us—with “unhurrying chase and unperturbed pace” and “deliberate speed” until the end of our earthly lives.
The story of Walter Ciszek, like most of our stories, is both normal and something of a miracle. A rough and rapid biography. Walter Ciszek was born on November 4, 1904, the seventh of thirteen children, to Martin and Mary Ciszek of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. While we know that Walter Ciszek is now up for canonization, no one during his childhood years would have predicted it. He was—to put it mildly—a juvenile delinquent. His favorite pasttimes were ditching school, picking fights, and playing craps in the alleys between buildings with rough and tumble gang members of Shenandoah. His father was so at his wits’ end that he actually brought him to the police station to have young Walter locked up. If this is the stuff of saints, then we all have hope!
Yet throughout all of this, Walter Ciszek was very much aware of the presence of God. He would repair in the evenings to spot behind a bureau in the family home to say his prayers. Imagine it: a young Walter Ciszek seeing a kid with glasses walking down the street, calling him “4-eyes,” busting him in the nose with a right hook, subsequently getting into a fight with the bespeckled kid’s friends only to return home bruised and saying an Act of Contrition behind the dresser that evening. What a contrast! In the end, however, that inclination towards God won out (while the stubbornness and desire to do the toughest thing did not go away) and Walter announced to his family at age thirteen that he wanted to be a priest. None of them believed it.
He entered SS. Cyril and Methodius Seminary in Orchard Lake, Michigan. While no longer picking fights, he did continue a regimen of physical fitness and pushing himself. He would swim across the lakes in the cold temperatures of November, he would do calisthenics every morning, and he would play all the sports he could in addition to his academic work. It was also at this time that his youthful bravado was such that he did not want to be found to be overly pious. He scorned the hagiographical depictions and statuary of the saints as overly saccharine and unrealistic. He would also get perturbed at the outward displays of piety by his fellow seminarians. If anything, he was a realist. Yet, he would also get up earlier than his confreres and would spend time in silent prayer in the chapel. Stubborn piety!
Attracted to the Society of Jesus, he left Orchard Lake and entered the Jesuits in 1928. He was in New York and Pennsylvania for his initial Jesuit training and was very taken by a summons by Pope Pius XI for volunteers for a Russian mission to help beleaguered Christians living under the Soviet regime. He wrote to the Jesuit Father General volunteering for this mission. He was accepted and sent to Rome for his theological studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University in 1933-34. He also studied Russian language, culture, and became proficient in the Byzantine Rite of the Church all in preparation for the Russian Mission. He was ordained in the Byzantine Rite in 1937 and offered his first Mass at the Basilica of St. Paul-Outside-The-Walls.
Since it was first impossible for him to go into Russia, he was missioned to Albertyn, Poland (modern-day Belarus) where he was one part parish priest, one part instructor of Jesuit novices. He had only been there for a little over a year when, in September 1939, the Germans invaded Poland and commenced the Second World War. Days after the Germans invaded from the West, the Soviets invaded from the East and Poland was in a shambles with occupying forces on both sides. The Soviet troops took over the Jesuit mission in Albertyn and all but Ciszek and one other priest were recalled by their superiors to other places in Poland.
With the confusion of the war and the unknown nature of conditions within the Soviet Union, Metropolitan Archbishop Andrej Sheptytsky of Lvov (Ukraine) along with his Jesuit superiors gave Fr. Walter Ciszek and another Jesuit Fr. Victor Novikov permission to enter Russia clandestinely as workers. Their only mission was to study conditions as they existed to determine whether or not priestly work could be done. The few documents that we have of this time and the mission given reads like something out of a James Bond novel. It was a time of great intrigue, but there was truly nothing political about the priests’ mission—it was truly for the salvation of souls of those caught in the oppressive socialist regime of the Soviet State.
Ciszek and Novikov entered Russia on St. Joseph’s Feast Day, March 19, 1940, having passed the border in a boxcar full of workers bound for the Ural Mountains. The two priests went into Russia as common laborers and worked in a lumber camp. Conditions were extremely harsh and the labor was back-breaking. Very little could be done by way of priestly work, so thorough had been communist indoctrination. Within the year, having been watched by the NKVD, Ciszek and Novikov were arrested in the middle of the night during the summer of 1941.
From 1941-1945, Ciszek endured interrogations, torture, and imprisonment in the dreaded Lubianka prison in Moscow. Under intense pressure, he confessed to crimes that he did not commit (something that devastated this “tough guy priest”) and was sentenced to an additional 15 years of hard labor in the Gulag. He was in labor camps close to the Arctic Circle in Norilsk where he worked as a miner, builder, and common laborer. Meanwhile, back in the United States, his family and the Jesuits had given him up for dead and began offering Masses for the repose of his soul.
In 1955, Ciszek was released early from the camps and was given limited freedom in Russia—he could not go to the major cities, he could not leave Russia, and he was under constant surveillance. He worked in various jobs in the cities of Norilsk, Krasnoyarsk, and Abakan. He was able to perform priestly functions during this period and he did so rather boldly in Norilsk and Krasnoyarsk until the NKVD forced him to stop and made him go to Abakan. It was during this time as well that he was able to correspond with his sisters who had thought him dead.
Finally, in 1963, due to the efforts of his sisters, his good friend and fellow Jesuit, Fr. Edward McCawley, and the Kennedy Administration, he along with a fellow gulag survivor, Marvin Makinen (now a professor at the University of Chicago) were repatriated back to the United States in exchange for Ivan and Alexandra Egorov, two Soviet spies. From 1963-1984, Ciszek was missioned to Fordham University where he was a member of the John XXIII Center for Eastern Christian Studies. He published his memoir of his Russian experience With God in Russia in 1964 and the spiritual lessons learned from that odyssey in He Leadeth Me in 1973. He was a popular retreat master and spiritual director until his death in 1984. Posthumously was published With God in America which draws from Ciszek’s spiritual writings and ministry during the last twenty years of his life in United States.
