The Prisoner and the Pandemic: The Gift of the Right Read at the Right Time

The pandemic’s reality was slow to strike my relatively isolated, poverty-stricken mountain valley. For weeks we watched the worldwide spread of COVID-19 through phones, laptops and television screens, but our lives were going on as usual.

In mid-March, everyone at my little school left for spring break and there still wasn’t a case in our valley. Schools on the other side of the Sangre de Cristos were closing, but the map showing Colorado’s cases by county still had ours at zero. And then, just before school was to resume, there was one.

Our world, like everyone else’s, changed overnight.

Children were not to return to school after break. In a tight community known for hugs and fist bumps, teachers and staff struggled to maintain social distance while trying to figure out how to keep learning going from a distance. The maintenance and food service staff mobilized to pack breakfasts and lunches for children. Masked and gloved, they handed paper bags through the windows of cars lined up in the drop off lane in front of the school.

There was so much to do as we prepared for the inevitable stay at home order that came three days later.

We worked and worked, making phone calls, copying packets, composing letters, listening to each other’s worries about the future of our children and our families.

After I finally parked my faithful Chevy Cruze, heavy with a trunk load of laptop, books and visual aids, in the driveway at home, I plopped myself in the living room chair, and the wave of sadness finally hit me.

You have to let yourself feel your feelings.

The psalms teach us that if you have faith, you feel your sadness, anger and fear. You let them rise in the presence of God. I wish I was better at it, but I am learning.

I am still learning to connect it all to the Cross, that great evidential emblem of God’s participation with us in all of this. It’s an unfathomable contemplation with application for every moment of human sin and sorrow, even while we beg for grace to move forward into a new unknown. I don’t understand how faith works yet I know it does.

One of the reads I’d begun for Lent was a book I’d long heard recommended and had purchased last winter when it was on sale as a Kindle for $1.99. I had no idea how meaningful my choice would be when I opened He Leadeth Me: An Extraordinary Testament of Faith on Ash Wednesday.

I highly recommend this book for the unprecedented days of isolation and fear we’re all living through together.

He Leadeth Me is a memoir, and Walter Ciszek, S.J. (1904-1984), had me at his first sentence:

On October 12, 1963, I landed at New York’s Idlewild Airport after having spent twenty-three years in the Soviet Union and most of that time in prison or the slave labor camps of Siberia.

Ciszek’s 1963 release was a trade for two convicted Russian agents. From 1947-1955, he’d been given up for dead by his family and friends; it had been so long since he’d been able to get a message to them.

Returning to his family in Pennsylvania and to his Jesuit community, Ciszek would spend the rest of his life in priestly service and reflection on his time behind the Iron Curtain. His book is not only riveting, but rich with spiritual lessons for such a time as this.

“I felt that I had learned much during those years of hardship and suffering that could be of help to others in their lives,” Ciszek confides in the book’s prologue:

Through the long years of isolation and suffering, God had led me to an understanding of life and his love that only those who have experienced it can fathom. He had stripped away from me many of the external consolations, physical and religious, that men rely on and had left me with a core of seemingly simple truths to guide me.

The challenges most of us are living with right now, painful as they are, pale when reading this story of struggle.

Although he’d told his story in his 1964 book With God in Russia, Cizsek wrote He Leadeth Me a decade after his release, after much deeper reflection on his experience and with the more intimate purpose of sharing the turns of his spiritual life in captivity. It’s a masterfully woven book organized chronologically but also by themes so relevant to any human story that they seem written just for you.

And they were.

As a Polish-American priest with hopes of mission work in Russia, Ciszek’s placement there came about not by the directive of a superior, but by something he would have never imagined: suspicion of espionage followed by arrest and imprisonment in the land he’d dreamed of entering in order to preach and to minister.

Within a year after Ciszek’s ordination in Rome in 1937, political tension in the world had affected Europe so deeply that the hoped-for Russian mission was not an option. Ciszek was assigned instead to a Jesuit mission in Albertyn, Poland.

He’d only been in Albertyn a little over a year when, in 1939, the Germans invaded Warsaw and the Russian army “overran” eastern Poland.

“It is impossible to describe the feeling that comes over you at such a time,” Ciszek writes:

“The feeling that somehow, in an instant, everything has changed and nothing again will ever be quite the same.”

Though our situation is less dramatic, after the COVID-19 stay at home order, many of us were having similar feelings. Ciszek’s story isn’t an escape from our reality; instead, it draws us in to the heart of human suffering, which from person to person cannot be measured or judged. Father Ciszek is a companion who survived something unimaginable and, page by page, he offers us a window into his heart.

He has earned the right to share:

It is a sad commentary on our human frailty that we fail to think of God or see him behind the comfortable routines of our day-to-day existence. It is only in crisis that we remember him and turn to him, often as querulous and questioning children….Mysteriously, God in his providence must make use of our tragedies to remind our fallen human nature of his presence and his love, of the constancy of his concern and care for us.

One of Albertyn’s mission churches was closed immediately; the other was allowed to remain open for “the few families who dared attend, while the rest of its buildings were taken over by the Russian army. A propaganda campaign ensued. Students were forced to join the Young Pioneers and told to report on the old people at home until “even the most faithful became cautious about visiting the church or seeing a priest.”

And that was just the beginning.

“In the confusion and aftermath of these invasions,” Ciszek relates, “I followed many Polish refugees into Russia. Disguised as a worker, I accompanied them in the hope of being able to minister to their spiritual needs. But I didn’t fool the Soviet secret police. As soon as Germany invaded Russia in June 1941, I was picked up by the NKVD and put into prison.”

That prison was Lubyanka, where Nobel Laureate Alekander Solzhenitsyn would also suffer, providing us a chronicle in The Gulag Archipelago.

