The Holiness of Fr. Walter Ciszek, S.J.

A review of With God in America, a new volume containing various writings and interviews with the remarkable American priest who spent 23 years in Stalinist prisons.

With God in America landed on my desk hot off the press in September but various projects prevented me from turning to it for some weeks. Finally, late one Monday morning, I poured a cup of hot tea and settled down in my comfy recliner to peruse this collection of writings by and recollections about the American Jesuit missionary, Fr. Walter Ciszek (1904-1984), to see what historical tidbits or personal insights might remain for those of us already moved by Ciszek’s gripping first book With God in Russia (1963), the narration of his twenty-three years in Stalinst prisons and labor camps, and his more reflective second text He Leadeth Me (1973), wherein Ciszek attempts to explain and apply the spiritual insights that decades of sufferings under an atheistic regime had offered him.

Barely a dozen pages into Fr. Ciszek’s third work, however, I was suddenly seized by the urgent desire to go to noon Mass at our parish and to stay for confessions available on Mondays. I dropped Ciszek’s book on my chair, went straight to Mass, and afterwards made one of the most fruitful confessions I had made in many years. That Ciszek’s prayers had rousted me from my comfortable seat in time for a midday Mass and that they had obtained for me the grace of a good Confession, I have not the slightest doubt. Walter Ciszek brought countless people closer to God while he lived; and today, more than thirty years after his death, he still brings people closer to God.

Reviews of Ciszek’s third work, aptly subtitled “the Spiritual Legacy of an Unlikely Jesuit” and focusing on his more than twenty years’ of work as a retreat master and spiritual director back in America, will be read by two kinds of people: those who already know Ciszek’s volumes With God in Russia and He Leadeth Me, and those who don’t. The first group needs no encouragement to read With God in America, though I have some comments to offer them below; the second group, however, needs to be warned against starting their Ciszek studies with his posthumous third volume. To them I say (and I mean it), if you have not read With God in Russia and He Leadeth Me, set this review aside and go read those first two works. Afterward, not only will you need no encouragement to read With God in America but you will draw much, much more from it.

I now continue my remarks on With God in America for the benefit of those who already know Ciszek’s incredible story. It contains far more than the tidbits I went looking for in its pages.

At the risk of pretending to the sort of pietism for which Ciszek had no use, or of engaging in the kind of academic analysis that Ciszek respected but never employed, or, worst of all, of focusing on Ciszek instead of on Jesus (remember, this is the man who spiritually told me to stop reading his book and go see Jesus in the sacraments, now!), Ciszek’s words as recorded in With God in America and the stories told about him by others therein, underscored for me, more than anything else, how profound, how simple, and how manly, Christian holiness really is.

Ciszek’s spirituality is, of course, Ignatian but his holiness is Catholic in every sense of that word: it is pure, unswerving, is what holiness completely is, and is nothing else. To see Ciszek’s holiness covered in icy mud and coal dust some days, leading tough teens to a New York city park for a game of catch on another, buying drinks for Soviet guards in Moscow, or celebrating Mass for a lone retreatant in America, is to see how the holiness of Christ is truly everywhere, all time. Moreover, to move through With God in America is (again, for those who have read With God in Russia) to watch Ciszek’s spiritual life evolve from one of almost Abrahamic faith (a phrase used by others, but which struck me as exactly right long before I saw that description) into a life in Jesus focused entirely on holy love. 

If there is a secondary note to Ciszek’s spirituality beside his striving for holiness, it is probably (and again, we see how thoroughly Ignatian was Ciszek) his ‘blessed indifference’ to plans—and I say “plans” instead of “goals”, for Ciszek always had goals (chiefly, to bring God to the people suffering under Soviet Communism), while at the same time he had almost no plans for how to do it. Instead, he took opportunities for pastoral works as they arose, he pursued those opportunities how and while he could, and when they were shut down by the Evil One and his lackeys, as they so often were, Ciszek watched out for, and seized, what others might arise. If there was one gesture that, in my mind’s eye, expressed Ciszek’s response to the many barriers placed by Soviet persecutors between him and his goals, I frankly doubt it was the sign of the cross and words of blessing. I can much more easily imagine that it was a shrug, accompanied by a comment like “I’m not breaking any laws, but I’m sure not turning away any one who comes to me for help. I’ll do what I have to do, and you’ll do what you want to do. Either way, it’s Jesus’ concern.”

