Sunday 18th February 2018

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A Book Review… The Spiritual Riches Of A Heroic Priest

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With God in America, by Walter J. Ciszek, SJ; editors John M. Dejak and Marc Lindeijer, SJ. (Loyola Press: Chicago 60657, 2016), 253 pp.; $19.95. Available from or call 1-800-621-1008.

An anthology of Fr. Walter Ciszek’s unpublished works in the form of writings delivered at retreats, reflections on biblical passages, letters to friends seeking spiritual direction, and the memoirs and reminiscences of many priests and friends who cherished his memory and whose lives he touched, this collection offers the great spiritual riches of a holy and heroic priest who is under consideration for canonization.
Volunteering to serve the Eastern Church in 1937 as pastor of a Polish church near the Russian border, Ciszek and other missionaries were apprehended by Russian officers and falsely charged with “spying,” a crime punishable by imprisonment in Moscow and exile in Siberia. Ciszek endured 23 years of confinement under the harshest conditions — 15 years in prison and eight in exile that included five years in solitary confinement.
While his first published book With God in Russia describes this time of isolation and the experience of suffering in the Soviet Union, With God in America centers on the final 21 years of his life after his transition and readjustment to the U.S. In the continuation of his vocation as priest, Ciszek led many conferences and retreats for religious sisters, offered spiritual counsel to all seeking his holy wisdom, and answered thousands of letters collected in shoeboxes that he considered his “apostolate of correspondence” to all who valued his moral judgment.
In With God in America the addresses to the apostolic sisters in retreat especially are rich in spiritual treasures. On the topic “The Presence of God,” Ciszek distinguishes between God’s “ordinary” presence in the world reflected in nature and the universe and His “supernatural” presence bestowed by sanctifying grace.
Contrasting a baby and a saint, he explains that the grace received by a child remains constant until he matures when it increases or decreases, but God’s supernatural presence “is surging in the saint, because each time the saint prays (or even thinks of God), God fills the soul with more sanctifying grace.”
Simplifying this point, Ciszek adds that “God is, and must be where the action is,” meaning that as often as man turns to God and thinks of Him, God responds: “Every time, then, that we turn to God in prayer, He turns to us. Every time we think of God, He thinks more of us.”
God as Friend and Lover always reacts when man initiates. In this way man experiences God’s presence more frequently and more deeply. Awareness of God’s ordinary presence in the beauty of creation leads to a keener sense of God’s supernatural presence in each person’s life: “As faith increases, our realization of God’s Holy Presence in us and in the world and people around us grows ever deeper.”
In the address entitled “Faith,” Ciszek warns of the danger of taking persons and blessings for granted, whether friends, family, or the gift of life lest the wonder of these great joys diminishes and loses its splendor.
Likewise, if someone takes faith for granted and equates it merely with knowledge of God found in dogmas and doctrines, he loses a sense of the personal “encounter” of God “where we stand on God’s level and know Him and love Him as a sacred, wonderful person.” Without this sense of God’s personal love and nearness to each soul, faith “can become sterile, impersonal knowledge.”
Without prayer, encounter, or relationship, faith diminishes as it becomes perfunctory and lacks spirit. Like life, faith either grows or starves. Alluding to Christ’s words on “faith” in the Gospels, Ciszek argues that Christ’s references always mean a trusting, living faith, a belief in Him “as a Person who can and will change our lives,” not “just some cold body of truths.”
He cites the prophets and psalmists who glorify God because of their living knowledge of His miracles and love in constant encounter (“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want”). Saints like St. Patrick who pray “Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ within me” sense divine Providence in the concrete realities of daily experience, “knowing Him in every action of every day.” This living, trusting faith that never excludes God transcends definitions and concepts.
However, when faith is taken for granted or becomes merely an intellectual state, man suffers the temptation of relegating God to a remote universe:
“Don’t we so often act as though God is somewhere out there in the vast, impersonal sky, too concerned with the really big things of the world to be thinking of us?”
Ciszek asks how seriously people believe in the power and efficacy of prayer: “…do you believe, I mean really believe, that you are talking to God: that He, the Almighty Creator of the universe, is really interested in every word you whisper?”
In the address entitled “The Mystery of Suffering,” Ciszek especially clarifies the meaning of Christian suffering found in no other religion or philosophy. Reviewing prior understandings of the role of suffering, he observes that Job’s friends regarded suffering as a sign of God’s disapproval or judgment. The Stoics viewed suffering as a test of human fortitude and heroism.
While Christ did not remove the anguish of suffering, He did provide “a reason for suffering” and an example of its profound purpose. Christ did not suffer the agony of the cross with Stoic apathy because “He begged, begged God to take it all away,” and He complained with the cry of “Why hast thou forsaken me?” Christ accepted suffering for only one good reason: “because He knew that His sufferings would purify the world and save it.”
Human pain, like Christ’s agony, is allowed and has purpose for the sole reason of redemption — “to be co-redeemers with Christ” and, in St. Paul’s words, “to fill up those sufferings that are lacking in the sufferings of Christ.” Just as man cooperates with God in the creation by being fruitful and multiplying, he also contributes to God’s saving work in the world to redeem sinners. Through suffering that man neither desires nor deserves that he would have rejected if possible, God will not only save souls but also “raise us up once more, even as He raised His Son.”
In his letters to persons seeking spiritual counsel, Ciszek consistently gives advice that follows a constant theme: fidelity to prayer and the fulfillment of daily obligations: “Take life as it comes, doing what it demands, and leave the rest to God.”
He advises people making difficult decisions to choose the alternative that “appears more reasonable” because of higher motives rather than follow sensual impulses — words of wisdom from St. Ignatius. Special lights from God are not required when the light of reason indicates the right course of action. As Ciszek’s life in Russia illustrated, a Christian must never hesitate in his abandonment to God.
Ciszek always turns to common sense as a sure guide, reassuring people that the state in which they find themselves is the condition where God wishes them to be at that present moment. Always realistic and down to earth, he advises persons to ground themselves in the here and now and not dwell in the past or speculate about the future: “Remember, your past is in the present, and the future is where you are now.”
With great simplicity he gives insight into God’s method of judging souls: “You are going to be judged on how you affected other people, either for the good or for the bad.”
In his biblical reflections on episodes like Christ telling the disciples to become fishers of men, Ciszek meditates on the topic of vocation — “to obey the voice of conscience without questioning” it in the way Peter, James, and John followed Christ. Whether it is marriage or religious life, every vocation carries with it a sense of the unknown and the risk of failure, but “the risk is always viewed as worthwhile.”
Although every vocation entails burdens and trials, “the principal factor in every calling is the deliberate effort to persevere” and never to let discouragement undermine the original commitment. All who are faithful to their vows receive “the grace to live that life as it should be lived and receive the graces and powers they need.”

