A Handbook for the Oppressed

In 1939, an American Jesuit priest, Fr. Walter J. Ciszek, slipped into the Soviet Union in hopes of ministering to Catholics who had been deprived of their priests by the communist government. In short order he was arrested, mercilessly interrogated for five years,  falsely convicted of being a Vatican spy, and sentenced to 15 years hard labor in Siberia where he worked under the worst conditions imaginable. Finally, after 23 years of physical, psychological, and spiritual oppression, he was miraculously returned to the United States.

In his book With God in Russia, recently reviewed here, Fr. Ciszek recounts in horrific detail the deprivations he and so many others suffered at the hands of the communist government. It’s impossible to read it without constantly wondering, how on earth did he survive? How did he maintain his faith?  How did he maintain the very will to go on living?

In his second book, He Leadeth Me, Fr. Ciszek answers these questions as he delves into the spiritual struggles and enlightenment he experienced during his two decades of captivity. The book is at once simple and profound. It is a testimony to the power of faith and how faith and only faith enables us to overcome any challenge we face, no matter how cruel and hopeless our circumstances may seem.

With God in Russia is primarily a chronicle of facts; He Leadeth Me briefly summarizes what happened at various stages of his captivity, and then discusses how he coped with the horrors he was experiencing and witnessing.

It’s valuable, perhaps lifesaving, reading for anyone coping with any struggle, be it physical, mental, or spiritual — and also for anyone seeking God or faltering in faith.

“Can there be anything more consoling than to look at a burden, or a humiliation, not just as it is in itself but as the will of God entrusted to you at that moment? Viewed in that way, no matter how heavy or trying the burden or the difficulty, I am able to carry it in a spirit that indeed can make it light, for the realization that it comes from God and is his will for me carries with it a feeling of enthusiasm, of accomplishment, of importance, that brings joy and consolation to the heart.” – Fr. Walter J. Ciszek, He Leadeth Me

Early on in his captivity, Fr. Ciszek slowly but surely begins to realize that his faith was less real than he had thought: instead of cooperating with God’s will, he had his own ideas about how best to serve God — and expected God to make it all possible. When God failed to meet his expectations, when his goals were thwarted, he felt despair and abandonment. But as he developed a sense of true humility, he realized even the worst deprivations were God’s will for him at that moment, an opportunity to serve God in some way, and in so doing, bring meaning, value, and dignity to his suffering and actions.

Towards the end of the book, Fr. Ciszek does a great job of dismantling the notion that serving “humanity” can succeed as the highest personal or societal goal. He does this not so much through argument as by simply observing the effects of the atheist communist government on the Russian people he came to know so well.

The firmness of  faith exhibited by these Russians and Eastern European prisoners and citizens is simply astounding.  Fr. Ciszek recounts, for instance, how the prisoners in the Siberian mines, already subsisting on a near starvation diet, would go without their meager breakfasts and lunches so they could receive Communion in the makeshift Masses Fr. Ciszek would surreptitiously conduct during lunch breaks at the mine. Later, after being freed, he was constantly humbled and impressed by how the everyday citizens, struggling to survive, would risk their jobs, freedom, and very lives to attend Mass and receive sacraments. This all took place, mind you, in a country where atheist propaganda and informants were everywhere, and no other points of view were permissible to express publicly or privately. I can attest to the stifling spiritual atmosphere of Soviet Russia, having experienced it myself, albeit to a far lesser degree than Fr. Ciszek, in 1976.

Fr. Ciszek admits he is no theologian, and his spiritual reflections may seem shallow to many. But he also poses an excellent question:

“Why must we always look for more sophisticated, more meaningful, more relevant answers, when he [God] has set the truth before us in so stark and simple a fashion?”

From a practical or spiritual standpoint, I’m hard pressed to think of a more relevant question than that.

Further Reading

The Soviet States of America

Book Review: With God in Russia

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