Finding God's Will

How can the life of Walter Ciszek, SJ, help us to understand what it means to find "God's will" in our lives?

Often when we think about "God's will" we think of trying to figure it all out. What is God's will? What am I supposed to do? One of the themes of this book has been the Ignatian model of "discernment," in which your desires help to reveal God's desires for you. We look for signs of those desires in our lives.

But there is a danger: We might overlook the fact that God's will often doesn't need much "figuring out" or "discernment.” Sometimes it's right in front of us. And that's what one of my Jesuit heroes realized in a labor camp in the Soviet Union.


Walter Ciszek was an American-born Jesuit priest who had been sent by his superiors to work in Poland in the late 1930s. Originally hoping to work in the Soviet Union itself Ciszek found it impossible to gain entrance and ended up in an Oriental-rite church in Albertin, Poland. When the German army took Warsaw in 1939, and the Soviet Army overran Eastern Poland and Albertin, Ciszek fled with other Polish refugees into the Soviet Union, hoping to serve them (in disguise) as a priest.

In June 1941, Ciszek was arrested by the Soviet secret police as a suspected spy. He spent five years in Moscow's infamous Lubianka prison and then was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in Siberia. In addition to his forced labor, he served as priest to his fellow prisoners, risking his life to offer counseling, hear confessions, and--most perilously---celebrating Mass.

We said Mass in drafty storage shacks, or huddled in mud and slush in the corner of a building site foundation of an underground. . . . Yet in these primitive conditions, the Mass brought you closer to God than anyone might conceivably imagine.

Ciszek wouldn't return to the United States until 1963. By then many Jesuits assumed that he was long dead. And why wouldn’t they? The Society of Jesus sent out an official death notice in 1947. But toward the end of his captivity, Ciszek was suddenly and surprisingly permitted to write letters home. Only then did family and friends learn of his "rebirth.”

After a complicated diplomatic exchange was worked out with the help of President John F. Kennedy, he returned to the United States on October 12, 1963, coming directly to the Jesuit community of America magazine in New York. Thurston Davis, S.J., the editor in chief at the time, wrote in the next week's issue, "In his green raincoat, grey suit and big-brimmed Russian hat he looked like the movie version of a stocky little Soviet member of an agricultural mission.”

Ciszek settled down to work on the story of his time in Russia, called With God in Russia, detailing the extreme conditions in which he lived--capture by the Soviets, the interrogation, the long train ride to Siberia, the wretched prison camps, and his eventual release into the Russian population as an ex-convict always under surveillance. The book, still in print, was a huge success. But a few years later he realized that the book he really wanted to write was the story of something else: his spiritual journey. That book is called He Leadeth Me.

Ciszek wrote that he wanted to answer the question that everyone kept asking him: "How did you manage to survive?"  His short answer was "Divine Providence.” The full answer is his book, which shows how he found God in all things, even in a Soviet labor camp.

Much of this has to do with his understanding of obedience. In one of the most arresting chapters of the book, Ciszek has a startling epiphany about what it means to follow "God's will."

For a long time, as he toiled in the labor camps, he had been wondering how he would be able to endure his future. What was "God's will?"  How was he supposed to figure it out? One day, along with another priest friend, he had a revelation. When it comes to daily life, God's will is not some abstract idea to be figured out, or puzzled over or even discerned. Rather, God's will is what is presented before us every day.     

[God's] will for us was the twenty-four hours of each day: the people, the places, the circumstances he set before us in that time. Those were the things God knew were important to him and to us at that moment, and those were the things upon which he wanted us to act, not out of any abstract principle or out of any subjective desire to "do the will of God.” No, these things, the twenty-four hours of this day, were his will; we had to learn to recognize his will in the reality of the situation.

This truth is so freeing that Ciszek returns to that theme again and again in his book. This recognition sustains him through many years of hardship, suffering and pain.

The plain and simple truth is that his will is what he actually wills to send us each day, in the way of circumstances, places, people, and problems. The trick is to learn to see that--not just in theory, or not just occasionally in a flash of insight granted by God's grace, but every day. Each of us has no need to wonder about what God's will must be for us; his will for us is clearly revealed in every situation of every day, if only we could learn to view all things as he sees them and sends them to us.

What is Ciszek's response? Obedience to what life has placed before him. "The challenge lies in learning to accept this truth and act upon it," he writes. This is something that everyone experiences: our lives change in ways we cannot change.

Now, when life changes for the better, acceptance is no problem! You meet a new friend. You get a promotion at work. You fall in love. You learn that you'll soon become a mother or a father, or grandmother or grandfather. In these cases "acceptance" is easy. All that one needs to do is be grateful.

But what happens when life presents you with unavoidable suffering? This is where the example of the Jesuit approach to obedience may be helpful. The same thing that enables a Jesuit to accept difficult decisions by their superiors is the same thing that can help you: the realization that this is what God is inviting you to experience at this moment. It is the understanding that somehow God is with you, at work and revealed in a new way in this experience.

