The Ignatian Year XXIV: Walter Ciszek, S.J., and Our Freedom to Choose to Love and Serve

There are any number of people whose lives reflect a deep dedication to the tenets of Ignatian Spirituality.  One of those who I find particularly inspiring is Walter Ciszek, a Jesuit who died in 1984. 

To give a bit of background of Ciszek’s life: In 1929 Pius XI understood that the Russian Orthodox Church was on the brink of annihilation by the Communist regime, evidenced by a decline from over 400,000 priests, monks, deacons, and nuns to an all-time low of 4,000 priests by 1939.  As a result, the pope called upon the Jesuits to go into Russia to aid those who needed their ministry. 

Ciszek was one of the early volunteers to go to Russia.  Since no priest could travel directly into Russia, he was sent to Albertyn, Poland to work for two years teaching ethics to Jesuit seminarians and to be the resident priest.  When Hitler invaded Poland in September of 1939, the seminarians were sent home.  And then the Russians invaded from the east.

Ciszek was ultimately captured by the Russian army and convicted of being a Russian spy, resulting in his spending 23 years in Soviet prisons and labor camps in Siberia.  He was long given up for dead by the Jesuits before he was finally released in 1963 as part of a prisoner exchange.

Ciszek’s book, He Leadeth Me, recounts how his faith allowed him to survive his harrowing experience in Russia.  If you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend it.

One of the chapters of He Leadeth Me is titled Freedom.  What he writes here is, in a sense, a commentary on the opening line (and indeed the final line) of Ignatius’ First Principle and Foundation, as well as a way to understand the distinction between Christian freedom and a secular understanding of freedom.  Ciszek writes:

Ultimately, the only absolute freedom we have resides in [human] free will.  And that freedom was given to us by our Creator, essentially, so that we might freely choose to love and serve him.  All other creatures serve him out of exigency; by their very being and existence, they witness his power and his love, or reflect his glory and beauty in some way.  Only to [humans] and the angels has he given the power of freely choosing to love and serve him.  …It is in choosing to serve God, to do his will, that [we] achieve [our] highest and fullest freedom.  It may seem paradoxical to say that our highest and fullest freedom comes when we follow to the least detail the will of another, but it is true nonetheless when the other is God.

Ciszek describes it was abandoning his own will in order to follow the will of God that gave him, during the worst of his prison experience “the greatest sense of freedom, along with peace of soul and an abiding sense of security.”

Note that this is a the twenty-fourth in a series of posts in celebration of the Ignatian Year, which began on May 20 of this year.

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