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April 18, 2012
The beauty of a Vatican spy
By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

A former Vatican spy is now a candidate for canonization. On his return to the U.S. in 1963, after a twenty-three year imprisonment in Russia, Father Walter J. Ciszek, S.J. spent the remainder of his life sharing the fruit of that experience. At the age of eighty, he died on a Marian feast, December 8, 1984 and was immediately heralded by unofficial acclamation, “a saint, soon!”

Early Years

It is hard to imagine a less likely candidate for canonization than Walter Ciszek.  A stocky, rotund, and tough bully who played hooky from school, he picked fights to prove his physical prowess and surpass the boyish pranks of his taller buddies.  His Polish-born parents were ashamed of him. At his wit’s end, Martin Ciszek sent his son to Sts. Cyril and Methodius Seminary, Orchard Lake, Michigan, a strict school run by Polish priests. 

There Walter first came in contact with the Society of Jesus when a Jesuit visited the school and spoke to the boys about religious vocations to the priesthood. He applied, was accepted, and without his father’s permission, entered the Society in 1928. His father, though a devout Catholic, was incredulous at such an idea for his wayward son.

Off to Russia and to “Failure”

In his formation period, Walter volunteered for the Russian mission as a response to Pius XI’s plea for missionaries to serve there.  All his life, he felt that this was a direct call from God which never left him.

After his ordination to the priesthood in 1938, he was sent to Albertyn, a Polish village close to the Russian border.  Soon after, he was arrested by the KGB and imprisoned in Perm. He had a new name, Vladimir Lypinski, widower. "With God in Russia" relates the spine-tingling account of his sojourn in Russia, and "He Leadeth Me" attests to God's innovative activity at work within this man who had been given up for dead by his family and fellow Jesuits.  These two books could be the raw material for a spy thriller. 

Walter had desired to do great things as a missionary in Russia, but slowly he came to understand that his whole life depended on God and not on himself.  The interrogations began. Conditions were degrading.  Daily sustenance consisted of a chunk of bread and thin soup. The prisoners were stripped of self-dignity. Eventually his true identity was discovered.

Later in life, he could easily say: “God leads; I follow and obey,” but not without recalling his younger years:

I had always been a scrapper.  I had always wanted to outdo everyone, be the best, be the strongest.  I could take punishment and I could dish it out.  During my early years in religious life, I had even tried to outdo the legends of the saints in the fastings and penances of every sort …  I did it to prove to the world and to myself how tough I was.

In Siberian work camps, in utter deprivation, in mental and physical exhaustion, he proved his mettle by sheer will, with the toughness that he knew as a boy. For failure to cooperate with interrogations, he was thrown into solitary confinement in Lubianka, a former hotel turned into a dreaded prison.  Between 1942-46, he kept up a daily schedule of prayer, said Mass without bread and wine, gave himself homilies, scrubbed his six foot by ten foot cell, told himself jokes, and sang songs. 

His common sense and good humor kept him sane amidst the dark forces around him. “I loved books," he mused one day, “but when I went to Russia, God took away from me all books except one, the book of life.” 

What did Father Ciszek learn from the “book of life?”  Quite simply, he learned the meaning of a living faith and the night of faith that neither sees nor feels but believes with the will alone and which clings to nothing but God.  His endurance was tested in subhuman conditions as well as in those which demanded the most delicate astuteness before KGB examiners. The interrogations were erratic, relentless, frightening, and physically abusive.  

He, Walter, began to break down due to the physical and mental strain.  Eventually, he signed the document admitting to being a Vatican spy.  He, Walter, had failed.  God had abandoned him.  It was the blackest and most terrifying moment of his entire experience in Russia:

