On October 12, fifty years ago, a plane landed in the United States from the former USSR carrying the Jesuit priest, Walter Ciszek. It was a large media event because, for some twenty-four years, he had been imprisoned in the Soviet Union as a Vatican spy.
In 1929, as a novice, he had responded to Pius XI’s plea for priests to volunteer for the Russian mission, but religious formation awaited him. On that Columbus Day in 1963, he was being exchanged for two Soviet agents, a husband and wife team, arrested for espionage in our country. Father Ciszek was scheduled to meet with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to debrief him on his long imprisonment. The meeting never took place because of President Kennedy’s death the following month.
Father Ciszek’s life has been well documented in his own two books: With God in Russia and He Leadeth Me. Much has been narrated about his sufferings in Russia: solitary confinement, mental and physical abuse, hard labor, his remarkable witness during those years. Happily the Church has named Walter Ciszek a Servant of God, the first step in the canonization process of a saint.
The Rude Awakening
After the Russians invaded Poland in 1939, the young Father Ciszek was arrested by the NKVD as a Vatican spy. He had been serving as a priest and teacher in Albertyn, Poland and then had entered Russia as a missionary with Polish refugees seeking work there. He took the name Vladimir Lypinski – a widower.
He soon realized that the workers around him did not want to talk about religion or even listen to anyone speak about religion. The ritual of self-pity began: “This is not the life that I thought it would be. This is not what I bargained for. I want to go back. You [God] cannot hold me to the promise I made. I never thought it would be like this. I simply cannot stand it, and I will not stay. I will not serve.” (He Leadeth Me, 40)
Slowly – very slowly, Father Ciszek came to see that the mission he thought he had chosen did not belong to him. He had to fail before it dawned on him that this was God’s work, and he, a supple instrument of Providence.
The wonder of Walter Ciszek’s sojourn in Russia is not so much that he suffered persecution, though suffering forms the raw material of his amazing life. The wonder is that this little man with an iron will and a backbone of steel learned the hard way – through failure, that we do not save ourselves or others by our own wits. It is God who saves; we share in that redemptive act. Moses had to learn this lesson as did other Old Testament prophets. When all seemed lost, God stepped in to save all and make it right.
In 1942, Father Ciszek was taken to the dreaded Lubianka prison, formerly a hotel in Moscow, and the feared destination of innocent victims of the Soviet regime. For five years, he was kept there in solitary confinement where he was taken apart, piece by piece, in the way a jeweler takes apart a Swiss watch. He was cooped up, isolated in a room, 6 x 10, with an iron bed in one corner, a blanket and pillow, a parasha–a toilet bucket with a lid, no table, no chair, nothing to sit on. Prisoners were permitted to lie on the bed at night but spent their days standing or slouching against the wall or pacing restlessly and endlessly back and forth, up and down, the cubicle. The silence was deafening. Guards wore special cloth shoes so prisoners couldn’t hear them coming.
The Daily Schedule at Lubianka
A daily schedule kept Father Ciszek sane. First, he prayed the Morning Offering, he washed up, spent one hour in prayer, ate the meager breakfast allotted to him. He said the words of the Eucharistic liturgy by heart with no bread or wine. At noon, the bells rang in the Kremlin. This was the time to pray the Angelus and make his examination of conscience. He then recited three rosaries, one in Polish, one in English, one in Russian, sang hymns and childhood songs, gave himself homilies, told himself jokes, mimicked his interrogators and the guards, exercised, and prayer for his interrogators.
The Interrogations at Lubianka
The interrogations were erratic, relentless, and frightening; they included physical abuse. Sessions would last for days at a time, going on almost without let up. Often they were all-night sessions with a dim light over him. There was a set pattern of questions: “You are an agitator, revolting against the regime; you’ve taught religion, you’re plotting against the government, holding back information.” They criticized the Catholic Church. He began to break down due to physical and mental strain. Eventually he submitted: “I picked up the pen and signed the document admitting my guilt. I was burning with shame and guilt. God had abandoned me. How could God have allowed me to sign such lies?” (77) His own strength failed him. He had failed. Back in his cell, shaken, defeated, and overcome with helplessness, Walter Ciszek knew that he had relied on his own efforts. Fifteen years of hard labor in Siberia was his sentence.
The Grace of Enlightenment and Elevation
Within a short period of time, Father Ciszek received the grace of his life: the grace of enlightenment. He writes what can only have been a cry from the depths of his heart: “Now, with sudden and almost blinding clarity and simplicity, I realized I had been trying to do something with my own will and intellect that was at once too much and mostly all wrong. God’s will was not hidden somewhere ‘out there’ in the situations in which I found myself; the situations themselves were his will for me. What he wanted was for me to accept these situations as from his hands, to let go of the reins 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 gift of self, nothing held back. It demanded absolute 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 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 hold him up and he can float motionless and totally relaxed.” (77) 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 from anxiety and worry, from every tension, and could float serenely upon the tide of God’s sustaining providence in perfect peace of soul.” (79-80) But first, there had to be the stage of purification, the involvement in the suffering not chosen. He had pushed through the pain and had held fast to the words of Jesus: ‘I will be with you always’– in the ups and downs of your lives, whether boring or exciting, painful or joyful.’ The sacrament of the present moment was all that was certain. Stability came out of this purification because he permitted God’s power to work in him. Out of darkness came light.
The enlightenment which he received at Lubianka was put into practice in the Siberian labor camps. There he experienced a total loss of freedom, deprived of all rights or possibility of recourse. He was assigned the lowest and roughest brigade doing the dirtiest work in the mud trenches, loading and unloading with bare hands and brute strength the heavy construction materials, crawling in the damp, dark holes of new mines – all dangerous work often done in temperatures below zero. He was helpless. In a cell of 30x30, 100 prisoners were huddled together. There was absolutely no privacy. Conditions were degrading. Cells were filthy, slop buckets served as toilets, there was no running water, little fresh air, no change of clothes, all so inhuman. He was only political prisoner, thrown in with atheists, materialists, opportunists – all unscrupulous. But he began to see beneath the skin that they were really like other men.
He began to help others: listening, comforting and encouraging them to carry on. God was asking him to be another Christ. His situation did not improve, but his disposition in the acceptance of God’s will had returned. Along with it had come peace and a renewed confidence – not in his own ability to survive, but a total trust in God’s ability to sustain him. He came to see that work is not degrading but ennobling, given by God to build a better world. After much prayer and trusting in Providence, the rebellion began to disappear but not the adversity. Though he felt like a crushed spirit, he walked firmly in pitch-black darkness with the light of Christ before him. This was pure faith.
The stage of elevation followed quickly. With this came a deepening of faith. Light began to glow from within, to permeate all that he did. He resolved to accept each day and every moment as from God’s hands, and to offer it back to him as best he could.
For Walter Ciszek, faith is like walking down a dark alley with a flashlight. You receive the light of God’s grace one step at a time. The light is not given to see the end of the tunnel.
Freedom under Surveillance
After having served almost fifteen years, he was sent to Norilsk. Then at Krasnoyarsk, he was summoned to pack up. He was about to come home to his Jesuit Order which had given him up for dead, and to his family.
In the film, “Shoes of the Fisherman,” adapted from Morris West’s book by the same title, Soviet Premier Komenev (Sir Laurence Olivier) asks the political prisoner, the former Metropolitan Archbishop Kyril Lakota of Lvov (Anthony Quinn) what he has learned after twenty years of imprisonment and hard labor at Lubianka and in Siberia. Kyril’s answer is short but profound. “I learned that without some kind of loving, a man withers like a grape on a dying vine.”
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.