Ciszek’s doubts and fears consumed him many times. His dreams of mission in Russia were surely ill-conceived. He was often tempted to doubt his call, to go over past decisions with self-recrimination.

This is the human condition, he reflects. “It is the temptation to say: ‘This life is not what I thought it would be’…It is a temptation that comes to every man and woman, sometimes daily.”

In humility, Ciszek the survivor reaches out to us; he doesn’t say, “look how much heavier my burden was than yours is” but rather, Look how my heart is like yours. We all fall down on the road.

Ciszek took his title from a song based on the 23rd Psalm, which many of us memorized as children and know how it returns to memory in dark times. “In pastures green, he leadeth me,” it says. But it’s the psalmist’s next line that we tend to recall in dark times: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.”

“Be not afraid.” How often the frail believers in Scripture are told this! Faith is a gift which must be gratefully received and nurtured with spiritual exercise or it will wilt under the heat of fear.

The Soviets put Ciszek in solitary confinement hoping to secure a confession of espionage from him. “Solitary is the last place you should put a Christian,” my brother reminded me when we spoke of this book. Take everything away from us and we’ll search for God all the harder.

“It was all so degrading, so humiliating, that some men just ceased to think of themselves as men,” Ciszek writes. “And gnawing at the mind through it all was that feeling of helplessness and injustice.” Ciszek knew that feeling well.

Yet in prison, Ciszek the Jesuit was sustained by Ignatian meditation and memorized prayers. Beginning each day with a daily offering and remaining in God’s presence as much as possible throughout the day renewed his peace.

“I made up for myself what we in the Jesuit houses at home a ‘daily order,” he writes. He would repeat the prayers of the Mass after breakfast and pray the Angelus “morning, noon and night as the Kremlin clock tolled the hours over Red Square a few blocks from Lubyanka Street.”

These gifts are ours as well. Today, in our self isolation, we can renew them.

Finally, after months of solitude (“that little whitewashed room with its bed, its barred and covered window and its solidly locked door with that eternal, prying peephole”), punctuated by interrogation (“you could almost look forward to such a terrible ordeal out of the sheer need to see another face and have someone to talk to”), the Soviets sentenced Ciszek to 15 years hard labor in a Siberian camp.

Ciszek reminds us of the harsh reality that is the condition of original sin. Turning to God in a crisis does not instantly change our circumstances or even cleanse our hearts of all their impurities. Conversion, for most of us, is a slow and painful process, but it does bear fruit with persistence. “I learned,” he writes, “…that prayer does not take away bodily pain or anguish. Nevertheless, it does provide a certain moral strength to bear the burden patiently. Certainly, it was prayer that helped me through every crisis.”

During this time Ciszek began to recognize how self-seeking much of his prayer really was, and I see this as an area for growth in my life at this time, as my tendency to pray for things to work out in the way I imagine they need to. Ciszek confides:

I learned to pray for my interrogators, not so they would see things my way or come to the truth so that my ordeal would end, but because they, too, were children of God and human beings in need of his blessing and his daily grace. I learned to stop asking for more bread for myself, and instead to offer up my sufferings, the pains of hunger that I felt, for the many others in the world and in Russia at that time who were enduring similar agony and even greater suffering.

His words certainly have the ring of truth for this moment in which we are all very aware of suffering in our homes, neighborhoods, our country, and the entire world. We must not waste this moment on ourselves.

There is so much more in this powerful book. Ciszek takes us to the moment when he realized “God’s will was not hidden somewhere ‘out there’ in the situations in which I found myself; the situations were his will for me. What he wanted was for me to accept these situations as from his hands…He was asking a complete gift of self, nothing held back. It demanded absolute faith, faith in God’s existence, in his providence, in his concern for the minutest detail, in his power to sustain me.”

“It meant losing the last hidden doubt, the ultimate fear that God would not be there to bear you up.”

Through clandestine Masses offered in corners of the labor camp, through “frostbite and stomach rumbles, swollen feet, running eyes, chapped lips and battered knuckles,” through constant efforts to introduce faith into conversations with thoroughly indoctrinated atheists, serving openly as a priest in Russia once his sentence was over to his ultimate release, Ciszek found God’s presence an anchor and a continual guide to move his soul toward greater holiness.

Into our moment of uncertainty, Ciszek speaks: “The simple truth, that the sole purpose of man’s life on earth is to do the will of God, contains in it resources and riches enough for a lifetime.”

During Holy Week especially, we can consider:

Pain and suffering do not thereby cease to exist; the ache and anguish of body and soul do not vanish from man’s consciousness. But even they become a means of nourishing this joy, of fostering peace and conformity to God’s will, for they are seen as a continuation of Christ’s passion–not in the distorted, senseless acts of bloody butchery I had shuddered over as a boy, but as purposeful, redemptive, healing acts by which the world is reconciled to the will of the Father.

This story of perseverance in a far different moment of crisis encourages us in ours to lean into the truth that we are united in our humanity, that suffering can be redemptive and that faith is the victory that overcomes the world.

May we offer the sufferings of the pandemic up as Walter Ciszek did the sufferings of his exile, and may we emerge from this time with souls strengthened and faith renewed.

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More for Holy Week: A Holy Week Playlist: Music for Meditating on the Death that Changed the World, Human Praise the Tempered View of Christ and Holy Saturday: Harrowing the Hell in our Hearts.

A fascinating afterword on Fr. Ciszek by his co-writer: A Little-Known Story behind Father Walter Ciszek’s ‘With God in Russia’

This podcast was an additional inspiration to not waste self-isolation in self-aborption. This daily Mass online, as well as the livestreamed masses from my own parish have also been anchors.

Photos by Denny Müller and Aw Creative on Unsplash.