With God in America
Walter J. Ciszek S.J
Loyola Press, 2016
“With simplicity of heart, I have offered all to you my God.” – Walter Ciszek, S.J.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to sit and chat with a saint? Then I commend to you the new book, With God in America, featuring the writings of Servant of God Walter Ciszek, S.J.
Fr. Ciszek (1904 – 1984) was an American priest imprisoned in Soviet Russia for twenty-three years and released in 1963. Following his release and return to America, Ciszek released two acclaimed and popular books about his harrowing time in Russia: With God in Russia and He Leadeth Me. With God in Russia details Fr. Ciszek’s long imprisonment in Russia; He Leadeth Me emphasizes the spiritual lessons Fr. Ciszek learned during his imprisonment.
A Private Retreat with Fr. Ciszek
The newly published With God in America continues the story, from Fr. Ciszek’s return to America in 1963 through his death in 1984. The book’s editors have pored over Fr. Ciszek’s spiritual journals, correspondence, retreat notes, and other writings and skillfully weaved their findings into a book. The result is excellent. Reading With God in America was like spending a private retreat with Fr. Ciszek, including both moments of formal meditations from Fr. Ciszek and times of relaxed and familiar conversation with Fr. Ciszek.
Sanctifying the Present Moment
I particularly enjoyed reading from such a cross-section of Fr. Ciszek’s writings–writings from different years, to different audiences, and in different circumstances–and seeing the same themes regularly arising. Over and over, Fr. Ciszek expounds on drawing closer to God. Distilled, the lesson is this: humbly, simply, and regularly turn to God, offering yourself to Him, and seeking His will–especially in sufferings–in the present moment. While this teaching may seem basic, With God in America reveals its depth. And page after page, Fr. Ciszek gently encourages the reader to implement and master the teaching, moment by moment.
Prayer of Surrender
For me, a highlight of the book is its inclusion of the Prayer of Surrender, composed by the Father Walter Ciszek Prayer League and based on the writings of Fr. Ciszek. The Prayer is itself a dense summary of Fr. Ciszek’s teaching on abandoning oneself to the will of God. It’s worth memorizing for daily use and can also be used as a source for meditative prayer. It begins as follows:
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 me. [For the full prayer, see here.]
What a simple, beautiful, wise, and practical prayer! It is apparent that the wisdom of this prayer comes from Fr. Ciszek’s own sufferings in Russia and from his own life of prayer. Upon returning from Russia, Fr. Ciszek saw that his mission was to share this wisdom with others. Hence, over and over, Fr. Ciszek counseled those under his spiritual direction not to squander their sufferings, but to embrace them as an opportunity to draw closer to God, and by offering them up to God, to aid in the redemption of others.
A Joyful Man: From Rascal to Saint
Interspersed throughout the writings of Fr. Ciszek are also brief accounts about Fr. Ciszek from those who knew him. And contrary to the image that some might develop of a man who had suffered so much, these accounts clarify that Fr. Ciszek radiated joy. In the words of several nuns who knew Fr. Ciszek: he was “the happiest person I’d ever met”, “the most delightful person I ever met”, and “had a smile that lit up his eyes.”
And make no mistake, the saintly and joyful Fr. Ciszek was not always thus. Rather, in Fr. Ciszek’s account of his boyhood included as the last chapter, he reminds me of some of my least favorite classmates from Catholic school. Young Wally Ciszek was a bully and a rascal, regularly picking fights and trying to show off how tough he was. But eventually, he heard and answered a call to the priesthood, and then spent the rest of his life fulfilling that priestly calling by daily seeking God and drawing others to Him.
I began reading With God in America during my annual Spiritual Exercises retreat. This was fortuitous because Fr. Ciszek’s spirituality is itself rooted in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, and hence makes a fine companion for a retreat. The silence of a retreat also offers you a greater opportunity to meditate on and absorb the wisdom of Fr. Ciszek. But whether read on retreat or nightly while sipping bourbon, With God in America is worth your time and attention.
So go buy With God in America, or at least add it to your Amazon wish list. It would also make a fine gift.
May Fr. Ciszek be raised to the honors of the altar, and may his life and teachings inspire us ever to praise, reverence, and serve God and so obtain our salvation. Servant of God Fr. Walter Ciszek, S.J., pray for us!
For more information on Fr. Ciszek’s Cause of Canonization, visit www.ciszek.org.