The Empty Tomb

In a reflection on the episode when Christ tells the crowd that those who hear the word of God and do it are His mother and brothers, Ciszek offers this simple, straightforward exegesis: The love in family life between parents and children, husband and wife, and brother and sister “must be ordered to the love of the Father.”
Christ honors “the eternal significance of all human relationships” because these bonds of affection in the primary relationships of family form the charity that leads to the love of neighbor and also increases the love of God.
In another reflection based on the incident of the empty tomb, Ciszek sees the simple and humble women hearing the message of Christ’s Resurrection from the angel as the reward for their gift of faith, “a Revelation communicated to them by the power and pleasure of God.” These souls blessed with this extraordinary grace illuminate St. Paul’s term “fools for Christ.” As the “nobodies of this world,” they receive special favors from God for “constantly doing good unnoticed, while helping others without discrimination, and never tiring in their efforts” — a perfect definition of the Christian way of life.
These are a few of the spiritual gems from the treasury of Fr. Ciszek’s holy life and storehouse of wisdom. To read these writings is to deepen one’s faith, grow in the love of God, appreciate the miracle of human life, and wonder at the nearness, presence, and intimacy of God’s special love for each person.
Like the body that grows in health from the nourishment of food and the mind that expands in knowledge from great books, the soul increases in holiness from the spiritual depths of saintly lovers of God like Fr. Ciszek.

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