The Wisdom of Walter J. Ciszek, SJ

With God in America by Walter J. Ciszek, SJLoyola Press just published a collection of writings by Walter J. Ciszek, SJ. If you recognize that name, it’s because Ciszek, a Jesuit priest, survived 23 years in Russian prisons and labor camps, was presumed dead, but then returned to the U.S. in a prisoner exchange in 1963. He wrote about his experiences in With God in Russia, a book well-received and widely read. He followed that with a book of more devotional writing: He Leadeth Me. He died of natural causes at age 80 in 1984. There’s a cause for his canonization underway, so it’s possible Fr. Walter (that’s how many people referred to him) will be a saint in a few years.

Our present book of his writings is With God in America, which presents a wonderful selection of Fr. Walter’s reflections, talks given at retreats, and letters to people for whom he was a spiritual guide. I found editing this project a profound experience. I do hope he is canonized, because I want a lot of people to read about him and read and absorb his spiritual wisdom. Here are a few samples.

Regarding the imperfections of this life and how we should look at mistakes:

Now you don’t want, you cannot have heaven on earth. This is the best you can get in this world: live faith, live hope, and true love. I want him, and yet I’m just as human as anyone else, and I always look at myself as I am, and what I am; I see everybody else as better than me. That’s the way I feel, and I pray for that—to see the greater grace in the other, not me. That’s humility. Do I want it? No. I’m inspired that way; that’s why I pray. And what he asks for me is not going to be initiated by me; I never question his way of leading me. Because He’s the Lord! He’s God! and I’m content. I couldn’t do anything. If you make a mistake, they’re just passing things, like gusts of wind coming. You don’t know where they come from, but they hit you and knock you over. And when you fall, it was just a gust of wind, that’s all. It didn’t change my disposition [with regard] to the Lord, or my act of faith. But the suddenness of it all just knocks you over, that’s all.

So, in this way, you live and communicate with others and lead a life, a very simple life, but a true life of prayer. Nothing extraordinary, nothing sensational, because sensational is not in keeping with Christ’s spirit. It’s a simple and true-to-life effort, seeing things as they are, seeing through eyes of faith, hope, and love, and seeing God as a Good Samaritan, and rejoicing and having peace, and, then, having him do the rest.

Ciszek gave various retreats for religious sisters, and I think this is some of his best material. Here he talks about stirring up the gifts we’ve allowed to grow less active in us.

What I think has happened is this: this generosity of our profession day is still in us; we have just forgotten to call upon it as frequently as we used to. You don’t lose such a gift as this; you deliberately erase it by cynicisms, or chip it away by tepidity, or just forget it is within you. And I think this is what many religious have done: we have forgotten there ever was such a gift. For, let’s face it, sisters, the gift of generosity is not a comfortable gift to have around. It demands too much of us. Then it means that you and I have (right up) to this time the stuff of which holiness, total dedication, is made. We still have this dedication to Christ and to souls. Christ doesn’t choose ungenerous and selfish souls to serve him. I know there are very few saints among us, but this I say again: we have the stuff out of which sanctity is made. We have the generosity, hidden now perhaps deep within our hearts and minds, but for most of us it is still there; if we would call upon it, we would slowly but ever so surely begin to find in us the holiness we saw as in a vision on the day of our profession.

And here he talks about our frustration with our human bodies. He’s directing these comments to nuns, but everyone should take them to heart.

Isn’t it true that one of the things that bothers us most is the fact that we are so weak spiritually and physically, that we are so human??? How many times, I wonder, have we hated that body that is ours—yes, truly hated this very humanity that God blessed us with? Somehow or other, in the years of our spiritual training we got self-denial and mortification mixed up with self-hatred and detestation of this body that is ours. Somehow we’ve read in the lives of the saints—written by men and women like ourselves, who secretly are ashamed of the bodies and heart and emotions God made for us—and have found proof in these books how much we should hate and despise and, most of all, fear our human natures. For no other reason than this, I think most of the old lives of the saints should be quietly disposed of, and men such as St. Thomas More and women such as Teresa of Avila, who loved the nature God gave them, should start a whole rewrite job.

The impatience that most good religious show others is nothing compared to the impatience they show themselves. When they find themselves distracted in prayer, lazy in their work, imperfect in their love of God and man, immediately they blame themselves and their weak bodies. I think that if most religious had their way, they would rip their bodies off and wander about in their souls—with, I am sure, a feeling of great relief that they are free at last to really love God, free of the weak, insignificant, totally useless thing called body and human nature. They forget, of course, that without the body they could not whisper one word of love to this God or shed even one tear of sorrow for their sins or feel the slightest tug at their heartstrings of pity for others or compassion for the suffering Christ and his sorrowing Mother. For all these are human emotions and human activities and belong to this body we often are so impatient with.

I hope I’ve whet your appetite for Walter Ciszek’s wisdom! If so, read With God in America: The Spiritual Legacy of an Unlikely Jesuit.

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Vinita Hampton Wright
Vinita Hampton Wright edited books for 32 years, retiring in 2021. She has written various fiction and non-fiction books, including the novel Dwelling Places and spirituality books Days of Deepening Friendship, The Art of Spiritual Writing, Small Simple Ways: An Ignatian Daybook for Healthy Spiritual Living, and, most recently, Set the World on Fire: A 4-Week Personal Retreat with the Female Doctors of the Church. Vinita is a spiritual director and continues to facilitate retreats and write fiction and nonfiction. She lives with her husband, two dogs, and a cat in Springdale, Arkansas.

6 COMMENTS

  1. I just returned from a 7day silent retreat at Wernersville Jesuit Seminary in Pennsylvania. As I wandered the halls & rooms with prayer in my heart & head, I came across a desk covered with a plethra of information about this holy man. It was gathered by his sister who was advocating for his sainthood. It was fascinating and inspiring.

  2. Vinita, these excerpts are so uplifting. I agree that this man of God belongs among the saints, but the ones with skin and bones that he describes.’He Leadeth Me’ was such an inspiration and I look forward to reading this new publication. Thank you for choosing these exceepts. Did you get to edit With God in America?

  3. Yes, I read Father Walter CISZEK book: With God in Russia a long time ago. It was very inspiring. Hopefully I can read it again and I do hope that I have the opportunity to read the other book: With God in America.
    I would be happy to know how to get that book and how much it costs.
    Thank you,
    MDS

  4. I just learned about Fr. Walter and his writings. I am fascinated by his deep spirituality and literary style. I will try to get a copy of his book.

  5. I learned of Father Walter from a religious publication – think it was the Ligourian – a few years after his release. It lead me to seek out his book He Leadeth Me. He truly is a Saint.

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