Upon his return from his Russian odyssey, Ciszek reflected upon his experiences and knew that God had preserved him during that time and he wanted to share his story because he thought it might be of help to others. You see, all through these ordeals, God was “bending Himself” to Walter Ciszek and was pursuing him:
Through the long years of isolation and suffering, God had led me to an understanding of life and his love that only those who have experienced it can fathom. He had stripped away from me many of the external consolations, physical and religious, that men rely on and had left me with a core of seemingly simple truths to guide me. And yet what a profound difference they had made in my life, what strength they gave me, what courage to go on! I wanted to tell others about them—indeed, I felt one reason that God in his providence had brought me safely home was so that I might help others understand these truths a little better.1
As one of his Jesuit confreres put it,
I thought of him as someone who had achieved a special insight about accepting and doing the will of God. The specialness and stark simplicity of that insight I would phrase this way: if something is really happening to you—some turn in your life, some burden of personality, some accident of health, some arbitrary political regime, some missed opportunity, or even some sin—then that’s the starting place for any authentic spirituality. That’s a kind of acceptance I think few people achieve.2
This is the core of the mystery of God’s relationship with each of his children. He knows us individually, he loves us individually, and he has given or permitted things to each of us in a very particular way in order to pursue us—to find us and let us know that he loves us. Fr. Ciszek’s story is a very dramatic one of God’s pursuit. Indeed, his stubborn temperament and reliance on his own powers makes that pursuit even more vivid to those who hear his story. It was the great lesson that he learned in the gulag and that he continued to reflect upon and understand when he returned to the US: that God loves us and everything in our lives are gifts of His to us. Do we recognize this? Is each of our lives no less a drama between God and ourselves, between the Pursuer and Pursued, between the Lover and the Beloved? Fr. Ciszek says:
It is a sad commentary on our human frailty that we fail to think of God or see him behind the comfortable routines of day-to-day existence. It is only in a crisis that we remember him and turn to him…It is moments of loss or family tragedy or personal despair that men turn to him and ask, “Why?”…Mysteriously, God in his providence must make use of our tragedies to remind our fallen human nature of his presence and his love, of the constancy of his concern and care for us. It is not vindictiveness on his part; he does not send us tragedies to punish us for having so long forgotten him. The failing is on our part. He is always present and ever faithful; it is we who fail to see him or to look for him in times of ease and comfort, to remember he is there, shepherding and guarding and providing us the very things we come to count on and expect to sustain us everyday.3
I will not speak for anyone else in this room, but as I think of these words by Fr. Ciszek, I can’t help but consider those questions I asked at the beginning of this reflection and how God continues to pursue me. All the good that I have in life is from his hands: my baptism and the gift of faith, my bride and family, my friendships—especially with Fr. Walter, health, etc. All the evil I have suffered in my life (usually the result of my own stupidity) is permitted by him that I might be reminded of my utter reliance on him. Even the unsought for and tremendously difficult cross of caring for a physically and mentally disabled adult son—these are examples of God’s “bending towards me,” his pursuit of me, his love for me. Will I “bend towards him;” will I meet him in the persons and circumstances and gifts of my everyday life; will I love him in return? Let’s be frank, I suck. I don’t love him as I ought, I don’t pray to him as I ought; I don’t accept him as I ought, but the key is to keep trying. As Fr. Ciszek would always advise, “Give God your lousy best.” Again, Fr. Ciszek:
“Unless you become like a little child you shall not enter the Kingdom of heaven.” Faith on our part is needed to accept Christ as he is and as he daily manifests himself to us in all things. We then have no reason for questioning in the least the gift of God within us, which truly is leading us to our Creator, if we believe that and live humbly and hopefully the experiences we daily have to go through. It’s God living in me and slowly changing me into the person he wants me to be by his power, if only I go along with him, not resisting or rejecting his inspirations. This I call matter-of-fact, down-to-earth spirituality. Living, eating, drinking, resting, working, doing something each moment of your existence while remaining conscious of God in all things.4
The story of Walter Ciszek is—like the person of Walter Ciszek—utterly unique. Just as the story of John DeJak is utterly unique; just as the story of Terri Aluise is utterly unique; just as the story of Sr. Rita Marie is utterly unique, and the story of each individual in this room this evening is utterly unique. God pursues all of us, exhaustedly pursues all of us—through the gifts he has given us, the sufferings he permits us, the sacraments through which he strengthens us, the Church in which he incorporates us, and through every particular personality quirk and situation he permits us. Ciszek nailed it:
God has a special purpose, a special love, a special providence for all those He created. God cares for each of us. The circumstances of each day of our lives, of every moment of every day, are provided for us by Him…But maybe we are all just a little afraid to accept (this truth) in all its shattering simplicity, for its consequences in our lives are both terrible and wonderful.5
If the stories of Walter Ciszek and each one of us are similar at all, it is because we have let ourselves be found and have entered the mystery—union with a loving God; and our lives, through grace, will have been so conformed, that we will be indistinguishable from His Only-Begotten Son.
Purchase With God in America, co-edited by Mr. John M. DeJak.
- He Leadeth Me, p. 15.
- With God in America, p. 29.
- HLM, p. 25.
- WGA, p. 143.
- HLM, p. 231.