The late Jesuit priest, Fr Walter J Ciszek, is famous for having endured over 23 years in Russian prisons, then in labour camps. His autobiography of those years, With God in Russia, first published in 1964, the year after his release, has now been republished by HarperOne.
It is well worth reading. Ciszek is not writing a work of literature, like Dostoyevsky in The House of the Dead; what is compelling about his testimony is the unvarnished straightforwardness of his account. Rarely does he give in to emotion and never to self-pity, despite the appalling conditions in which he was forced to live and work. This gives his book its power, reminding us that people can survive the worst situations when they trust in the providence of God.
As a boy Ciszek was tough, often getting into fights; he found seminary life difficult and joined the Jesuits impulsively, taking “great pains not to be thought pious.” His fixed idea was always “to do the hardest thing.” No doubt this obstinacy helped him when he was arrested in Russia in 1940, to begin his long years of incarceration. His dream had been to be a missionary priest in Soviet Russia; now, although he was unable to function as a priest he learned in the Lubianka prison in Moscow the lesson “that would keep me going in all the years to come: religion, prayer, and love of God do not change reality, but they give it a new meaning.”
In other words, Ciszek was not to escape the Gulag, but to experience the ordinary daily miracle of grace: being faithful to prayer and trusting he was in God’s hands. Moments of natural fear and loneliness were countered with “Do you think that God doesn’t know where you are? Do you think He has protected you thus far and has now just forgotten about you?”
Reading the Year for Priests Companion, published by Magnificat, I was delighted to see it includes a passage from Ciszek’s book in which he describes how his wish to be a missionary priest in Russia finally came about in an extraordinary way: “The moment it became known in a new barracks… that a man was a priest, he would be sought out…It was a very humbling experience, because you quickly came to appreciate it was God’s grace at work and had little to do with your own efforts. People came to you because you were a priest…They came expecting absolution from their sins, the power of the sacrament…For my part, I could not help but see in every encounter with every prisoner the will of God for me, now, at this time and in this place, and the hand of providence that had brought me here by strange and tortuous paths.”
Ciszek, whose Cause for sainthood has been opened, reminds us that a priest’s primary task is to sanctify people, to bring souls back to God through the sacraments. This is the source of his joy.