The first time Walter Ciszek “died” was in 1947. The American Jesuit had disappeared in 1940, shortly after slipping into Communist Russia to work as an underground priest. After seven years, his family and religious community gave him up for dead.
But the priest had been arrested on charges of espionage and swallowed up into the Soviet prison system. Not until 1955, when Fr. Ciszek got a letter to his sister in Pennsylvania, did anyone outside the Iron Curtain suspect he was alive. When he was sent back to the United States in 1963—traded for two Russian agents—it seemed like a return from the dead.
Ciszek died for real on December 8, 1984, at age eighty, two decades after being released. But in between these two demises, he underwent a death—and a resurrection—of quite another sort. This is the real drama of the priest’s lost years: how he died to self-will and self-reliance, and rose again through trust in God and his loving care. Recounted in his two books, With God in Russia and He Leadeth Me, the story of Walter Ciszek is a powerful witness to what can happen when a person—you, me, anyone—decides to live by faith.
Tough and Proud of It. “Born stubborn,” young Walter was a strong kid who liked picking fights and missing school. Parental talks and discipline had no effect. His father, a hardworking Polish immigrant, was stunned when his son decided—for no apparent reason—to become a priest.
Still in his teens, Walter marched off to a junior seminary in Michigan and spent the next few years proving he was tough. Without anyone’s advice or permission, he undertook disciplines like swimming in an icy lake and eating only bread and water during Lent. Warned that he might injure his health, the headstrong seminarian retorted, “I know what I’m doing.”
Years later, Ciszek saw self-will and flawed motives behind his youthful practices. But God works through the flawed, and he used Walter’s competitive spirit to draw him to the Jesuits. The inspiration came through a biography of St. Stanislaus Kostka, a Polish teen who walked five hundred miles to join the order. Challenged as he was by this saintly zeal, Ciszek struggled with the idea that as a Jesuit, he would have to learn obedience. In the end, as he later explained, “I finally decided, since it was so hard, I would do it.”
Send Me! In 1929, soon after entering the Jesuit novitiate, Walter felt strongly moved to volunteer for ministry in Russia, where the Soviets had closed seminaries and imprisoned bishops and priests. He was sent to study at the Pontifical Russian College in Rome. In June 1937, he was ordained in the Byzantine Rite, the rite followed by some Russian Catholics as well as the Russian Orthodox. In March 1940, having held his missionary eagerness in check for more than a decade, Ciszek finally managed to get into Russia in a boxcar of Polish laborers headed for a lumber camp.
He didn’t mind the hard work and harsh conditions of that camp in the Ural Mountains. But he was frustrated and disillusioned to find no outlets for his priestly ministry. It was “almost a non-apostolate,” he said, for even the Catholic workers feared Communist informers and refused to speak or hear of God. And so, as Ciszek and a fellow Jesuit said their furtive Masses in the forest, he wondered: “Have all my work and sacrifices been for nothing? Should I give up?” It was, he said, “the temptation faced by everyone who suddenly discovers that life is not what he expected it to be.” But just as he was beginning to suspect that the situation might be God’s will, he was arrested as a spy and sent to Moscow’s dreaded Lubianka Prison. He ended up spending five years there, mostly in solitary confinement.
Moments of Truth. Initially, Fr. Ciszek wasn’t too worried. He was innocent, after all. And he had “a great deal of confidence” in his ability to stand firm against any interrogator.
His strength, discipline, and habits of prayer certainly helped. But Lubianka wore him down with its constant hunger and isolation and the all-night interrogations, with their mind games and agonizing after-thoughts. After a year—brutalized, drugged, and threatened with death—Ciszek did what he had been sure he would never do: he signed papers that gave the impression he had been spying for the Vatican.
Afterward, burning with shame and guilt for being “nowhere near the man I thought I was,” he finally faced the truth. “I had asked for God’s help but had really believed in my ability to avoid evil and to meet every challenge. . . . I had been thanking God all the while that I was not like the rest of men. . . . I had relied almost completely on myself in this most critical test—and I had failed.”
The interrogations continued, and Ciszek fell into black despair. Terrified, he threw himself on God, pleading his utter helplessness. Then, in a moment of blinding light, he was able to see “the grace God had been offering me all my life.”
I knew that I must abandon myself completely to the will of the Father and live from now on in this spirit of self-abandonment to God. And I did it. I can only describe the experience as a sense of “letting go,” giving over totally my last effort or even any will to guide the reins of my own life. It is all too simply said, yet that one decision has affected every subsequent moment of my life. I have to call it a conversion. . . . It was at once a death and a resurrection.
Selfless in Siberia. Walter Ciszek was a new man—and it showed. Realizing they could not manipulate him, the Soviets sentenced him to fifteen years of hard labor in the Siberian Gulag.
Conditions there were horrific. Prisoners were starved and overworked, poorly housed and poorly clothed. Perhaps one and a half million of them died in the push to industrialize the frozen wasteland.
Yet in this nightmare realm, Fr. Ciszek knew the joy of bringing Christ to his fellow prisoners. In secret, he baptized, heard confessions, tended to the sick and dying, gave homilies and retreats, said Mass, and distributed Communion. With quiet heroism, he built “a thriving parish,” though it cost him. He was punished with assignments to the dirtiest work. He shoveled coal for fifteen hours straight, hauled logs out of a frozen river, crawled through dangerous mine tunnels, and dug sewer trenches with a pickaxe in subzero temperatures.
“How did you survive?” people asked him later. “God’s providence,” he always replied. And abandoning himself to this providence—to God’s will, as revealed in each day’s situations—was his priority.
On the prison train out of Moscow, for example, the priest was thrown into a compartment with twenty hardcore criminals who took his clothes and threatened his life. Angry and afraid, he sat in his corner and tried to regain composure. “This was the situation, these were the people, I kept trying to tell myself, that formed the will of God for me today.” It seemed hard to believe. Yet peace returned as he resolved to accept these and all circumstances as from God’s hands and to offer them back to him as best he could.
Apostle of Divine Providence. Discharged from the camps in 1955 but confined to Siberia, Fr. Ciszek dedicated himself to serving local Christians, who were starved for the sacraments and priestly support. He ministered so widely and effectively that the police hounded him from one city to another. His unexpected release back to the United States in 1963 probably spared him another arrest.
For the rest of his life, less dramatically but no less passionately, Ciszek lived and spread his “simple truths.” Based at Fordham University in New York, he reached out in writings, talks, retreats, and counseling. He had a gift for friendship, and he used it in “an apostolate of divine providence,” says Mother Marija Shields, prioress of a Byzantine Carmelite monastery in Pennsylvania. “He wanted us all to live for God, and he showed us, by friendship, how to do it.”
Mother Marija, possibly the last person who talked with Fr. Ciszek before he died, said he gave her a final message for the Carmelite novices. “If they want to have peace at the end of their lives,” he said, “tell them to do God’s will every day. Tell them to give God’s will their lousy best.”
However “lousy” it seems, that gift of death to self—a gift each one of us can give—is the sure path to life in Christ.