Day by day, I learned to experience in some measure the power of God as manifested in the mystery of the passion. Pain and suffering comprised the sacrifice needed in the passion for saving souls. A similar sacrifice had to be undertaken by all those called to the apostolate.Fr. Walter Ciszek Fr. Walter Ciszek
“Pain and suffering are something we all prefer not to think about, something we would sooner avoid. I remember that even as a boy I used to hate sermons or retreat talks about our Lord’s passion. When teachers or retreat masters would picture the agonies Christ underwent, I used to shudder. It all seemed so vivid and yet so useless; there seemed to be no sense in it. The thought of pain repelled me, whether in the passion or in life around me; life to me was something much too precious to distort by pain. So I wanted to hear something else about the passion other than the pain; I looked for some other significance to Christ’s suffering. I think I first began to find it in the lumber camps of the Ural Mountains, with the pain and suffering, both physical and spiritual, I encountered there. Because it was there that I first began to understand pain and suffering in the larger context of an apostolate.
But why the passion? Why pain and suffering? Is God so vindictive that he must inflict pain and suffering on those who follow him? The answer lies not in God’s will but in the world in which we live and try to follow his will. Christ’s life and suffering were redemptive; his “apostolate” in the scheme of salvation was to restore the original order and harmony in all creation that had been destroyed by sin. His perfect obedience to the Father’s will redeemed man’s first and continuing disobedience to that will. “All creation,” said Saint Paul, “groans and labors up till now,” awaiting Christ’s redemptive efforts to restore the proper relationship between God and his creation. But Christ’s redemptive act did not of itself restore all things; it simply made the work of redemption possible; it began our redemption.
So the world has not been changed overnight, and it is the world in which we seek to follow Christ’s example that afflicts us as it afflicted him. It is not the Father, not God, who inflicts suffering upon us but rather the unredeemed world in which we must labor to do his will, the world in whose redemption we must share.
It was in the lumber camps of the Ural Mountains that the Polish and Jewish refugees with whom I came to work first rebuked me for the way I lived, for the conscientious way I went about my work. “What are you working for?” they would ask. “What are you out to prove?” I knew they couldn’t understand why I worked so hard, why I should suffer hunger and hardship, working all day in a half-frozen river or out in a snow-covered forest, standing in line for hours to get extra bread, enduring sleepless nights, putting up with inadequate housing and tattered clothes. It meant nothing to them for me to speak of an apostolate, for me to say that I did it just to be with them, to be available to them under the urging of God’s will. And yet that was the truth of it. From a purely human standpoint, my sojourn in the Soviet Union could have been considered the most stupid and senseless action of my life. But I saw these hardships, this drab reality, as an integral part of my apostolate. I could not separate this earthly reality from the will of God, because the will of God has to be worked out by each of us here on earth.
The spiritual pain and suffering, even more than the physical pain and suffering, increased during my five years of interrogations. There were times then when I nearly lost sight of my purpose in the agony of self-doubt, the anguish I felt when tempted to believe I had been abandoned by God. Afterward, in the camps, it was easier once more to put all the aches and pains, the sufferings and shortcomings and discouragements, into the context of the apostolate. It was then I could reflect on how unimportant my efforts were in saving souls if conceived of apart from God’s will. The thought that actions otherwise worthless in themselves could be somehow redemptive, could serve the growth of his kingdom upon earth because they were undertaken in obedience to his will, and that such actions could even be the source of grace for others, could share in Christ’s work of meriting grace for all— that thought sustained me in joy and drove me on to work ever harder to achieve more perfect communion with God and his will.
This simple truth, that the sole purpose of man’s life on earth is to do the will of God, contains in it riches and resources enough for a lifetime.
The notion that the human will, when united with the divine will, can play a part in Christ’s work of redeeming all mankind is overpowering. The wonder of God’s grace transforming worthless human actions into efficient means for spreading the kingdom of God here on earth astounds the mind and humbles it to the utmost, yet brings a peace and joy unknown to those who have never experienced it, unexplainable to those who will not believe.
Consoling as conformity to the will of God may be for the soul, as productive of peace and joy as it may prove, it cannot be gained simply for the asking. Nor, in my opinion, can a proper understanding of pain and suffering be achieved without the larger vision of salvation or the more immediate context of apostolate and of vocation. For my part, at any rate, I learned it only through the constant practice of prayer, by trying to live always in the presence of God, by trying to see all things as a manifestation of his divine will. It wasn’t always easy; nor did I always succeed. Through the hardships of the Urals, through the anguish of Lubianka, through the sufferings and adversities of the prison camps, my inner struggle of soul never ceased. No matter how close to God the soul felt, how blessed it was by an awareness of his presence on occasion, the realities of life were always at hand, always demanding recognition, always demanding acceptance. I had continuously to learn to accept God’s will— not as I wished it to be, not as it might have been, but as it actually was at the moment. And it was through the struggle to do this that spiritual growth and a greater appreciation of his will took place.
Of course there were doubts; at one time there was near despair. It was not reason that sustained me then but faith. Only by faith could I find God present in every circumstance; only by faith could I penetrate the mystery of his saving grace, not by questioning it in any way but by fully cooperating with it in exactly the way he asked.
Day by day, I learned to experience in some measure the power of God as manifested in the mystery of the passion. Pain and suffering comprised the sacrifice needed in the passion for saving souls. A similar sacrifice had to be undertaken by all those called to the apostolate. And yet the suffering and sacrifice were touched by deep spiritual joy, because in them one saw God’s will accomplished in an otherwise frustrating life, the great work of salvation promoted. If you look upon sacrifice and suffering only through the eyes of reason alone, your tendency will be to avoid as much of it as you can, for pain in itself is never pleasant. But if you can learn to see the role of pain and suffering in relation to God’s redemptive plan for the universe and each individual soul, your attitude must change. You don’t shun it when it comes upon you, but bear it in the measure grace is given you.
The most important thing was to keep the flame of zeal burning. Hence the constant need of daily prayer, the constant efforts to see in the pain and suffering of each day a true work of redemption, a true sharing in the saving acts of Christ.
The obstacles met with each day, the difficulties encountered in putting such zeal into practice, did not upset a soul on fire with this realization. For the actual conversion of people required much prayer, much persevering trust in God, many trials and sacrifices. The dedicated soul instinctively realized, in constant communion with God, that what was most important in the Father’s eyes was total surrender to his will in the apostolate. Whatever he inspired or commanded became paramount, not the human effort or the wisdom or the work resulting from personal initiative.”
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