Saturday, February 21, 2015

Fr. Walter Ciszek and Ordinary Virtue

"Facing a firing squad is a pretty good test, I guess, of your theology of death."
- Fr. Walter Ciszek, He Leadeth Me

That is how Fr. Ciszek opens ch. 15 of his book. He follows it up with "I didn't exactly pass the test with flying colors."

I've read a number of books on spiritual development, including some classics like The Imitation of Christ, but they never did a lot for me. This is a reflection on me rather than the works themselves; the classics become classics for a reason and if I can't appreciate that reason, then so much the worse for me.

One work which has stuck with me, and that I find myself going back to repeatedly, is He Leadeth Me. This is the story of a young American priest who, in the late 1930s, is determined to become a Catholic missionary in Soviet Russia. He can't get directly to Russia and ends up in Poland, but with the advent of WWII he is eventually sent to the Gulag. After spending more than twenty years in Soviet captivity he is released and makes his way back to the United States. During that entire time he never gave up on his vocation as a priest.

On returning to the States, he wrote two books, With God in Russia and He Leadeth Me. The first is a detailed recounting of his life in Russia, and the second - the one he really wanted to write - is a series of spiritual reflections on his experience. What makes his work so accessible is the ordinariness of Father Ciszek. Some of the famous saints - St. Thomas Aquinas or St. Francis, for instance - can strike one as spiritual "all-stars." Not that they lacked humility - far from it - but they didn't seem to struggle with ordinary life as many of us do. But this is just the struggle of Father Ciszek. And it is remarkable that his struggle in the Gulag could have such meaning for us in our far less oppressive lives. Father Ciszek is an apostle of the "ordinary virtue" I discuss in my post about the film American Sniper.

The most difficult thing Father Ciszek faced was not so much the overt opposition - although that was plenty bad enough (see the quote at the start of this post) - but the indifference and quiet disdain of so many of his fellow zeks (prisoners), the apparent lack of results of his work, loneliness, and the grinding routine of every day life. Day after day, year after year, following his priestly vocation with no external support, relying on God alone, Father Ciszek found himself, gradually and repeatedly, falling into self-pity and arrogance. But as he hit bottom, again and again, he would confess his sins and recommit himself to God, gradually learning over the years some simple but powerful lessons.

In our secular culture, we face some of the difficulties Father Ciszek faced in different and less brutal form. The Soviets pressed him with overt anti-Christian propaganda; we don't have that so much as a general cultural atmosphere that denigrates robust Christian faith. Go to Mass if you must, but you better not oppose gay marriage or risk being denounced as a "hater." In the Gulag, ordinary morality went out the window for most zeks as a matter of survival. Father Ciszek struggled to hold on to it and was thought a fool (and taken advantage of) by the other prisoners. For us, following Christ means daily sacrifice of the self that directly conflicts with the dominant cultural value of self-fulfillment. Life is about fulfilling your dreams and your talents, "being all you can be", we are taught through TV and film. But following Christ means following His dreams, not your own, and that means sacrificing your self-fulfillment (that there is in fact true self-fulfillment on the far side of this sacrifice is over the horizon for us and a matter of faith). It is easy to get the feeling that we are "missing out" on life when we stop trying to fill it up ourselves and instead empty it for the sake of Christ. At such times we need to read again Father Ciszek:

We must constantly return to the catechism truth we learned as children: that God made us to love, reverence, and serve him in this life and so to be happy with him in the next. We are not saved by doing our own will, but the will of the Father; we do that not by interpreting it or reducing it to mean what we would like it to mean, but by accepting it in its fullness, as made manifest to us by the situations and circumstances and persons his providence sends us. It is so difficult and yet so simple. Each day, and every minute of every day, is given to us by God with that in mind. We for our part can offer back to God every prayer, work, and suffering, no matter how insignificant or unspectacular that may seem to us. Yet it is precisely because our daily circumstances seem so insignificant and unspectacular that we fail so often in this regard. It is the seeming smallness of our daily lives and the constancy of things that cause our attention and our good intentions to wander away from the realization that these things, too, are signs of God's will. Between God and the individual soul, however, there are no insignificant moments; this is the mystery of divine providence.