With God in Prison and in War

With God in Prison and in War


In my reading notes for July I noted how every time my friend’s Facebook query for favorite saint quotes popped up on my screen, I had a strong persistent vision of myself taking a particular book off the shelf in the living room. Five or six times over a two or three day period, I had the same vivid visualization which had no apparent rationale at all nor any obvious connection with the prompt. But it was strong enough that eventually I did go take the book down to read it.

The book in question is With God in Russia, a memoir by an American Jesuit priest, Fr Walter Ciszek, who felt a very strong call to go minister to souls in Russia. He was trained for the mission in Rome and ordained in the Oriental Rite; but couldn’t get there and so the beginning of the Second World War found him living in Poland. But as the Germans invaded and his mission in Poland was clearly ending as the American embassy urged him to leave, he and another priest boarded a train to a labor camp in the Urals, hoping, with the permission of their bishop, to determine the feasibility of a mission in Russia. Before the war ended or he could return to Poland he was arrested as a suspected German spy and sent to the Lubianka prison in Moscow, where he spent five years. There he was sentenced to fifteen years hard labor, which he served in various camps in Siberia. Eventually he served his sentence and was released, but under very strict limitations, unable to travel without permission from the state. Shuffled from one place to another as his priestly ministry brought him to the attention of the police, he was eventually traded to the US.

I had previously read Fr Cizek’s second book, He Leadeth Me, a spiritual memoir that covered the same span of time as With God in Russia, but with a focus on the interior struggles and experiences, focusing especially on his experience of discerning God’s will. I loved that book enough that I bought With God in Russia, but I somehow had never got around to reading the big fat volume that was patiently waiting on the shelf in the corner.

I was mystified as I read, but I’d felt such a strong pull to the book that I couldn’t help but feel that the Spirit was nudging me to read it. Very well, I said, I’ll read. But please, do show me what all this is about.

I was very moved by the story and found myself recounting bits and pieces of it to Dom and the kids. But still not very clear on what it was that God was trying to tell me. Is it about discernment? About seeking his will? I decided to re-read He Leadeth Me and couldn’t find my copy and am waiting for a replacement to arrive from Amazon.

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Meanwhile, on Wednesday we celebrated the feast of St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross/ Edith Stein, who happens to be the patron saint of our parish. She’s a saint who is near and dear to my heart ever since I went with my father (a secular Carmelite who belongs to a community named after St Teresa Benedicta) to her canonization Mass in Rome. I’ve been praying a novena to her for a special intention— as well as I pray any novena, which means I’m lucky if I do four or five days of the prayers. Nevertheless on Sunday our pastor announced that there would be a special Mass for her feast and refreshments afterwards. I felt a very strong tug, a need to go to that Mass, and decided to do it, I’d bring all the kids with me and go.

Well, Mass was lovely and even more so because the concelebrant was a local Melkite priest whose daughter was miraculously cured through the intercession of her namesake saint, the second miracle needed for the canonization. After Mass this priest gave a beautiful little talk about St Teresa Benedicta, explaining something about the meaning of her name. Teresa, after Teresa of Avila. After reading her autobiography, Edith Stein, a doctor of philosophy and a fervent seeker of truth, declared, “this is the truth,” and decided to become a Catholic. She asked to be given the name Benedicta of the Cross at her profession as a Carmelite nun. And this name she was given. Benedicta, the good word or good news, of the cross.  Her search for truth led her to the cross, her great unfinished work, cut short by her arrest and transportation to Auschwitz, was on the science of the cross. But her knowledge of the cross came to its fulfillment not in her scholarly work but in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

Father handed out holy cards with a photograph, rather blurry, of himself standing behind the marker at Auschwitz that stands where the gas chamber was where Edith Stein was martyred. There is an inscription on that monument, he told us, that reads, “Love will be our Eternity.” And he spoke at length, and beautifully, about the love that is manifest on the cross.

