While on my Kindle one night, I spotted the work of Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. He could also be credited as one of the founders of spiritual direction, because he poured so much effort into articulating instructions for following the inner life. What caught my eye was the title of this book, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, by James Martin, S.J. So I downloaded it.
I came upon one particular story that left me breathless – absolutely breathless. I read it again and again. I then stopped reading it and just stared at it, wondering why this story struck me so deeply. I was actually choked up with tears. I couldn’t read any further. I marked the page in the book and turned off the light to go to sleep, but I could not stop thinking about this story.
Before I share the particular story that so moved me, I want to lay the groundwork a bit. The more I work in the arena of mystical consciousness, the more I am convinced that we are driven by the graces in our soul. We have an inherent need to heal others, to reach out in compassion and kindness and generosity. And we have an even deeper need to be forgiving, which is why we battle with forgiveness so much. We aren’t fighting the need to forgive; we are fighting our pride. Get over the pride factor and forgiveness comes easy.
The point here is this: You are far more comfortable in your spiritual skin than in being driven by fear. You feel far more in harmony with your interior self, your soul, by having the fortitude to make courageous choices than by collapsing out of fear and compromising yourself. And you – all of us – have a profound need to trust that your life is on a path of purpose, which does not by any means exclude experiences of chaos, loss, disease, pain, and isolation.
The purposeful life might well require all such experiences because these are essential to a soul’s journey, as they were for Walter Ciszek, S. J. It is easy to be kind among kind people, to love those who love us back, and to share our food while our refrigerator is bursting with leftovers. But the truth is, in your heart of hearts, generating unimaginable goodness is exactly what you long to do in life.
The Story of Walter Ciszek, S.J.
Briefly, Walter Ciszek was born in Philadelphia in 1906. He was ordained a Jesuit around 1938. What makes his life so surreal is that he ended up spending 23 years in a Soviet prison camp, the gulag, as it was known. Through the most bizarre and unusual series of spiritually-driven choices, Ciszek felt compelled to go to the Jesuit House in Rome after his ordination and study in the Jesuit Russian program. At the time, the Jesuits were looking for volunteers to enter into Russia secretly to assess the spirit of the Catholic population and to be present as priests. He felt called to this mission.
Hitler was more than just on the rise by the late 1930’s and Ciszek was now being discouraged from heading into Russia. Instead, he opted for Poland. He was already fluent in Polish, having grown up in a Polish-speaking American home. Hitler invaded Poland’s western end and the Russians invaded the eastern end, where Ciszek, now using an alias, was living. He saw this as an opportunity to enter Russia as a regular laborer and he took it.
Eventually the Soviet authorities came upon the Jesuit House in Poland, where they found his American passport. They tortured the head priest into finally revealing that Ciszek and one other Jesuit had entered into Russia using false identification papers. Within a few months, both these men were arrested and their nightmare journey began. Ciszek’s companion priest died early on, but he went on to experience brutal interrogations, starvation, and eventually years in Siberia. He was released in 1963, thanks to the efforts of the U.S. State Department, his sister, and President John F. Kennedy, who held the Jesuits in high regard.
Walter wrote a book entitled With God in Russia, which, of course, I immediately downloaded into my Kindle that same night. I had to find out how a man born in Philadelphia could end up ordained in New York and then land in a Soviet gulag during the 1940’s, 50’s, and early 60’s. I have given you a far more complete portrait of his life than is in The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything because I wanted to give you a small background on the torture and torment that this one human being went through. Knowing this, what left me breathless was the closing words to his book in which he recounted his 23 years of having been imprisoned under false charges of spying. Instead of saying something like, “I couldn’t get out of Russia fast enough,” or “I left with a bitter taste in my mouth for all the wasted years of my life,” he noted that as his plane took flight, he could see the spirals of the Kremlin in the distance. And with that image in his view, “Slowly, carefully, I made the sign of the cross over the land I was leaving.”
He blessed the hell from which he was being released.
Slowly, carefully, he blessed the land that had held him prisoner and had brutalized him for more than two decades. He had found a way to love greater than and through the labyrinth of his own personal sufferings. His grace and goodness were unimaginable and it struck me with a force as I read his story late at night. What is that grace that allows a person to have the courage to make choices so profoundly good that their consequences live on long after that person has passed away?
A person has to be devoted to scaffolding a sturdy interior self. Without that, what part of you can you count on when you need to?
How do you know you trust your own choices? How do you face your sufferings? How do you help others carry their pain? How do you express love? What is your definition of unimaginable goodness?
Take a moment to answer these questions. If you are truly honest with yourself, you will discover that being able to generate goodness no matter what situation you are in, whether it is one of bliss or hell, is the optimum.