I am flying into LAX Saturday, renting a car, driving up to the Central Coast for a couple of nights to visit dear friends, and then heading for St. Andrews’ Abbey in Valyermo for a first-week-of-Advent retreat.
I’m nervous and excited!
Meanwhile, my thoughts have turned to one of my all-time favorite saints or soon-to-be saints: Servant of God Walter Ciszek. I wrote about him in Magnificat years ago:
SERVANT OF GOD WALTER CISZEK
Fr. Walter Ciszek, S. J. (1904-1984) was born to a large Polish Catholic family in the mining town of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. As a youth he headed up a street gang and proved so incorrigible that his father once went to the police and asked them to put him in reform school.
Instead, young Ciszek developed a private, secret desire to be a Jesuit priest. Mulishly stubborn, he was accepted into seminary, studied in Rome, and was ordained in 1937. He felt a passionate call to go to Russia, but was instead assigned to Albertin in eastern Poland. When the Russians invaded and closed the Jesuit mission down, Fr. Ciszek, with permission from his order, snuck across the Russian border. There, he worked in a lumber camp for a year: learning the language, quietly performing baptisms, absolutions, and anointings, and—some of the happiest moments of his life, he would later recall—celebrating clandestine Masses in the woods with a priest friend.
Arrested one night, he was sent to the notorious Lubianka Prison and charged with being a Vatican spy. Much of his five years there was spent in solitary confinement. In He Leadeth Me, a spiritual classic, he tells of praying that the Holy Spirit would provide a clever retort to put his interrogators smartly in their place. Instead, in one particularly grueling session, he finally broke and numbly signed page after page of trumped-up charges.
Back in his cell, he was devastated. He, who had prided himself on his strength, had been broken. It struck with the force of revelation: for all his prayer and self-discipline, he had still been relying largely on himself. The episode was a “purgatory” that “left me cleansed to the bone” and marked a turning point after which he abandoned himself completely to God’s will.
He was sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor at a Siberian work camp. Often in the sub-arctic cold during lunch break, he and his fellow believers secretly celebrated daily Mass: “[T]hese men would actually fast all day long and do exhausting physical labor without a bite to eat since dinner the evening before, just to be able to receive the Holy Eucharist—that was how much the Sacrament meant to them in this otherwise God-forsaken place.’
Released from Siberia in 1955, he worked as an auto mechanic and served as village priest. In 1963 he was exchanged for two Soviet spies and, after twenty-three years, Fr. Ciszek came home. The twinkle in his blue eyes was intact, yet “in many ways, I am almost a stranger.”
This mischievous Pole, tender of heart and tough as nails, evokes St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Both were fiercely sure of their vocations; both underwent a decisive second conversion; both suffered long, hard, and humbly for love of Christ.
In solitary confinement, in the labor camps, Fr. Ciszek learned at last what Thérèse did in her Carmelite cell: “Each of us has no need to wonder about what God’s will must be for us; his will for us is clearly revealed in every situation of every day.”
I’m re-reading He Leadeth Me and shared a few thoughts on this video: