The spiritual journey of every Christian is a journey of conversion that involves inward maturing, openness to the spirit and a developed prayer life. For Walter Ciszek, S.J., a small, stocky Polish-American, this spiritual journey was tested in the fire of Moscow’s dreaded Lubyanka prison, where he spent five years in solitary confinement. “Lubyanka, in many ways, was a school of prayer for me,” he later wrote.
In October 1963 Father Ciszek returned to the United States from 23 years in Soviet confinement. Having returned home, he was amazed at the wastefulness he found, and he quickly noticed that people’s spiritual lives focused on personal needs rather than gratitude. It had taken him 59 years of life experience to realize that progress in the spiritual life correlates with risk and challenge. A person has to be willing to let go, to invoke an inner freedom. Father Ciszek’s two books, With God in Russia and He Leadeth Me, give witness to the victory of his spiritual life over the powers of evil by demonstrating his inner transformation into Christ’s likeness and through Christ’s cross.
From Darkness to Light
In any spiritual journey concerned with growth in prayer, there is always a purification process. In He Leadeth Me, Father Ciszek described the “sinking feeling of helplessness and powerlessness” that overcame him after his arrest in Russia in 1941. He had lost total control of his life and felt “completely cut off from everything and everyone who might conceivably help” him. The Soviets accused him of being a Vatican spy and transferred him to Lubyanka prison, where men were reportedly broken in body and spirit. As he had done in every crisis in the past when there was no person to turn to, he turned to God in prayer.
While an interior voice helped focus his faith, Father Ciszek’s faith in prayer sustained him, served as his principle of life and always made him God-conscious. This same faith also made him conscious of his readiness and natural competency to handle whatever came along. “I was naturally stubborn and strong-willed,” he wrote, crediting these characteristics to many years of “developing willpower and training the will.” The tension between persistence and stubbornness, developed early in his life, gradually helped him become aware of God’s patience and his own need to become a patient pupil. Because he realized early that self-control was not itself sufficient in his struggle against depression, fear and insecurity, spiritual growth was contingent on the depth of his personal relationship with God. The quality of his prayer life, finely honed from an early age by ascetical practices, revealed the depth of his relationship with God.
His asceticism in Lubyanka became a life of prayer and humble faith in God. In prayer he began a self-conversion that continued throughout his life. The absolute silence of God during solitary confinement tempted him to give in to his interrogators. Instead, he turned to prayer and persevered in it until the temptation vanished. His perseverance in prayer countered loneliness, confusion and worthlessness. Patient suffering in prayer helped Father Ciszek to receive loneliness as a grace in that moment. He deeply sensed the frustrating pains of loneliness, confusion and worthlessness, but he also accepted these in the spirit of faith and continued to serve God without change or compromise. He learned, by the light of grace, the need for personal purification—an interior process manifest in humbly begging God’s mercy, trustful fear of the Lord and a readiness to do whatever the divine will proposed at any time. And in prison there was a great deal of time.
For some in Lubyanka the time passed quickly. For others the seconds passed like minutes and even hours. The one constant in Lubyanka, Father Ciszek wrote, was the “total and all-pervading silence that seemed to close in around you and threaten you constantly.” After each session of interrogation, “agonizing afterthoughts that filled the hours in my silent cell…began to have their effect and eat away at my morale.” The interrogators drugged him and shocked him with an electrode—and Father Ciszek finally broke.
The experience in Lubyanka tempered and purified his soul. In one year of interrogations, Father Ciszek “underwent a purging” of self that left him “cleansed to the bone.” The mental blackness in which he found himself allowed him no options but fear of self. In this inner darkness he experienced despair, lost hope and sight of God, and even for a moment lost the last shreds of his faith in God. Nevertheless, he instinctively turned to prayer and almost immediately felt consoled by our Lord’s agony in the garden. He had gone from “total blackness” to “an experience of blinding light,” a conversion experience that changed his life. From that moment he completely abandoned himself into God’s hands with a readiness to let Christ fully transform him.
While the shock of Lubyanka left him horrified, he instinctively turned to God—after he failed to manage alone—and began to live the psalmist’s words: “My days are in thy hands” (31:16). There was never too little time because it was God alone who had given him the exact time needed to work out his salvation. “Even in moments of human discouragement,” Father Ciszek wrote, “the consciousness that I was fulfilling God’s will in all that happened to me would serve to dispel all doubt and desolation.” In the silence of his cell, he began to realize that it was not self-will or willpower that mattered in the spiritual realm. Rather it was the consciousness of God’s grace working within oneself, demanding full conformity of one’s natural powers in whatever way grace was given in concrete circumstances. The interrogations convinced him of this.
