Father Walter Ciszek’s Years in Russian Prison: School of Prayer?

By John Levko, SJ

Editor’s Note: In 1964, John Levko, a 22-year-old newly minted college graduate considering a vocation to the Jesuits, first met Father Walter Ciszek.  Profoundly influenced by his time with the legendary priest, Levko entered the Society of Jesus, and the two began a friendship that would endure until Fr. Ciszek’s death in 1984. As the first postulator for the cause for Fr. Ciszek’s canonization, Fr. Levko was charged with preparing the supporting documentation for the cause for sainthood. In the following article excerpted for National Jesuit News, Fr. Levko writes about Fr. Ciszek’s many years in Russian prisons and the profound impact it had on his spiritual journey. 

Jesuit Father John Levko with Pope John Paul II

Jesuit Father John Levko presents the Holy Father with the Polish version of Father Walter Ciszek’s book, "With God in Russia."

In October 1963 a small, stocky Polish Jesuit, Fr. Walter Ciszek, SJ, returned to the United States after 23 years in Russian confinement. He was amazed at the wastefulness he found. One of the first things he remarked about was the propensity toward blatant materialism, with spiritual life focused on personal needs rather than gratitude. It had taken him 59 years, five of those in solitary confinement in Moscow’s dreaded Lubianka prison, to realize that progress in the spiritual life was correlated with one’s willingness to let go, with inner freedom, for where there was no risk, no challenge, there was no spiritual growth. It was Walter’s prayer life that held his spiritual journey together, and Lubianka prison was in many respects the school of that prayer.

As with any spiritual journey concerned with growth in prayer, there is always a purification process. As described in his memoir, “He Leadeth Me,” Walter Ciszek experienced the “sinking feeling of helplessness and powerlessness” after his arrest in Russia in 1941. He felt “completely cut off from everything and everyone who might conceivably help him. Considered a Vatican spy, he was transferred to Lubianka prison where men were reportedly broken “in body and spirit.” As he had done in every crisis in the past when there was no one to turn to, Walter “turned to God in prayer.”

While an interior voice helped him focus his faith, it was faith in prayer that sustained Walter, the same faith that made him conscious of his readiness and natural competency to handle whatever came along. Naturally stubborn and strong-willed, Walter spent a great part of his life “developing willpower and training the will.” Because he realized early that self-control was not enough in struggling against depression, fear, and insecurity, spiritual growth was contingent on the depth of his personal relationship with God.

Jesuit Fathers John Levko and Walter Ciszek

Jesuit Fathers Levko and Ciszek at the John XXIII Ecumenical Center at Fordham University.

Walter’s asceticism in Lubianka became a life of prayer and humble faith in God. It was in prayer that self-conversion started and never ended. The absolute silence of God during solitary confinement suggested that he give in to his interrogators. Instead, he turned to prayer and persevered in it until the suggestion vanished. Persevering in prayer countered loneliness, confusion and worthlessness and led to continuous prayer; suffering patiently the internal dilemma of persevering in prayer was the prerequisite for finding that loneliness was the grace of faith given at that moment. He sensed deeply the frustrating pains of loneliness, confusion, and worthlessness while at the same time accepted all these in the spirit of faith and continued to serve God without change or compromise.

For some in Lubianka the time passed quickly, while for others the seconds passed like minutes and even hours. There was only one constant in Lubianka – the total and all-pervading silence.  In this inner darkness Walter experienced despair, lost hope and sight of God, and even for a moment lost the last shreds of his faith in God. Nevertheless, instinctively he turned to prayer and almost immediately was consoled by our Lord’s agony in the garden. He had gone from “total blackness” to “an experience of blinding light” in what he could only call “a conversion experience” that changed his life. From that moment he knew exactly what he must do and completely abandoned himself into God’s hands with a readiness to let Christ fully transform him.

Discernment: A Seeing Soul

Jesuit Father John Levko’s Minor Orders Ceremony,

Jesuit Father John Levko’s Minor Orders Ceremony. Jesuit Father Walter Ciszek is front left.

Walter’s Lubianka conversion allowed him now to have a single vision of Christ in all things and the desire to discern His will in every situation.  After his release from Lubianka, he experienced no anger or bitterness but peace and a deep sense of internal freedom. The forced Lubianka silence was gone and with it the easy prayerful recollection. The need to listen for the interior voice of conscience and discern God’s will in every situation became critical if he was to enter into a relationship with the living Lord. The concentration and attention required in prayer were not acts that deprived him of true freedom, but simply steps leading him to a gradual fuller freedom in God.

The Catholic Church is now taking an exhaustive look at the details of Walter’s spiritual journey in connection with a cause for his canonization. By abandoning himself to God’s will, Walter’s journey in prayer echoed other spiritual journeys of many saints in the past. It was in the silence of his heart that he came to realize that the peak of human freedom is unselfish love. And yet there was a uniqueness in Walter’s journey and certainly in his cross that made him a model for many Christians today, especially in these troubled times. The conversion experience in a silent cell left him with an unconditional readiness to change his life and place everything in God’s hands. Lubianka provided the nails for his cross and the necessary purification for a saintly life of priestly service grounded in discernment and prayer.

Cassian’s Prayer for the 21st Century book coverFor additional reading, Fr. Levko explores the religious traditions of Eastern Christianity in his book “Cassian’s Prayer for the 21st Century,” available from amazon.com

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