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The Sign of the Cross: Spiritual Lessons from With God in Russia – Afterword by James Martin, SJ

The final line is, for me, the most moving in the entire book. “Slowly, carefully, I made the sign of the Cross over the land I was leaving.” In the long line of spiritual memoirs written by American Catholics, there are few more powerful conclusions, and few that so succinctly sum up the book that has come before.

Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, closes her wonderful memoir The Long Loneliness, first published in 1952, with a simple statement. She is recalling an early conversation with her friend Peter Maurin, and the beginning of their ministry to the poor, which continues in Catholic Worker houses to this day: “It all happened while we sat there talking, and it is still going on.” Here is Dorothy in a nutshell: clear, direct, active. The end of her book shows her still talking, still active, still working.

Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and mystic, ends his landmark autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, published four years earlier, with a prayer: “That you may become the brother of God and learn to know the Christ of the burnt men.” It is a poetic and somewhat mysterious ending for his poetic and often mysterious book. Those words would take on even more mystery in 1968, after Merton’s fatal electrocution after a conference in Bangkok, Thailand. In that terrible accident, Merton became united with Christ in a way that strangely mirrored the end of his most famous piece of writing.

But the last line of Walter Ciszek’s With God in Russia not only sums up the work itself; it also astonishes the reader, who is by now accustomed to being amazed by Ciszek’s tale. The Jesuit priest who has been tortured and imprisoned, beaten and spied upon for the last 23 years, harbors no ill will. Though he has survived the worst deprivations, over the land whose Communist government has brought him such misery he makes the Sign of the Cross. His reaction to leaving the Soviet Union is not condemnation but blessing.

A few years after With God in Russia was published, Father Ciszek approached Daniel L. Flaherty, S.J., a Jesuit priest who had assisted him in his writing. Ciszek told his friend that he was ready to write a book. Naturally, Flaherty expressed surprise. “Wally,” he said, “we just finished your book, and it’s at the publisher.” Ciszek responded that all along he had hoped to tell not just the saga of his time in the prisons and labor camps, but a deeper story: his spiritual journey. That book is the magnificent He Leadeth Me.

So if you’re looking for a spiritual meditation on the life of Walter Ciszek, S.J., my advice would be this: read He Leadeth Me. There Ciszek answers the question that so many asked after he returned: How did you survive? His concise answer is “Divine Providence.” His longer answer is that second book.

But until you read that later work, here are some brief reflections on how one might apply the lessons of With God in Russia to one’s own life.

None of us are going to be incarcerated a Soviet labor camp, for the simple reason that the Soviet Union has ceased to exist. And while there are many Christians today who suffer persecution (perhaps even some reading this book), for the most part our lives do not involve such brutality. So some readers might put this book down, moved and inspired, but perhaps feeling unable to connect it to their own lives. They might say, “I’m no hero. I could never do what Ciszek did.” Or, “What do my small problems have to do with his?” That, however, would be missing the point of his book, which offers a great deal of wisdom for our daily lives.

Let me, then, offer three areas where this book has most helped me in my spiritual life. And let me offer a few questions for further reflection.

First of all, Ciszek faces his hardships with grace. With God in Russia is filled with the most profound suffering. At various points in his narrative, Ciszek is hunted, captured, tortured, beaten, interrogated, imprisoned, and nearly starved to death. The Jesuit priest endures long hours in dank jail cells, endless rides on cramped trains, and freezing days and nights in the labor camps. He also faces the mental and emotional strain of not knowing from moment to moment whether he is going to be welcomed or beaten, believed or mistrusted, or even permitted to live. He is tired; his limbs ache from either overwork or beatings; he falls ill; he eats wretched food; he is ill clothed.

Yet he endures these things with grace. This is not to say that Ciszek didn’t occasionally grow angry or weary or sad. Ciszek may be saint but, like all the saints, he is still human. (And even Jesus showed flashes of anger, grew tired, and felt sadness.) But he decides to endure the hardships with patience, confident that God is with him, ever attentive to signs of grace, and trusting that he will be able, with God’s help, to continue. It is God who enables him to do this, but it is Ciszek who cooperates with this grace.

Notice too that Ciszek does not pass along his suffering. In the lives of other people, the hardships described in this book might have been a cause for embitterment, or led them to lash out in anger or violence against their tormentors, or their fellow prisoners. But Ciszek does not do this. Of course he complains to his friends from time to time, but he does not add to their burdens by, for example, increasing their feelings of hopelessness or despair. In fact, he channels whatever frustration he experiences into service, in the form of ministry as a priest, the act of listening or simply being a friend.

Since entering the Jesuits, I have probably read this book ten times, often while on a retreat. Sometimes, as I sit in bed late at night in a warm room, reading about the frigid Siberian winter, I realize that no matter what my small sufferings are, I have a choice. I can either let them embitter me, or I can meet them with the confidence that God will not abandon me. With God in Russia also encourages me never to pass along the anger that can often be the instinctive response to misfortune. Soviet camp, family kitchen, or crowded office, we can resist passing along bitterness, and thereby adding to the suffering of another person.

So perhaps you might ask yourself a question: In what part of my life might I be invited to accept life’s hardships with grace?