Let me be clear: I'm not saying that God "wills" suffering or pain. Nor that any of us with ever fully understand the mystery of suffering. Nor that you need to look at every difficulty as "God's will.” Some suffering should be avoided, lessened or combated: treatable illnesses, abusive marriages, unhealthy work situations, dysfunctional sexual relationships.

Nonetheless, Ciszek understood that God invites us to accept the inescapable realities placed in front of us. We can either turn away from that acceptance of life and continue on our own, or we can plunge into the "reality of the situation" and try to find God there in new ways.

From The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.

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Michael Barberi
6 years 9 months ago
Thank you Fr. Martin for this article.

In those times when we face difficulty, suffering or moral dilemma, we find God's will in becoming humble, courageous and obedient to our natural inclinations which always tends to the good and the truth. We naturally give thanks and praise to God in times of great joy, and petition God for wisdom and fortitude in times of great stress and pain. We ask God to help us find and embrace His will. 

As the article rightly asserted, some suffering should be avoided. The real issue, in my opinion, is the difficulties of everyday life. Most of us will never experience what Walter Ciszek went through. In those situations, as difficult as they can be, the choice is not so difficult: we can reject God or we can choose to seek Him. For when we seek, we shall find; and when we knock, the door will be open to us.

In many ways, the most profound of difficulties of every day life can be more complicated than a choice to reject or seek God. As devoute Catholicss, most of us seek and knock. Sometimes the "choices" are not as clear as Ciszek's. Many of us face moral dilemma, such as a difficulty in accepting a Church teaching that is in tension with human experience and reason. The answer to the problems we face today ask a different question than mere obedience. How do we deal with the comtemporay moral dilemmas involving: seropositive couples, people with a same-sex attraction, abortion to save the life of the mother when the fetus cannot survive under any circumstances, the divorced and remarried, Catholic couples that have 3 children and want no more for good reasons and practice contraception, young mothers whose life is threatened by another pregnancy and prudently choose sterilization to safe-guard their lives....the list goes on.

In these situations, perhaps God is found in obediance to all the teachings of the magisterium, without remainder. On the other hand, perhaps in these situations God is found in constant prayer, frequent reception of the sacrements, and in our informed consciences and practical reason. One thing is clear to me. We should never give up on God and always strive to live a life pleasing to him as best we can.
Veronica Wright
6 years 10 months ago
Discerning the will of God seems to be the stumbling block for many Christians. In Jeremiah the verse ''For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope'' has been literally interpreted as personal plans for individual lives. At 53 I am realizing just what Fr. Ciszek proclaims. God's will or plan for us is in the everyday. I also now realize that Jesus Christ is the plan for imitate his complete and perfect humanity is God's will. In doing and in being the person God meant me to be - developing my gifts, getting rid of sin and being Christ to others is God's ''plan.''
veronica wright
Edgar Gamboa
6 years 10 months ago
Thanks for featuring the remarkable life of Fr. Walter Ciszek. And for making a difficult subject easier to understand. It's comforting to know that ''God's will...(might be) right in front of us.''
Ann Turner
6 years 10 months ago
Fr. Jim, this is a marvelous meditation on a brave man of God's journey and our shared understanding of how God works in our lives.  Thank you!  It reminds me of a comment by my friend Paula D'Arcy: "God comes to you disguised as your own life."  Hard to accept at times, but salutary, the way a splash of very cold water in the face is.
David Pasinski
6 years 10 months ago
As I mentioned in another post, having heard his "With God in Russia read was very inspiring and I'm iclined to read "He Leadeth Me."

 However, I'll take some exception to your instances of "easy acceptance." We all know there are circumstances when learning one is to be a mother or father (perhaps again or unexpectedly!) is not easy, nor is the acceptance of grandparenting for those many raising their children's children, and as far as "falling in love" when one is in another, but painful, committed relationship - or is a priest and is torn between choices- acceptance is not easy and discernment and much else is called for.

"Heart's desire and cirsumstances come togethr to define a path. The way of choice and necessity turn out one and the same." (or a close paraphrase) from John Dunne's "Reasons of the Heart

or Dante's
"In His will is our peace"

Ah, yes, but suffering and discernment are always present....
david power
6 years 10 months ago
The danger in writing about "finding God in all things" is to be superficial.That is why many books on the Saints should be burned as they make a mockery of the complexity of life.
In this case Ciszek writes in a clear way and gives the nuts and bolts which is important to anybody who mops floors  or is stuck in a factory or is doing whatever.
St Albert Hurtado tried to this with work but did not succeed as well as St Josemaria who truly worked at the spirituality of small things.
Albert hurtado's writings are also worth investigation.
If Fr Ciszek  had stayed in America he may have wandered through his life in a jaded way  and spouted pious platitudes to his congregation but the Soviet Union drew him into the existential drama ,the split between the sacred and profane lived by the masses.
However, to write in a holy way or to speak that way is easy.

I hope that the cause of canonization is rigourous and takes into account more than just the short-term interests of the  Church. 
6 years 10 months ago
To add: Check out Prison Writings by another Jesuit  (a German Jesuit) imprisoned and executed by the Nazis during WW II  (I think it was published by Orbis.)  Fr. Alfred Delp, S.J. 


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