Living in Faith (4)

The remarkable little book He Leadeth Me, by Walter Ciszek, shows childlike faith exercised in the most demanding of circumstances.

(I’m looking forward to reading my copy when I have have finished Steve Addison’s, What Jesus Started: Joining the Movement, Changing the World.)

Ciszek, raised a devout Catholic in Pennsylvania, joined a Jesuit mission and volunteered for service in Soviet Russia at the height of its militant atheism. To Ciszek’s consternation, his superior assigned him instead to a mission in Poland. A few years later, war broke out and Hitler’s army invaded Poland. In the horde of Polish refugees fleeing toward Russia, Ciszek saw a providential opportunity. Disguising himself as a worker, he joined the refugees and sneaked into Russia, where he had always wanted to serve. His prayers had been answered so he believed.

Not long afterwards, though, the Soviet secret police arrested Ciszek. The next five years, he was kept in Moscow’s notorious Lubianka Prison, undergoing constant harassment and interrogation. In solitude throughout his time in Lubianka, Ciszek spent day and night questioning God. Where had he gone wrong? He had felt called as a priest, but how could he serve in solitary confinement? What use was all his training? Why was he being punished? Finally, he caved in to KGB demands and signed a written confession of spying activities. When he refused to cooperate further, he received a sentence of fifteen years hard labour in Siberia.

In the Gulag’s much harsher conditions of fierce cold and fourteen hour work days, Ciszek got at last the chance to serve as a priest, after gradually winning the confidence of Ukrainian Catholics. He took risks, endured punishment, and pursued God. One by one, all remnants of childish faith fell away. In their place grew a mature yet childlike faith, along the lines Frederick Buechner suggests.

(Childlike faith acts contrary to ‘common’ understanding, the centurion who approached Jesus about healing his servant, the paralytic who talked his four friends into lowering him through the roof, and Peter who stepped out of the boat onto the lake. Secondly, childlike faith knows how to accept gifts, ordinary gifts each day without thinking them ordinary, and allows us to open my hands to Gods’ mercy and grace. Thirdly, children know how to trust. We place our hand in God’s making a conscious decision to trust him regardless of what lay before us. Kathleen Norris came to understand that to have a relationship with God, like any relationship, she must plunge into it without knowing where it might take her. She began to trust, and from there a mature faith developed. Unrealistic expectations, legalism and unhealthy dependence changed to open-minded faith, grace and childlike trust.)

First, Ciszek had to adjust to new realities. In the years of training for priesthood, not once had he envisioned the kind of career path that lay before him in Russia. First in Poland, then Lubianka, then a Siberian labour camp, and finally exile working in a peasant village, he faced conditions he never would have chosen for himself. He had no theological or inspirational books to study, and scant Christian fellowship. He had to smuggle in wine and bread for the Eucharist. Authorities forbade all proselytism or evangelism. For a time, Ciszek felt a sense of betrayal because his calling to the priesthood had not worked out as he had expected.

Ciszek learned to accept God’s will”not as we might wish it, or as we thought in our poor human wisdom it ought to be,” but rather as “the twenty-four hours of each day: the people, the places, the circumstances he set before us in that time.” He realised he had approached life with an expectation of what God’s will should be, and assumed God would help him fulfill that. Instead, he had to learn to accept as God’s will the actual situations he faced each day, most of which lay outside of his control. Ciszek’s vision narrowed to a twenty-four hour time frame.

Second, Ciszek discovered new gifts coming to him from God. As he prayed, “Give us this day our daily bread,” he began to accept those gifts presented before him:

Each day to me should be more than an obstacle to be gotten over, a span of time to be endured, a sequence of hours to be survived. For me, each day came forth from the hand of God newly created and alive with opportunities to do his will…We for our part can accept and offer back to God every prayer, work, and suffering of the day, no matter how insignificant or unspectacular they may seem to us…Between God and the individual soul, however, there are no insignificant moments; this is the mystery of divine providence.

Finally, and above all, Ciszek learned to trust. His book records the agony involved in overcoming doubt and trusting God when everything in his life seemed to argue against it. He learned how by watching the old-fashioned peasant faith of his convict-parishioners. “To them, God was as real as their own father, or brother, or best friend.” Probably they could not have articulated their beliefs, but at the core of their beings they believed in God’s faithfulness. They trusted in God, turned to him in hard times, gave thanks in the few joyful times, stood ready to lose everything in the world rather than offend God, and fully expected to be with God for eternity.

Ciszek learned and important truth:

By faith we know that God is present everywhere and is always present to us if we but turn to him. So it is we who must put ourselves in God’s presence, we who must turn to him in faith, we who must leap beyond an image to the belief – indeed the realisation – that we are in the presence of a loving Father who stands always ready to listen to our childish stories and to answer to our childlike trust.

Philip Yancey, Reaching for the Invisible God

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