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Later that day after we came home I found on Facebook a beautiful icon that a friend shared, of St Teresa Benedicta. I was very drawn to this image, more so than to any other image I’ve seen of my beloved saint. It was beautiful, rich in layers of meaning, inviting contemplation at length. I spent a long time looking at it and talking about the imagery with my sister.

I spent a long time hunting down a source for the image and at length found a webpage that said that it was an icon from a Byzantine Carmelite monastery in Lebanon.

I found myself googling that monastery, hoping to find more pictures, maybe even a way to purchase a copy of the image. And I stumbled upon a Wikipedia article about the Byzantine Carmelites that mentioned the monastery in Lebanon. And there I was quite surprised to find the name Walter Ciszek. My Polish American Jesuit priest, who had by now come to feel like a friend, had, when he was returned to the US, continued his work as a priest, ministering to the Ruthenian Catholics in his native Pennsylvania. And he was asked by the bishop and some sisters to help found a Byzantine Carmelite monastery.

So my icon of St Teresa Benedicta, by a roundabout way, led me back to Fr Ciszek. This is beginning to feel not at all like a mere coincidence. What the pattern is, I can’t say. But it feels like there very much is one. A beautiful one that quite gives me shivers when I think of it.

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I’ve keep coming back to the Second World War quite often of late. It keeps finding me.

St Edith Stein’s feast day, August 9, is also the anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki. She died in 1942, the bomb was dropped three years later in 1945.

Now this event, the bombing of Nagasaki, is recounted most intimately and movingly by a Catholic survivor, Dr Takashi Nagai, whose wife was killed in the explosion, and who himself died most painfully of cancer a few years after the end of the war— though in the immediate aftermath of the bombing he was miraculously cured of the lethal dose of radiation he received through the intercession of St Maximilian Kolbe, even though he was not aware of Kolbe’s death.

Dr Takashi writes about how he was convinced that the Japanese Catholics of Nagasaki had offered themselves as a holocaust, offering their lives, giving themselves up as willing victims for the sake of peace and an end to the terrible war, offering themselves in prayer to Mary. He was convinced that their deaths had been found acceptable to God and were instrumental in achieving peace, which was declared on the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, under which title the Cathedral in Nagasaki had been dedicated.

Ever since reading a biography of Takashi Nagai (A Song for Nagasaki) and then his own beautiful book, The Bells of Nagasaki, i’ve had a great devotion to this holy and heroic doctor, who was a pioneer in the science of radiology and who worked very hard to spread the Gospel of peace in Japan.

I’d never before considered the coincidence between the date of Edith Stein’s martyrdom and the bombing of Nagasaki. If Dr Takashi Nagai is right, there were two willing holocausts offered on the same day, three years apart: Sister Teresa Benedicta,  who was very clear when she was arrested that she was going to go to die for the sake of her people, the Jewish people, and the Christians of Nagasaki who died praying for peace and offering their deaths as a sacrifice to God, uniting them to that of Jesus on the cross. Such love, such devotion, to take the two darkest moments of the war and to bring the light of Christ to bear.

It reminds me of a quote from Viktor Frankl’s beautiful book, Man’s Search for Meaning:

“Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”

Man is capable of creating great horrors. And yet man is also capable of withstanding those horrors, of holding on to the light. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness is not able to overcome it.

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I recently read a novel that takes place mostly in another Nazi camp, Ravensbruck. Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein is the fictional story of an American pilot but the camp where she is imprisoned and the stories of the people who suffered and died there are real. Yet, what is remarkable about this novel is the way in which Rose uses poetry to take a stand against the darkness, to give hope to herself and her friends. And Rose’s poetry isn’t the only instance in the novel of beauty bringing light in the darkness. There are Elodie’s little embroideries and the beautiful little paper planes made by the Russian fighter-pilot, Irina, and even Rose’s candy-red nail polish. Beauty is hope, beauty is resistance. Poetry is survival.

The book’s epigraph, a poem by Edna St Vincent Millay, speaks to the way that Beauty cannot be killed:

Time cannot break the bird’s wing from the bird.

Bird and wing together

Go down, one feather.

No thing that ever flew,

Not the lark, not you,

Can die as others do.

