Walter Ciszek SJ and Holy Week


A quote from Walter Ciszek SJ in his book He Leadeth Me

Walter Ciszek SJ has received little attention from the wider world since his death in 1984. Although better known in Jesuit circles, particularly for his two books With God in Russia and He Leadeth Me, Ciszek spent most of his life in obscurity. The main reason for this is obvious; having volunteered as part of a Jesuit missionary group for the re-evangelisation of then Communist Russia, Ciszek had been arrested, spending five years in solitary confinement in the Lubianka Prison in Moscow, and a further 15 years hard labour in the GULAGs. He was finally repatriated as part of a prisoner exchange in 1963 at a time of relative thaw in Cold War hostilities.

But while on one level, Ciszek’s obscurity is something entirely to be expected given the events of his life, it’s also something borne of his spiritual journey, narrated most beautifully in his second book, He Leadeth Me. The book tells the story of Ciszek’s journey into and out of Russia, not in a timeline of events, but as a series of spiritual lessons that he learned through his experiences – a spiritual confession of the effects of his life in Russia.

Perhaps the greatest lesson of the book is generosity: to give of ourselves completely to God, not to follow our will, but to prefer nothing to God. This is what we must do in Holy Week. We must be generous enough with our own selves, with everything we have, to empty ourselves and hand everything over to God, as we walk with Him through the streets of Jerusalem to the Cross of Calvary.

The real breakthrough for Ciszek came as he spent time in Lubianka in solitary confinement. Having railed against God, vented his anger towards God, and questioned why his good intentions to follow the call of God had led him to a place of such misery. In the Gethsemane of Lubianka, Ciszek experienced the desolation of the Cross. But his prayer gradually changed; as he held back less and less of himself, as he approached a point of conversion that he’s been fighting and afraid to approach, he discovered a deep interior peace. This is how he puts it in one of the most famous parts of his writing:

‘Across that threshold I had been afraid to cross, things suddenly seemed so very simple. There was but a single vision, God, who was all in all; there was but one will that directed all things, God's will. I had only to see it, to discern it in every circumstance in which I found myself, and let myself be ruled by it. God is in all things, sustains all things, directs all things. 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. No danger could threaten me, no fear could shake me, except the fear of losing sight of Him. The future, hidden as it was, was hidden in His will and therefore acceptable to me no matter what it might bring. The past, with all its failures, was not forgotten; it remained to remind me of the weakness of human nature and the folly of putting any faith in self. But it no longer depressed me. I looked no longer to self to guide me, relied on it no longer in any way, so it could not again fail me. 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.’

Through his life of prayer, Ciszek bares the pains and humiliations, the tortures and the desolation of his time in prison and hard labour and transfigures them into something else. Throughout his captivity he is able to take all his sufferings and turn them into a witness of faith, as the building blocks of his ministry. As Pope Francis said in his first homily as Pope at a Mass celebrated with Cardinal Electors, "When we do not profess Jesus Christ, we profess the worldliness of the devil... when we profess Christ without the Cross, we are not disciples of the Lord, we are worldly"  In ministering to other prisoners, in celebrating the Sacraments in secret, Ciszek does what we are called to do, to walk with Jesus and imitate his life so closely that we are finally able to hand over everything to Him. Our challenge this week, is to try to make this self-offering not just something we do for a week, or for the Triduum, but as a call to conversion for the rest of our lives.

Alex Robertson