Timothy O’Brien, a Jesuit scholastic of the Maryland Province and a graduate student at the University of Chicago Divinity School, offers this reflection on Jesuit Father Walter Ciszek, whom the Society of Jesus in the United States is highlighting for National Vocation Month.
I first met Jesuit Father Walter Ciszek in 2007. I was a restless 23-year-old government bureaucrat discerning a vocation to the Society of Jesus. He had been dead for about as long as I had been alive. Nonetheless, we were introduced when a Jesuit friend recommended Ciszek’s two books — “With God in Russia” (1964) and “He Leadeth Me” (1973) — as spiritual reading while I awaited the Society’s decision on my application to enter the novitiate. “Walter Ciszek is one of our un-canonized saints,” my friend told me. “For now,” he might have added.
Even on paper, Ciszek made quite a first impression. Within the first pages of “With God in Russia,” he disabuses readers that he was a very likely candidate for the priesthood or for the Society of Jesus — let alone sainthood. As a kid, Walter was a local tough; he was a terror who picked fights just because he knew he could win them. Later on, well into his vocational discernment, he relates both a screaming match with his father (who opposed his entering the Jesuits) and talking back to his novice master (who had suggested that the Jesuits might not be the right fit). Far from a haloed image on a holy card, Ciszek emphasized his impressive stubbornness and his open hostility to exaggerated piety. This was clearly no ordinary saint’s biography.
I liked him immediately.
And yet his story scared me half to death — or at least intimidated me more than I was comfortable admitting at the time. How could a low-level bureaucrat like me, who read Ciszek’s books over lunch break, hope to join the same Society as a man who had gone (in person and unannounced) from Michigan to New York to tell the provincial he was determined to enter the Jesuits? How could I, who met my match teaching a weekly 8th grade Sunday school class, follow in the footsteps of one who volunteered for the Russian missions — and then spent twenty years in Soviet captivity? Two peas in a pod we were not.
But the intimidation factor of reading about his exploits was only a small part of our acquaintance. The truth is, my heart was stirred as he told his story. The idea of a saint who took the scenic route to sanctity was (and is) endlessly hopeful and consoling. For all our differences, there were also points of deep resonance between us. He was able to put words to desires that I felt strongly but inarticulately — desires that had impelled me to apply to the Society of Jesus in the first place. Two of these remain vivid to this day: first, the intuition to seek the presence of God everywhere, even, and perhaps especially, in the most unlikely places. And second, the desire to speak of God with those who do not know him — who may even be hostile to knowing him — in ways that are honest, real and guided by experience.
Ciszek was convinced that he was put in very challenging, even life-threatening, circumstances because it was God’s will for him at that time. God, he said, “was asking only that I learn to see these suffering men around me, these circumstances [in prison], as sent from his hand and ordained by his providence.” He was convinced, in other words, that the story he was telling was not just his own, a tale of his private sufferings. Instead, it was the story of his life with God, a God who met him in places that we can only describe as godforsaken (e.g., the Gulag). He saw his time in Russia as a gift — no doubt a hard one — given him by God for the good of those he met there, and the good of all those moved by his later writings.
This struck me as profoundly true, though our circumstances were as different as could be. Throughout my own discernment process, I had the sense that God was calling me someplace that I had not chosen, but that was exactly where God was waiting to meet me — and therefore was precisely where I needed to be. Then as now, the times in my life when God has felt the closest were also the times when I was most vulnerable and therefore most dependent on God. Then as now, I prayed for Ciszek’s breathtaking ability to see the hand of the Lord in those places I all too hastily regard as cordoned off from God.
Practically everywhere he went in Russia, Walter Ciszek found himself doing some form of ministry. At times this was sacramental, at times it was a ministry of presence. But his ministry that struck me most forcefully was his constant engagement in “spiritual conversation.” And like so many Jesuits before and after him, Ciszek was not speaking with the pre-converted. He was a priest and believer in officially atheist Russia. His interlocutors were skeptical, if not outright hostile, to religious belief. And they were well versed in the faults and failings of churches and those who lead them.
As one who came of age and began discerning my vocation to the Society of Jesus during the height of the sex-abuse crisis in the American Church, these types of conversations became familiar. They mirrored the very topics that came up with friends, family and even the occasional perfect stranger. Yet I was encouraged by how Walter Ciszek handled them: with honesty and humility, never dodging or evading obvious problems. In words that can only be described as unflinching, he admitted that the Church “has its share of scandals and bad leaders, of mediocre minds, of selfishness and skin-deep spirituality, of fallible and imperfect men who do not always practice what they preach.” And yet his eyes were always trained on what God was doing in the Church — not his imperfect ministers. Behind any troubles, he saw the Lord who called this Church into being, and who, despite all shortcomings, sustains it still as the place “wherein even the weak can be made strong.” This was true when Ciszek was in Russia, true as I was applying to join the Society and true today.
I was intimidated upon first reading about Walter Ciszek partly because I thought my Jesuit life might not look just like his own. It doesn’t exactly work that way, I’ve found. Instead, we are asked to see and respond to the needs of God’s people in the present, here and now. The details are different in every age, but we are always called to respond generously. Saints, like Walter Ciszek, show us how to do that with honesty, integrity and eyes fixed on God. May we follow his example.
Walter Ciszek, pray for us.