Walter Ciszek, SJ: Control the Controllables—by Focusing Your Energy Where It Counts

By Chris Lowney
From Heroic Living

Healthy individuals focus energy and effort where they can exert influence and control, and they don’t obsess over what lies beyond their control. That mind-set preserves mental health, but it’s also a graceful, and grace-filled, acceptance that the world is not about us. This is not our world, but God’s, and much of it—indeed, much that affects us—lies outside our control.

The Jesuit Walter Ciszek’s life (1904–1983) embodied this wisdom. When I was a Jesuit seminarian, Fr. Ciszek and I dined for a while in the same large Jesuit community. This quiet, self-effacing old man stood about as high as my chest and seemed unremarkable by any conventional measure. Many of us regularly bypassed his company at dinner for that of more entertaining, livelier colleagues.

Now I laugh to myself about it. Fr. Ciszek’s cause for sainthood is wending its way through the tortuous Vatican machinery. I may someday have to explain to friends that I lived with a saint and paid scant attention to him. I suspect that this says something encouraging about the self-effacing nature of true saints and something discouraging about me!

Even though we lavished little attention on Fr. Ciszek, we all knew his remarkable life story, chronicled in He Leadeth Me and With God in Russia. Sent to Russia as a young priest, Ciszek was accused during World War II of being a Vatican spy and was shuttled around Soviet gulags and remote work camps for two decades. Ciszek passed days in a tiny cell that was “about seven by twelve feet, with grimy stone walls and one little window high in the wall. The room was always dark.” But that wasn’t the bad part: that seven-by-twelve cell was home to as many as a dozen people: “At night, we all huddled together on the rough-hewn benches to sleep. If someone turned over in his sleep, he was liable to wake the whole crowd.”

Imagine days with nothing to look forward to beside the next interrogation or the next meager meal. Compounding the physical privations was the frustration that things weren’t working out according to Ciszek’s plans. He went to Russia to do things; how endlessly demoralizing to sit in a prison and chew over the bitter reality that he was doing nothing, day after day.

That is, Ciszek relates, until a personal epiphany dawned. “God’s will was not hidden somewhere ‘out there’ . . . the situations [in which I found myself] were his will for me. What he wanted was for me to accept these situations as from his hands, to let go of the reins and place myself entirely at his disposal.” Ciszek’s options were to lament endlessly what he couldn’t control or to fulfill his purpose in the small corner of the world he could control, his cell.

Fr. Ciszek in his jail cell or work camp, praying and occasionally interacting with jailers or fellow prisoners, is a poignant embodiment of a well-known phrase in Jesuit life: age quod agis—“do what you’re doing!” We tend to obsess over what we wish we were doing, or what we might be doing instead of our boring jobs, or what we would like to be doing that someone else is doing, or what we could have been doing if our luck had been better. Such preoccupations distract us from whatever real opportunity lies right in front of us. If we do what we are doing, we focus on the opportunity at hand, even (or perhaps especially) if all we can do is sit in a jail cell, pray, think good thoughts, and treat our captors with civility and kindness.

None of us finds peace or performs effectively without learning Fr. Ciszek’s hard-won lesson, because each successive phase of life brings new circumstances that change what is and isn’t within our control. While we are young, we may have energy, time, and freedom but modest financial resources. In middle age, we may have young families to raise and love but limited freedom to take on other obligations and opportunities. Retirement often bestows the talent of time once more. Our challenge, like Fr. Ciszek’s, is to accept peaceably what we cannot control and make the most of what lies within our control, never losing sight of our purpose and vision along the way.

Excerpt from Heroic Living by Chris Lowney.