Two and a half blocks from my house, as the street drops precipitously toward the railroad tracks, there is a vacant lot -- the next to the last lot on the left. Well, almost vacant. There is a sign that reads, "Father Walter J. Ciszek, S.J. / Birthplace and Boyhood Home was located on this site."
Someone has placed an old red aluminum porch glider on the sidewalk facing the sign. I've never actually seen anyone sitting there, but when I walked my dog this morning, I found a beer can on it.
Because recycling is one of the things I do, I picked up the can, but later it occurred to me that I should have left it. Having an illicit beer while contemplating a loftier alternative sounds just like the sort of thing Father Ciszek might have done at a certain stage in his life.
He was a bit of a rapscallion, with a reputation as a fighter in a town full of good fighters. Sometimes he turned that skill to good purpose, such as when he single-handedly took on three boys who were harassing a girl.
Somehow, he determined to become a priest -- and a Jesuit at that. And his calling took some highly unusual turns. From a mission in Poland, he wandered across the border into Russia, where he was picked up by the KGB, accused of spying, and spent 23 years in the Soviet gulag. He shoveled coal and fixed trucks -- both skills he would have acquired growing up here. He also clandestinely served the spiritual needs of the prison population. After having been presumed dead, he was traded to the United States for two Soviet agents in 1963.
The remaining 20 years of his life were more ordinary. He taught, offered spiritual direction, and wrote two books, With God in Russia and He Leadeth Me.
His cause for canonization in the Roman Catholic Church is slowly progressing. In the meantime, kids at the school named for him draw pictures of his bus trip to seminary, and the Father Ciszek Prayer League sends out information and welcomes visitors. (Sister Albertine, who died a few years ago, used to wow young people with her visual display -- a small bowl of Campbell's chicken soup and a few crackers, which were his usual lunch, a sign of his simplicity. The kids, shell-shocked by her style, storytelling, and general presence, batted not an eyelash.) Apparently, folks also drink beer while contemplating his life.
We need saints who go to strange places and do things one wouldn't have imagined. We need saints who are authentic, who arise from a particular place and carry that formation on to holiness. We need saints who tell penitents, "We're all doing our lousy best," and then go lunch on chicken soup.
The piece of Ciszek's writing that has generated the most buzz is a prayer of surrender. Here it is -- vocation in a nutshell.
Lord Jesus Christ, I ask the grace to accept the sadness in my heart, as your will for me, in this moment. I offer it up, in union with your sufferings, for those who are in deepest need of your redeeming grace. I surrender myself to your Father's will and I ask you to help me to move on to the next task that you have set for me.
Spirit of Christ, help me to enter into a deeper union with you. Lead me away from dwelling on the hurt I feel: to thoughts of charity for those who need my love, to thoughts of compassion for those who need my care, and to thoughts of giving to those who need my help. As I give myself to you, help me to provide for the salvation of those who come to me in need.
May I find my healing in this giving. May I always accept God's will. May I find my true self by living for others in a spirit of sacrifice and suffering. May I die more fully to myself, and live more fully in you. As I seek to surrender to the Father's will, may I come to trust that he will do everything for me.
Melinda R. Heppe, In Trust's contributing editor, is pastor of two Lutheran churches in east central Pennsylvania. Spirit Matters is a regular feature of In Trust.
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