Discernment: A Seeing Soul
The interrogators of Lubyanka could be both kind and deceptive. Father Ciszek knew that the devil often took on the appearance of an angel of light while sowing deceit and confusion, especially in the inner struggle during the journey in prayer. Interior moods, feelings and movements had to be sifted out and discerned so that he could recognize the Lord’s call at the intimate core of his being. He knew that if he failed to recollect God, temptation would soon follow. So for him, his eye of discernment became “the lamp of the body” (Mt 6:22).
The final four years in Lubyanka allowed our Lord to continue fine-tuning Father Ciszek’s soul. If anything, Lubyanka gave him the spirit of prayer, courage, trust in God and a deep appreciation of grace, even when he seemed worthless. He realized he needed to order his life according to the truths found in the Lord’s Prayer and especially the principal truth of doing the will of God the Father. Like earlier spiritual writers, Father Ciszek believed that this prayer, given to us by Christ, contained the fullness of prayer—an invitation to lift the mind and heart to God the Father with a concern not only for the words of the prayer but also for an appreciation of the mode of silence in which our Lord prayed, which he had now experienced. As the result of direct grace and enlightened discretion, he immediately realized the full effect of his Lubyanka conversion. He now had a single vision of Christ in all things and the desire to discern his will in every situation.
Father Ciszek felt he had to rise “from the tomb of Lubyanka” before our Lord could use him, and before he could really appreciate the Lord’s words, “Behold, I send you as sheep in the midst of wolves” (Mt 10:16). As in his Jesuit novitiate experience, in Lubyanka he had been “alone with God, as it were on the mountaintop” and able to develop the habit of recollection. But the prison experience did not prepare him for life after the period of forced silence. Although from early childhood Father Ciszek had a propensity to a life of prayer, his habit of recollection immediately broke down after his release from Lubyanka. He was “continuously distracted,” he wrote, by the “rough and ready realities of life.” He describes traveling to labor camps on prison trains with hardcore criminals who thought nothing of killing at the slightest provocation. The first thing Father Ciszek discovered after release from Lubyanka was the presence of evil. He came face-to-face with the criminal world. “For the first time,” he wrote, “I palpably experienced the power of evil and how completely it could overshadow the power of good.”
Motivation to restrain himself from doing evil or to abandon evil practices already acquired during early years came not from reason but from his conscience. This interior and mysterious voice demanded correction, and yet his struggle with conscience lasted for years. In time, Father Ciszek grew in spiritual freedom, a process that requires “an attitude of acceptance and openness to the will of God,” he explained, “rather than some planned approach or calculated method.” After his release from Lubyanka, he wrote, “I was still a prisoner, but I felt free and liberated.” There was no anger or bitterness, but peace and a deep sense of internal freedom. The forced silence in Lubyanka was gone, and with it, the easy prayerful recollection. Now, to enter into a relationship with the living Lord, he needed to listen intently for the interior voice of conscience and discern God’s will in every situation. The concentration and attention required in prayer did not deprive him of true freedom, but gradually led him to a fuller freedom in God. “I could testify from my own experiences, especially from my darkest hours in Lubyanka,” he wrote, “that the greatest sense of freedom, along with peace of soul and an abiding sense of security, comes when a man totally abandons his own will in order to follow the will of God.”
In completely trusting in God, Father Ciszek learned, “the soul must learn to act not on its own initiative, but in response to whatever demands were imposed by God in the concrete instances of each day.” He experienced the need to sift the inner movements of his soul and respond to the constant question: Is the Lord revealing himself, and if so, what is he saying? The basic discernment between good and evil required that he grow in inner awareness and the ability to see clearly into himself. He knew the goal of discernment: to discover who Jesus is and where his reign is found. As he tested every spirit to see if it came from God, he began to develop a “seeing soul.” His spiritual growth became intimately connected with the examination of anything that entered his heart to see if and how he should respond. With St. Paul he could say, “Every thought is our prisoner, captured to be brought into obedience to Christ” (2 Cor 10:5).
The Catholic Church is now taking an exhaustive look at the details of Father Ciszek’s spiritual journey—in connection with a cause for his canonization. Few of us will ever merit such close scrutiny of our lives. Many of us do not understand our own spiritual journey, let alone that of someone else. But most of us can identify with at least a modified form of the feelings of helplessness, powerlessness and despair Father Ciszek experienced in the silence of Lubyanka. By abandoning himself to God’s will, his journey in prayer echoed the spiritual journeys of many saints in the past. It was in the silence of his heart that he came to realize that the peak of human freedom is unselfish love, as Jesus taught: “You must love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Mt 22:37).
And yet there was uniqueness in Father Ciszek’s journey, and certainly in his cross, that makes him a model for many Christians today, especially in these troubled times. His conversion experience in a silent cell left him with an unconditional readiness to change his life and place everything in God’s hands. Lubyanka provided the nails for his cross and the necessary purification for a saintly life of priestly service grounded in discernment and prayer.