I am a big fan of well-written survival stories and I have read a few great ones. Here is a list of my favorites: Stories of Survival. I wish to feature, however, the one I read most recently: With God in Russia, by Father Walter Ciszek, S.J.
This is the story of a Jesuit priest who went to Poland and ultimately went undercover as an ordinary peasant to minister to Poles behind Russian lines during World War II. Upon being discovered as a priest by the Russians, he was charged with subversion and imprisoned for 23 years until his release through exchange for two Russian prisoners in 1963.
The story is so humbly and straightforwardly written that it takes awhile to realize how greatly Fr. Ciszek is suffering through all of this. For his dedication to the service of God and his defense of the Faith, Fr. Ciszek is up for sainthood. He has many devotees, including my mother, who pray for his canonization regularly–there are whole societies dedicated to him, and I can understand why.
I won’t go through all of the many hardships Fr. Ciszek endured, but I will relate how his story stays with me and why I think of him often. It starts with the challenge of being a young mother. I always thought: I can do anything if I get enough sleep. I figured I can work all day every day if only I get eight hours of sleep every night. And in fact, I might have been right about that, but we’ll never know because it never happened. Now my kids are school-aged and I don’t have a problem getting sleep at night, but boy do they run me ragged during the day. As my physical workload increases at the same time as my age does, I have noticed something new. While in my youth I was lazy–I had a manageable amount of work to do but never wanted to get off the couch to do it. Now I have a tremendous amount of work to do and I do get off the couch to do it only to find that I tucker out pretty hard before it’s all done. And fuhgeddaboudit, if I haven’t had enough to eat I fall to pieces! Not only can I not get my work done, I feel downright sick and weak and snap like a dragon at any family member who happens to be near. Nowadays I think: I can do anything as long as I get enough to eat!
That’s where Fr. Ciszek comes in. His days in Russia span decades–from his mid-thirties til he was nearly sixty–in which he was in forced labor camps slaving endlessly while STARVING! On one occasion when he was a new fish in the jail, he and his cellmate saw for the first time a full slop bucket of runny eggs. They were so excited! They couldn’t believe it! It smelled slightly sulfurous, but they weren’t picky–they were starving! So they ate their fill of the eggs–and they regretted it. Apparently, that sulfurous smell was the only signal that the eggs were bad–really bad. Fr. Ciszek and his cellmate were violently ill after eating the eggs and realized why the slop bucket had been full in the first place–none of the other inmates would eat the eggs having learned the same lesson the hard way.
In my mind’s eye, I often see Fr. Ciszek, skin and bones, slaving in mines in the service of evil under threat of death seeking all the time to fulfill his higher purpose in this life and I think to myself: do I really need to growl about all the laundry because I missed my morning muffin? When I do, thoughts of Fr. Ciszek put me to shame.
Apparently, I’m not the only one who carries around Fr. Ciszek stories for inspiration. My brother George (aka, George the Friendly Truckdriver) wrote an article featuring Fr. Ciszek that was published in the trucking magazine Overdrive awhile back. I highly recommend reading With God in Russia to put your own life, suffering and accomplishments in perspective; and for your immediate amusement as well as an unusual glimpse of life from a trucker’s perspective, I also recommend George’s article:
The Divine Breakdown
It was in December of 2004 that my mother gave me a book to read. With God in Russia was the story of Father Walter Ciszek, a Pennsylvanian of Polish extraction who was a wild young man well on his way to becoming a good-for-nothing adult. Destiny, combined with the circumstances of the times, set a different course for this budding reprobate.
He became a Jesuit priest and requested a posting to the Soviet Union. His wish came true in 1940 – on the eve of the 20th century’s greatest upheaval, which in six year’s time would send 60 million souls to their maker. He was arrested near Moscow, charged with espionage and spent more than 20 years imprisoned in Siberia. Upon release from the gulag he was placed on parole and was forbidden to leave northeastern Russia. He obtained a job driving a truck in that frozen hinterland continue reading…