Ciszek did not, of course, write With God in America in the sense that he sat down and wrote With God in Russia or He Leadeth Me. Instead, editors John Dejak (an American layman and lawyer) and Marc Lindeijer (a Dutch Jesuit historian) collected the materials for Ciszek’s third volume from his various writings and from personal interviews with those who knew him. Not knowing what sort of raw materials they had to work with, I cannot pronounce upon the wisdom of Dejak’s and Lindeijer’s selections, but I can say that the text they assembled is admirably edited and clearly arranged.

I appreciated, for example, that most of Ciszek’s pleasantries in his letters to persons under his direction were left in place; such disarming comments set off well the suddenness with which he dropped spiritual gems in notes and conversations. Frankly I look forward to the day when passages, perhaps whole paragraphs, culled from by-then St. Walter Ciszek’s letters to spiritual sons and daughters or from his spiritual journals, might make their way into the Office of Readings. Or again, I like knowing, say, that Ciszek was unimpressed with The Exorcist as a book and a movie, but that he happily accepted small stipends for the celebration of Mass. I even liked having my hunch confirmed that Ciszek was not much of a writer, strictly speaking, and that he needed, and accepted, the help of a younger Jesuit editor to help him put his wisdom on paper. It reinforces the point that Ciszek’s holiness was simple and it was humble.

May I offer, though, one related observation? A mediocre student his whole life (notwithstanding his gift for languages, as long as they had a pastoral application), Ciszek’s story is, nevertheless, I suggest, a testament to the “old school” kind of education that the Church (or at least the Jesuits) used to offer seminarians, instilling as it did in Ciszek categories of thought and ways of assessing concrete situations (doctrinal, sacramental, moral) that the priest would need to draw on countless times in pastoring souls from frozen Siberia to the bustling Bronx. If there is no school like real life (and there is no school like real life), we must yet say that life’s lessons are more quickly and easily learned if they are met, not as if they are sudden novelties arising out of the blue, but as things that the Church has seen before, and with something like the Church’s accumulated pastoral wisdom as organized by her traditional education system and as guided by her disciplinary codes. Ciszek’s story bears out the value of that kind of education. May we recover it whilst we can.

Finally, as noted above, Ciszek had survived the worst of the Stalinist persecution of religion in Russia and returned to America just in time to see the worst of the post-Conciliar confusion in the Catholic Church. Rather as he carried on with the work of God in the face of anti-religious schemes in Russia, however, so did Ciszek carry on with the work of God in the face of many anti-ecclesial temptations in the wake of Vatican II. I have little doubt that Ciszek saw what was unfolding around him in the Church and in Jesuit community life during his years back in the States, but those looking in this work for lengthy analyses of said crisis, let alone for stirring condemnations of problems from a living saint, will look in vain. Ciszek stayed above such reproaches of Communists in With God in Russia and he seems to stayed away from reproaches of dissenters in With God in America. Further research might confirm or challenge these impressions, but there is little doubt but that Ciszek exudes a remarkable tranquility in the presence of God in America just as he did in the presence of God in Russia.

With God in America: the Spiritual Legacy of an Unlikely Jesuit
by Walter J. Ciszek, SJ; John Dejak and Marc Lindeijer, eds.
Chicago: Loyola Press, 2016
Paperback, 253 pp.

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About Edward N. Peters 120 Articles
Edward N. Peters, JD, JCD has doctoral degrees in canon and common law. Since 2005 he has held the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. His personal blog on canon law issues in the news may be accessed at the "In the Light of the Law" site.

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