By IHE Graduate Fellow Bridget Knuffke, a doctoral candidate in the School of Philosophy
Many Catholics are familiar with the story of Walter Ciszek, S.J., from his autobiography, With God in Russia. Father Ciszek, an American Jesuit priest, was assigned to missionary work in eastern Poland in 1938, which came under Soviet occupation not long after his arrival. With God in Russia documents the story of Ciszek’s arrest by the Soviets in 1941 under accusations that he was a Vatican spy, followed by five years of solitary confinement in a Moscow prison. His imprisonment led to a sentence of 15 years of hard labor in the Siberian Gulag, where he would go to great lengths to celebrate Mass with a tiny crust of bread. After a total of nearly 23 years in captivity, Ciszek was released and eventually returned to the Jesuit order in the US, where he had been presumed dead for 17 years. In fact, his Jesuit confreres had been offering Masses for the repose of his soul for years.
Ciszek’s faith shines through in his later book, He Leadeth Me, an account of his spiritual journey during his captivity in Russia. Needless to say, the prison and the Gulag are not optimal conditions for human flourishing. Yet his intense suffering bore fruit in simple spiritual insights which Ciszek shares throughout his book. God’s will for us, he realizes, is not some great and mysterious plan that we must guess for ourselves, for as Ciszek says, “Between God and the soul there are no insignificant moments.” God’s will is what he brings to us in each moment of each day, the special circumstances that we encounter as we go about our daily life: “The plain and simple truth is that his will is what he actually wills to send us each day, in the way of circumstances, places, people, and problems.” The trick, as Ciszek says, is to learn to see all of these things as God’s will for us, for our temptation is to overlook them because they are so constant, so petty, so humdrum and routine. We might prefer a more noble “will of God,” but we work out our salvation by responding with deep charity to each person and each task that falls our way.
The trouble arises when we inject too much of ourselves into our circumstances, relying on our own power or strength to achieve our ends. When we fail, shame and disappointment deter any future effort. Ciszek recounts the initial pride he had in his intense penances, strong will, and steady nerves; it is only when these fail him completely that he realizes his total reliance on God. Yet God does not ask the impossible of any man, overwhelmed though he may be by an NKVD prison, the whole Soviet system, the “status quo,” “city hall,” “the rat race,” the “establishment,” or the “whole oppressive, rotten world.” When we rely on ourselves, he says,
we can easily be overwhelmed by personal feelings of inadequacy or sheer physical powerlessness, by the realization of one man’s seeming insignificance in a corrupt world. We tend to concentrate on ourselves, we tend to think of what we can or cannot do, and we forget about God and his will and providence. Yet God never forgets each individual’s significance, his dignity and worth, and the role each has been asked to play in the workings of his providence. To him, each individual is equally important at all times. He cares. But he also expects each man to accept, as from his hands, the daily situations he sends him and to act as he would have him act and gives him the grace to act.
Ciszek’s spiritual insights, simple to grasp yet difficult to live, led to a life of heroic faith amid brutal and inhuman suffering. May we all strive to follow his remarkable and inspiring example.