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And that brings me to a news story this week, the death of the current oldest living man.

“The world’s oldest man – the only member of his immediate family to survive the Holocaust – has died at the age of 113.

Polish-born Yisrael Kristal died on Friday, a month before he was due to turn 114…”


“Mr Kristal, who lived in Haifa, Israel, hit the headlines last year after deciding to celebrate his bar mitzvah a century late. The original celebration had not taken place because World War One broke out.”

“The son of a religious scholar, Mr Kristal lost his mother and father during World War One, according to reports. He later moved to Lodz to work in the family confectionery business.

After the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany in 1939, Mr Kristal and his family were moved into the Lodz ghetto.

His two children died there and Mr Kristal and his wife Chaja Feige Frucht were sent to Auschwitz in 1944 after the ghetto was liquidated.

Mr Kristal’s wife was murdered in Auschwitz but he survived, performing slave labour in that and other camps. When he was found by the Allies in May 1945 he weighed just 37 kg (5 stones 11 lbs).

According to Tablet Mag, he thanked the Soviet soldiers who rescued him by making them sweets.

The sole survivor from his family, Mr Kristal emigrated to Israel in 1950 with his second wife and their son, where he continued to run his confectionery business until his retirement.

Mr Kristal was officially recognised as the world’s oldest man by the Guinness Book of Records in March 2016.

Speaking at the time, he admitted he did not know the secret to a long life, saying: “There have been smarter, stronger and better looking men than me who are no longer alive.”

He is survived by two children, as well as grandchildren and great-grandchildren”


He made sweets for the Russian soldiers who released him from prison. That detail more than any others calls to my heart. So simple, so ordinary, so profound.

His very survival is a shining defiance of the Nazi evil. He survived. The evil was great, but it was not able to extinguish the Jewish people. They survived. And his grandchildren and great grandchildren carry on.

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Again and again I come back to this idea of prisons, of death, war and destruction. And to the brave men and women who not only survive, but who believe, who hold onto hope, who witness to beauty and to truth and to life itself.

This is the glory of the cross. Mankind did our worst: we killed God, the all-good, all-powerful Creator of the universe. But through his death, through his willing submission, through his willing sacrifice, death was destroyed, sin defeated, good triumphed. And the light shines in the darkness and the darkness comprehends it not.

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Father Walter Ciszek writes about how baffled the KGB interrogators and police are. They could not understand why he was in Russia. They cannot believe that he is simply there to be a priest, to minister to souls, to bring them hope in the darkness of prison, to be the light in the darkness. He brings them Christ by suffering with them, by being himself a willing victim, an innocent man punished terribly for simply being a man of God. Just like his master, this servant becomes a prisoner, suffers hunger and thirst and nakedness and terrible pain and physical trials beyond endurance. Why? Because he is always seeking to do the will of God.

The cross is a sign of contradiction to the world.  A stumbling block and a bafflement to the wise and to those in power.

But as St Teresa Benedicta says: Ave Crux, spes unica! Hail, Cross, our only hope.

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  • When are you going to write and publish a book of essays like this one? Stuff like this should not disappear into a blog archive.

  • Melanie, have you read the prayer of surrender? Pulled from his writings by the committee supporting his canonization:

    I’ve had a similar experience with him lately, in fact, this blog post was one of my ‘prompts’ to take my unfinished copy of ‘With God in Russia’ off the shelf! I came back to share this prayer with you, which has been a comfort to me after I suffered an early miscarriage, right after beginning ‘He Leadeth Me.’ It seems God had a companion chosen to lead me through my suffering. I have called my baby Walter.

    We don’t know each other, but I wanted to share since you played a role here. Thank you.

    • Oh thank you, Mary. Though I’ve been to that site, I hadn’t seen that prayer, it’s really lovely.

      Thank you so much for sharing your experiences; they confirm for me yet again that God is really working through Fr. Ciszek, though the whole pattern isn’t clear to me. Also, I’m so very sorry for your loss; but so glad you’ve found such a good companion as Fr. Ciszek. May God bless you and give you abundant consolation.