November 23, 2012

Mission: solitary confinement & the gulags

By Joe Tremblay *
What can a labor camp in Siberia teach us about God’s will? Let me count the ways! Better yet, let Father Walter Ciszek, Servant of God, count the ways.

A wonderful read on knowing and accepting God’s will in everyday circumstances can be found in the book “He Leadeth Me,” by Fr. Ciszek. It is a readable two hundred plus page book published by Ignatius Press. Written in 1972, approximately ten years after returning from the Soviet Union, Fr. Ciszek takes the reader through his spiritual journey during the dark days of the Soviet prisons and labor camps of Siberia.

As a Jesuit priest, Father Walter had a dream: he wanted to preach and minister to the Russian people. His dream was realized in 1940. With two of his fellow Jesuit companions, he made it into Russia under a pseudo-identity. However, in 1941, he was arrested under charge of being a “Vatican spy.” First, he was sentenced to five years in solitary confinement in a prison in Moscow. After trying to maintain his sanity in absolute solitude, he was then condemned to several years of hard labor in Siberia with barely enough food and clothing to stay alive.

In hindsight, Fr. Ciszek viewed his trials in solitary confinement as a time of preparation and purification for his ministry at the labor camp. The time spent alone for so long – praying, rehearsing the Mass over and over again in his mind, meditating on God and waiting on Him  – prepared him for the great undertaking of ministering to his prison mates in the labor camps of Siberia.

By Divine Providence he received bread and wine to celebrate Mass in secret on a fairly regular basis. He gave retreats to priests and laymen alike. He also provided spiritual direction. This was especially beneficial for prison mates who were on the brink of despair. All of these priestly duties were performed at the risk of endangering his life. The penalty for such "illegal" activity was starvation, extra labor, torture and even death.

Like so many Christians, Father Walter Ciszek went into God’s work expecting one thing and getting something totally different; something unexpected. Quite often, the Lord inspires in us a passion or a vision for some mission without communicating every last detail to us; especially those seemingly impossible circumstances we have yet to encounter. We even underestimate the capacity of our ability to suffer. How many times do we say, "Lord I can't take it anymore" or "It can't get any worse!" And yet, it does get worse and it does last longer. Yet, we survive and we eventually make it through the dark valley.

So that we can burrow our way through the obstacles, God gives us a kind of basic training; which is to allow circumstances to contradict our mission before it even begins. With the passion to serve and work on God's behalf, the Lord tells us to wait...and wait...and wait as He did with Fr. Walter in the quiet years of solitary confinement. His quest to minister to the needy seemed to be on hold indefinitely; or better yet, it appeared to be a lost cause.

One of the greatest contributions this book has to offer for today’s Christian is to see that our daily circumstances are the content of God's will for us. Quite often we search for God's will, always wondering what it implies for the future, when in fact his will is being played out in the very circumstances we want to be delivered from. “Ultimately," Fr. Ciszek says, "we come to expect God to accept our understanding of what his will ought to be and help us to fulfill that, instead of learning to see and accept his will in the real situations in which he places us daily.”

Again, it is a common error of Christians to associate God’s will as something yet to occur in the future. The trick is, as Fr. Walter Ciszek said so many times, is to see God’s will for us in the moment and in each day that he gives us. He writes, “To predict what God’s will is going to be, to rationalize about what his will must be, is at once a work of human folly and yet the subtlest of all temptations. The plain and simple truth is that his will is what he actually wills to send us each day, in the way of circumstances, places, people, and problems. The trick is to learn to see that – not just in theory, or not just occasionally in a flash of insight granted by God’s grace, but every day.”

God inspired a dream in Fr. Ciszek: to minister to the Russian people. However, what seemed to be an eternity in solitary confinement (close to five years) contradicted that he thought. There was not a soul to talk to; there were no Russian people to minister to whereby he could use his priestly gifts. Every day in that Moscow prison he had to conquer himself and die to self. The monotony of solitary confinement and the isolation he experienced tested his faith greatly.

Was his mission to Russia all in vain? Was the inspiration to preach the Word of God to the Russian people just a product of his imagination? Those thoughts alone could have crushed him if he did not exercise his faith in Christ on a continual basis. Yet, it was this kind of exercise, a determined and deliberate trust in God’s providence that gave him the strength to minister to his prison mates in the Siberian labor camps. The labor camp's frigid and desperate conditions called for a man of God whose hope transcended and even defied those daily circumstances which seemed to be impossible and never ending.

Regarding those desperate conditions he endured in both the prison in Moscow and the gulags in Siberia, he learned a simple but profound truth about the will of God:

“The temptation is to look beyond these things, precisely because they are so constant, so petty, so humdrum and routine, and to seek to discover instead some other nobler “will of God” in the abstract that better fits our notion of what his will should be…We have to accept God’s will as the will of God and as God envisions it and reveals it to us each day in the created situations with which he presented it to us.”

The Saints lived according to this truth and as such, it gave them a profound peace that no one could take away. 
Joe Tremblay writes for Sky View, a current event and topic-driven Catholic blog. He was a contributor to The Edmund Burke Institute, and a frequent guest on Relevant Radio’s, The Drew Mariani Show. Joe is also married with five children. The views and opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily reflective of any organizations he works for.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.