Second, Father Ciszek does not hold a grudge. In our offices at America magazine there is a famous photo of Father Ciszek. As Thurston Davis, S.J., the editor of America at the time, notes in the original introduction to this book, after Ciszek landed in Idlewild (currently John F. Kennedy) Airport he made his way to the America House Jesuit Community in Manhattan. The black-and-white photo shows him emerging from a 1960s-era car, into the sunlight. As Father Davis noted, “In his green raincoat, grey suit, and big-brimmed Russian hat, he looked like the movie version of a stocky little Soviet member of an agricultural mission.” (A letter from President Kennedy thanking an intermediary for Father Ciszek’s release also hangs on the walls of our offices.)

In the Oct. 26, 1963, issue of America, Father Ciszek released a brief statement, which read in part: “I went into the interior of Russia of my own free will, spurred by my conscience and a desire to do good in the line of my vocation. In spite of seeming failures, I cherish no resentment or regrets for what has transpired in the past years. I have the highest regard for the Russian people, because they are a good and hospitable folk who are very sincere and hearty in their relations with others who truly live and labor among them. Having lived so many years with the working class, as one of them, I have not experienced anything antagonistic on their part toward me.”

That’s an almost shocking statement, Christ-like in its simplicity and power. Jesus of Nazareth forgave his executioners from the Cross, as he left his earthly life. Ciszek forgave his captors as he left the Soviet Union. Of course the Jesuit priest is also saying goodbye to the many friends he met, particularly towards the end of his time in Russia, but it is still an astonishing statement of forgiveness.

Again and again in his book, Ciszek shows the value of forgiveness, expressing anger but not bitterness, and certainly not hatred, when he speaks of his persecutors. Also, his mistreatment by some never blinds him to the goodness of most—his fellow prisoners, those suffering under Communist rule, even some of his guards. Clearly this forgiving stance helped him to endure those 23 years. (Notice how, at the end of the book, he still has a great talent for friendship among the Russian people.) Forgiveness is a double gift. It is a gift to the one who is forgiven, but also a gift to yourself, freeing you from the prison of resentment and bitterness.

So, a second question: Where might I be called to let go of resentments?

Finally, Father Ciszek treasures his relationship with God. As should be clear from even the most cursory reading of the book, this stance is at the heart of his story. His life is seen through the lens of faith, and his life makes no sense otherwise. During his time in Lubianka he decides to replicate the daily schedule (ordo) of the Jesuit novitiate, rising at a certain time, saying his prayers and his examination of conscience (a review of the day) and as much as he can remember of the Mass. Later, in the camps, when he is able (and even in danger of being discovered), he celebrates the Mass. At times he specifically says that prayer fills him with consolation, as when he feels that he is about to be executed. Prayer is as important for him as food.

Over and over, when Ciszek finds himself sad or worried or angry he prays. Now, for some this might seem to be simply a refuge. And part of that is true: prayer was one way that Ciszek could find a measure of solace in the midst of his often hellish existence. But it was more than just that; it was his reconnection with God. In other words, prayer is not simply a refuge: it is a relationship. In prayer he connects with the deepest part of himself, the part that cannot be eradicated by any torture, by any interrogation, by any beating, by any isolation, by any hardship, no matter how terrible. God’s relationship to Walter Ciszek, and to us, can never be broken, not even in death.

That is why this book is not entitled How I Survived or My Time in Siberia, but With God in Russia. This is a story about the relationship between God and a person who wanted to give himself totally to God’s service. As are all our life stories. Each of us could write a book, perhaps not as dramatic or harrowing as Father Ciszek’s, but God is with each of us, no matter where we are.

As an aside, some of Ciszek’s most powerful insights happened without the aid of any confessor, pastoral counselor, spiritual director, or retreat director. While he occasionally meets fellow believers (and fellow priests) with whom he can converse about spiritual matters, for the most part during his time in the camps he deepens his relationship with God on his own. To me, this makes his witness all the more astonishing.

So, finally, a third question: How might I use Father Ciszek’s example to deepen my relationship with, or trust in, God?

Walter Ciszek spent the rest of his life at a Jesuit community at Fordham University, in New York, which also served as the John XXIII Center for Eastern Studies. The Jesuit priest who had once been thought by his brother Jesuits to be dead, spent many lively years counseling men and women, providing spiritual direction, and running retreats. He was beloved by his brother Jesuits, his family, and his friends. Today the building where he lived is called Ciszek Hall, a community for young Jesuits in training. Father Ciszek died in 1984 and is buried at the Jesuit Center in Wernersville, Pa., which was originally Ciszek’s novitiate, the place where he first heard the mysterious call to the East.

Recently I spoke to the Jesuit superior at Ciszek Hall at Fordham. As a young novice, he had once heard Ciszek preach during a Mass. “I’ll never forget that homily,” said my friend, “or how he spoke about the Gospel.” I asked him how he would sum it up.

“Convincing,” he said.

Walter Ciszek, pray for us.

James Martin, S.J., is a Jesuit priest, contributing editor of America magazine and author of several books including My Life with the Saints and The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.

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