While I was on retreat this summer I heard about Rev. Walter Ciszek, a priest who is being considered for sainthood. One day in the library I picked up his book, He Leadeth Me, [Ignatian Press, San Francisco, 1973] which describes what he, a Polish-American Jesuit priest, learned from being a prisoner in Russia during World War II, first in solitary for five years at the infamous Lubiyanka prison in Moscow and then for fifteen years in Siberian labor camps. Although I was very mindful of the differences in our circumstances, I felt that he, with great authority because of the brutality of his treatment, captured what the basic human issue is in the relationship between man and God.
When the KGB broke him after 5 years of solitary confinement and almost daily interrogations, this strong-minded, somewhat feisty priest was shocked that he hadn’t held out successfully against them. In assessing what went wrong he realized that he had only gone part way with God in surrendering his will, that he had continued to depend on himself at least to some extent. So he began to reformulate how he thought about his life. He decided that, for whatever reason, it was God’s will that he was in Russia, in Lubiyanka Prison and in the labor camps, that the reality of his life was just what God wanted for him at that moment in time: “Only when I had reached a point of total bankruptcy of my own powers had I at last surrendered.”[p. 78] And then he had to struggle to accept what God’s will was for him: “to discern this in every situation and circumstance, to see his will in all things, was to accept each circumstance and situation and let oneself be borne along in perfect confidence and trust. Nothing could separate me from him, because he was in all things.[p. 79 Italics added.]
It was a struggle for him to accept God’s will. Priests were treated worse than the regular prisoners, given the worst jobs, because of the antipathy that the Soviet Union held towards religion. Each time that he was able to accept God’s will, he felt strengthened. But, “my inner struggle of soul never ceased. No matter how close to God the soul felt, how blessed it was by an awareness of his presence on occasion, the realities of life were always at hand, always demanding recognition, always demanding acceptance. I had to continuously to learn to accept God’s will—not as I wished it to be, not as it might have been, but as it actually was at the moment.” [p. 188]
The payoff of accepting God’s will was this: “By renouncing, finally and completely, all control of my life and future destiny, I was relieved as a consequence of all responsibility. I was freed thereby from anxiety and worry, from every tension, and could float serenely upon the tide of God’s sustaining providence in perfect peace of soul.”[p. 79-80]
I read this book towards the end of the retreat when I was also in the throes of the Passion of Jesus. Fr. Ciszek was living what Christ also lived, death and resurrection–whether physical or metaphoric. His story has had a great influence on me and I am still pondering his circumstances and how he responded to them. I had previously given lip-service to the idea that everything in my life is willed by God, but I have never seriously entertained it until now. Now I am very aware of my reaction to this thing or that; I stop at the usual irritation or complaint and I think about God’s will and what is happening to(for?) me and I let it go. I am more conscious of my mood, more apt to take myself on when I am wishing for some other circumstance. I like the close interplay between reality and me and wonder at what God is asking of me.
I am grateful to Fr. Ciszek’s book for opening my eyes. He wrote it as one who has lived this intersection of God and man, painfully and ultimately successfully. But like all of us, it was not an easy battle. It was protracted and costly, as grace sometimes is. We prefer the easy grace, but the easy grace costs us nothing. “If you look upon sacrifice and suffering only through the eyes of reason alone, your tendency will be to avoid as much of it as you can, for pain in itself in never pleasant. But if you learn to see the role of pain and suffering in relation to God’s redemptive plan for the universe and each individual soul, your attitude must change…..You see in it a putting on of Christ in the true sense of the word. Out of this insight comes joy, and an increase of hope; out of it, too, grows compassion for others and a hope that they also may be helped to understand the true meaning of life and its trials, its joys and sufferings…The most important thing was to keep the flame of zeal burning. Hence the constant efforts to see in the pain and suffering of each day a true work of redemption, a true sharing in the saving acts of Christ.”[p. 119]
Hear what he says about taking on ourselves: “Our primary responsibility then, the main object of all our efforts, must be the transformation of ourselves, of our hearts and our lives. Insofar as we succeed at this, we promote the spreading of God’s kingdom for by doing this, we are at the same time disposing ourselves to help others and contribute even further to the spreading of the Kingdom.”[p. 168]
I offer up his writings as worthy of serious thought in regards to our own lives. His life was an extreme example of the hardships some of us suffer, but the suffering was redemptive for him and instructive for us. How does he challenge you? What would you need to give up to embrace God’s will, for that is what we are asked to do, I believe, to radically embrace what is in our lives.