This is the fourth post in a series on Formative Reading. Background information on this series can be found in the first post Formative Reading | Introduction
CONFIRMATION THROUGH FORMATIVE READING
by Richard N. Southworth
Walter J. Ciszek, S. J.
He Leadeth Me: An Extraordinary Testament of Faith
I spent sixteen years with the Virginia State Police, serving at different times as a Trooper, Sergeant, and Special Agent. My experiences of the violence and brokenness of the human epiphany were strong formative influences on both my spirituality and my understanding of the Mystery and its epiphanies. In my capacity as a police officer, I came into contact with much of the pain and suffering in this world. It was often my job to clean up the bloody and broken bodies which result from man’s inhumanity to man. I had to interact with all kinds of criminals and derelicts, and when I did talk to the “good people,” it was usually when they had just been raped, robbed, or beaten. I became painfully aware of the brokenness of the human condition. But it was not just seeing the pain and suffering itself that so affected my understanding and relationship to The Mystery. I also saw another side to these people who were so enmeshed in the violence and brokenness of the modern world. I became aware that these people whom I had always thought of as “bad” were still very much human. I was forced to talk with many of them, even some who had been involved in brutal murders and rapes, and I discovered that, far from being just mean, most of them had hurts and joys, disappointments and dreams just like I did. I discovered that much, if not all, of the violence and aggression grew out of very real needs that were legitimate, needs that I have found in my own life. I found that I could identify with the pain and suffering that grows out of these needs. I myself experience it, maybe in a different way, but I still feel it, and it hurts. All of that violence and aggression that I find so offensive, I find offensive precisely because I find it in myself.
All of this profoundly affected my relationship with God. Belief in God was no longer the question at all. Somehow I had experienced God in the very depths of my soul, and in the very midst of the violence and brokenness. That “still small voice” that I have come to trust and rely on, was screaming inside of me:
Photo by James Milliken
I must somehow embrace all of the brokenness. What stands out to me about Jesus is that he fully participated in all of life, including one of the most horrible deaths I can imagine. His single most distinguishing character trait was his caring compassion for people, from beggars and prostitutes to rich rulers and religious leaders. If they were hungry he fed them, if they were blind he gave them sight, if they sought after knowledge he taught them, and if they had sinned he simply forgave them. The message of the gospel to me is that Jesus has shown us what it means to be fully human, and to manifest the potential that God had in store for us from creation. I again took all of this back to my faith tradition. Again I found that I was in some cases not understood, in others ignored, and many times told in no uncertain terms that what I really needed was to “believe in Jesus Christ.” The incongruity of what I saw and experienced and this understanding of the gospel message was so traumatic that even as I write about it the pain goes through me like a knife. At first I stood up for what I saw and tried a kind of firm, open resistance. Later I got downright angry. The anger first surfaced as righteous indignation, but when I found little or no confirmation and little opportunity for form effectiveness, it became a kind of incessant rage that ultimately was transposed on others and on myself. Something inside of me wanted to scream, “I am not a Christian! I am not any kind of a Christian” On one level it turned to doubt of my own sense of reality and The Mystery that permeates that reality. Yet on another level my experience was so very real that it never left me. Deep down inside, in the very depths of my soul, that voice spoke, “be not afraid, for I am with you. Trust me and I will lead you where you dare not go.
So then I pick up Walter Ciszek’s He Leadeth Me, and I realized again that “He leadeth me” too. Here was a man who was even more deeply enmeshed in the violence and brokenness of the world than I was, and it was unleashed on him with a vengeance. God did not deliver him from it, but called him to give himself over to it, to “somehow embrace all of the brokenness” as I wrote in my reflection. Ciszek went through a conversion experience after which he talks of seeing God’s will in everything:
Across that threshold I had been afraid to cross, things suddenly seemed so very simple. There was but a single vision, God, who was all in all; there was but one will that directed all things, God’s will. I had only to see it, to discern it in every circumstance in which I found myself, and let myself be ruled by it. God is in all things, sustains all things, directs all things. To discern this in every situation and circumstance, to see his will in all things, was to accept each circumstance and situation and let oneself be borne along in perfect confidence and trust. Nothing could separate me from him, because he was in all things.*
He speaks of this in terms of God’s will, yet it is clear from the way it is incarnated in his daily life in the prison camps and communities in Russia, that it is not just God’s will that he minister to God’s people in these terrible conditions. Ciszek sees the presence and reality of The Mystery in all of the people, events, and things that make up his life. Much in Ciszek’s life was pain and suffering, violence and brokenness. Yet Ciszek saw God in it all.
It is also clear that he struggled with life and with God. It took him years of deep painful struggle and pain to reach the point of giving himself over to the unique epiphany of the Mystery that made up his life:
Then one day the blackness closed in around me completely. Perhaps it was brought on by exhaustion, but I reached a point of despair. I was overwhelmed by the hopelessness of my situation. . . . I despaired in the most literal sense of the word: I lost all sense of hope. I saw only my own weakness and helplessness . . . Uppermost in my mind was the hopelessness of it all and my powerlessness to cope with it.**
There is something in Ciszek that is not so much expressed in words, but rather seems to permeate the words and actions that make up Ciszek’s formative presence to the violence and brokenness all around him. It is at the very core of what I see in the life of Jesus. In Gethsemane Jesus, prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me: yet not my will, but yours be done.” And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. There is here the complete immersion in the very real pain and suffering and violence of the world, but yet seeing just as clearly the operation and very presence of The Mystery in it. This is what my police experience seemed to call me to. I simply could not relate to the way my faith tradition seemed to divide the world up into good and evil, with God in the good and Satan in the evil, and never the twain shall meet. Here I was strongly at odds with that tradition as it was incarnated in the churches I found myself in, and I experienced that same sense of at best being misunderstood, and at worse being condemned as a blasphemer.
Struggle has also been a word that seems to permeate my journal. My relationship with The Mystery has itself been fraught with much pain and struggle. Neither life nor God ever seemed nearly so clear as it did for many of my Baptist friends. And they seemed to see my struggle, not as both the proof and fruit of a deep and solid relationship that it was for me, but rather as an obvious indication that I was not “saved.” It seemed that they wanted to save me from the very thing that I sought. When one offered to pray for me, I said, to his shock and amazement, “Please don’t, I really don’t want what you are praying for.”
In Ciszek I found someone who seemed to have experienced some of the same things. Ciszek immersed himself in the very real world of pain and suffering and violence around him, and he found God there. Yet he also very profoundly struggled, with both the initial abandonment to that calling, and to discern how that abandonment would be incarnated in the people, events and things that made up his unique life. In that I found, really for the first time, the confirmation of my own experience and understanding. This has been another instance where God has very powerfully said, “Be not afraid, for I am with you.”
* Ciszek, Walter J, S.J., He Leadeth Me: An Extraordinary Testament of Faith, (New York: Image Books, 1975), p. 91-92.
* Ciszek, Walter J, S.J., He Leadeth Me: An Extraordinary Testament of Faith, (New York: Image Books, 1975), p. 86.
The next post will include my experience reading other spiritual masters.