The sense of guilt and shame I felt was rooted in my failure to put grace ahead of nature, my failure to trust primarily in God rather than in my own powers.  I had failed, and I was shaken to my roots. And yet the moment of failure was in itself a great grace, for it taught me a great lesson … God's will was not hidden somewhere ‘out there’ in the situation in which I found myself; the situations themselves were  his will for me.  What he wanted for me was to accept these situations as from his hands, to let go and place myself entirely at his disposal.  He was asking of me an act of total trust, allowing for no interference or restless striving on my part, no reservations, no exceptions, no areas where I could set conditions or seem to hesitate.  He was asking a complete faith:  faith in God's existence, in his providence, in his concern for the minutest detail, in his power to sustain me, and in his love protecting me.  It meant losing all the last hidden doubt, the ultimate fear that God will not be there to bear you up.  It was something like that awful eternity between anxiety and belief when a child first leans back and lets go of all support whatever only to find that the water truly holds him up and he can float motionless and totally relaxed.  Once understood, it seemed so simple.  I was amazed it had taken me so long in terms of time and of suffering to learn this truth.

Walter learned that faith is like walking down a dark alley with a flashlight.  One receives a little light to take a small step forward.  Another light follows, and then another step.  One does not receive the light to see to the end of the dark alley. 

The Passion Is the Resurrection 

The Paschal mystery was at the core of Father Ciszek's life: “The Passion is the Resurrection,” he declared. 

There is no Resurrection without the Passion of Jesus.  The moment you leave the Passion, the Resurrection crumbles. The candle has to burn itself in order to give off its flame.  The flame is the Passion and the Resurrection.  You have to burn yourself in order to give light.

Suffering is a threefold grace. The first and most difficult phase is purification, the phase which points up one’s inability to cope with adversity.  This period can be intense; it can evoke rebellion.  Suffering seems to take over one’s consciousness.  One is completely involved in it.  During this phase, lassitude can set in.  A sense of failure can overcome the soul; the suffering can sap it of energy.

Seen from the level of faith, the soul is like a precious but rough diamond, which needs to be purified. The diamond cutter must chisel and smooth and rub the diamond in order to show its light, its radiant beauty.  It can never effect this purification by oneself. The soul is called to make itself actively receptive to the Divine Artist who will shape it into a work of art. 

For God however, this is the refining process of creating a work of art:  the cutting, the drilling, the penetrating, and the refining of the rough spots. After years of suffering, Father Ciszek admitted:

Every failure and licking we experience is not a defeat but an assurance of the truthfulness of our purpose, trusting and confiding in God's power, leading us to our end, in spite of how we feel or fail to how weak and unstable we prove ourselves to be.  Our weakness and instability sway us in all directions to experience the good and the bad we encounter.  This fluctuation can bring us to the point of despair, even to anger at our own helplessness, yet not to the point of sin, though close to it, because in all this interior and mental turmoil and instability and fluctuation, there is something stable and unchanging in us bringing us always to the balance point and center after the swaying and fluctuation cease temporarily. 

The second phase of the grace of suffering is enlightenment.  The person begins to see.  God gives the soul consolation and desolation, both of which are God's gifts.  The soul begins to let go of its rebellion and allows God to take over.  Everything possible has been done to remove the suffering.  Though it remains, the soul accepts what cannot be changed.   It prays for energy to turn its attention to those things that make it happy. 

This is one’s attempt to deal with passivity in a positive and creative way.  This creativity may be expressed when the needs of the one who suffers are superseded by the attending the needs of others; when in need, sow a seed. One is healed by helping to heal others. The soul moves in and out of light and dark until the light takes over.    The individual cooperates with God's grace, God's dynamic presence. 

Finally, the elevation comes. This phase brings with it an increase of faith, deep peace, and deep joy.  All three lead to greater intimacy with the Lord.   The elevation is an experience of the Christ’s resurrection in one’s life and in the lives of others.  Each day brings with it the grace of suffering.

Mysticism of Daily Life

The word mysticism typically conjures up a state of euphoria associated with the New Age Movement. In Eastern religions, it may mean a state of heightened awareness. In Catholic ascetical theology, states of mysticism may engage a person in those intense moments of prayer when words fall silent in the close union between God and the praying person.  It is also true that mystics are practical people who can find God at any moment despite what it portends. 

Mystics like Walter Ciszek were in closest touch with reality because they were at one with it.  God shone brightly through this little man, who in turn shone God’s glory outward. 

For this, the beauty of his holiness will be acclaimed and celebrated by the entire Church.

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is [email protected].
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