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Walter Ciszek SJ

Colbert Report chaplain and envoy-at-large to the entertainment community, Jim Martin, S.J., has announced the very good news that Walter Ciszek’s With God In  Russia, is now available on Kindle, courtesy of America Press.

For anyone not yet familiar with Ciszek or this book, I urge you to get hold of it. You will be rewarded by encountering heroic sanctity, not through the hagiographic distancing of centuries, but in the searing light and existential detail of a time still very much our own. It is an opportunity to be with someone who loved God the way so many of us yearn to.

Walter Ciszek was a Jesuit who answered his Church’s call to serve in the Soviet Union during the darkest days of Stalin’s repression. It proved to be an exacting call.After completing his rigorous preparation at the Russicum in Rome, Ciszek was deployed to a village on the blurry border between Poland and Ukraine, and was soon arrested on suspicion of espionage.

For the next two and a half decades he lived life as a prisoner - from the dread confines of Lubianka to the brutalizing camps of Solzhenitsyn’s gulag. Throughout, his daily bread included torture, deprivation, and humiliations of nearly every stripe.

The book clearly means a great deal to Martin, and in his fine introduction to the new edition he exercises pastoral sensitivity in anticipating that, ” . . .   Some readers might put this book down, moved and inspired to connect it to their own lives. They might say, ‘I’m no hero. I could never do what Ciszek did.’  Or, ‘What do my small problems have to do with his?’ That, however, would be missing the point of this book, which offers a great deal of wisdom for our daily lives.”

I too have been touched deeply by this book, and had the great privilege of meeting Fr. Ciszek. The first time was in the skullery of the Jesuit novitiate in Wernersville, Pa. There, upon recognizing him, I worked up the courage to accost the sleepy tea-seeker.

In a brief exchange, he kindly agreed to remember a special intention of mine. But, it was late at night, long shadows everywhere, and he was, as they say, no spring chicken.

A year later, almost to the day, I met him a second and last time. He’d just arrived from Fordham to work with the guys about to profess vows. It was lunchtime. The large dining hall was full, and the pre-retreat din, swelling.He reached our table and promptly traveled the length of it  - greeting, novice, brother, and priest with equal cheer.Then, he paused - for the slightest moment - behind my chair. His hands, turned to leather by years of brutish labor - hands that had blessed so many - alighted upon my shoulders.

Leaning in quickly, he whispered earnestly, “How did that intention turn out?” 

Not a miracle perhaps, but the cause for his sainthood is, in fact, officially underway.

Walter Ciszek was in the first novice class to pass through Wernersville. His name is carved on a beam inside the bell tower that soars above the gentle hills and quilted landscape of the Pennsylvania-Dutch farm country. I know because I risked life and limb climbing to its very top, and was delighted to discover it there. I confess here - I immediately carved my own, close to his.

Walter Ciszek - the name etched in rough wood by a young, admittedly stubborn, would-be servant of God, will likely soon be inscribed forever in the book of his Church’s saints. Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam.

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