Fr. Brian Kane, Cathedral of the Risen Christ, April 19, 2019
Five years of solitary confinement and intense interrogation, 18 years of hard labor in Siberian work camps. Not what Fr. Walter Ciszek thought his life would be like when he heard Jesus’ call and entered the seminary to be a Jesuit missionary in 1928.
After years of training he had to sneak into Russia posing as a laborer, he was arrested shortly after that as a Vatican spy.
His life in prison quickly became a nightmare. After a year of solitary confinement and constant interrogation at all hours of the day and night he broke down. Exhausted, he signed a confession admitting that he was a spy (even though he wasn’t) and felt like he had betrayed his faith. He contemplated whether it would be better if he ended his own life.
He describes this personal “Good Friday” moment in his book “He Leadeth Me”.
Today is a good day for us to consider our own personal Good Friday moments. Perhaps it is still happening, perhaps it happened months or even many years ago.
Maybe it was, or is, a day in which, as Fr. Ciszek describes, you felt “shaken, defeated, tormented with feelings of failure, guilt, burning with shame, afraid of what is happening or of what is next.”
He asked questions we have also asked “Why has God failed me at the critical juncture? Why had he not sustained my strength and my nerve? Why had he not shielded me by his grace?”
The storm waters seemed to be crashing in on all sides.
Slowly, reluctantly, under the gentle proddings of grace, he was faced with the truth that the root of his problem was a single word “I”.
He chose “He Leadeth Me”, as the title of his book explaining his experience in Russia. It’s part of a line from Psalm 23: “The Lord is my Shepherd, me makes me to lie down in green pastures, He Leadeth Me to still waters.”
We call today “Good” because Jesus’ death leads each of us to eternally still waters- to Heaven. What looks like the worst storm, the most threatening and deadly waters, are actually the path that Jesus uses. His death is the ultimate renunciation of the word “I” that we are plagued with.
Our own personal book, if we were to write it today, is probably better titled “I Leadeth Myself”.
Jesus’ disciples, the exception of his Mother and St. John, were all writing pages for the same book on the first Good Friday. They led themselves to somewhere they wanted to go, to where a place better than next to Jesus on Calvary.
Fr. Ciszek realized the same thing, as we all do, that he had never really abandoned himself to God’s providence.
He said “I spent many hours praying that I would do God’s will to the best of MY ability” “I relied almost completely on myself in this most critical test- and I had failed.”
He could say “I Leadeth Myself”
Jesus’ death on Good Friday, hanging painfully from a tree, is the greatest act of abandonment to God’s providence. He is the supreme example of “He Leadeth Me”
The Father did not abandon Jesus, each aspect of his betrayal, sentencing, scourging, torture and death was the Father’s plan for our sins to be forgiven and for heaven to be opened to us.
The Father doesn’t abandon us, even when it may appear that he has. That’s a difficult truth to grasp and follow, it requires a different look at life, it demands Humility.
Learning the full truth of our dependence upon God and our relation to his will is what humility is about.
Fr. Ciszek said that “what we call humiliations are the trials by which our more complete grasp of this truth is tested.”
He said “suddenly I was consoled by thoughts of our Lord and his agony in the garden. “Father,” he had said, “if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me.””
Jesus said to his Father: “Not as I will, but as you will.”
It was not just conformity to the will of God, but it was a total self-surrender.
Look at the cross today, he’s teaching us how to do make a total self-surrender:
It’s a stripping away of all human fears, of all doubts about our own abilities to withstand suffering hardship.
Fr. Ciszek’s response on his personal Good Friday is our response on this Good Friday:
“I knew immediately what I must do, what I would do, and somehow I knew that I could do it. I knew I must abandon myself entirely to the will of the Father and live from now on in this spirit of self-abandonment to God.”
He said “I can only describe this experience as a sense of ‘Letting Go’”
It was his conversion experience in the face of the cross.
He had a sudden, almost blinding clarity and simplicity:
God’s will is not hidden somewhere “out there” in the situations we find ourselves; the situations themselves ARE his will for us.
He said “God wanted me to accept these situations as from his hands, to let go of the reins and place myself entirely at his disposal.
For him, this was four more years of solitary confinement, and 18 years of hard labor in Siberia with barely enough warmth and food to stay alive. His family thought he was dead.
He attacked the last hidden fear of Good Friday: that “God will not be there to bear me up.”
We can do the same thing in Lincoln, Nebraska as he did in Siberia. Shift from “I Leadeth myself” to “He Leadeth Me.”
Trusting as Jesus did “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
If you’d like to read more about Fr. Ciszek and how Divine providence eventually brought him home you can read about it in his book "With God in Russia" and its companion "He Leadeth Me."
As you walk up the aisle to venerate the cross today, allow “He Leadeth Me” to echo in your heart and in your prayer and in your life.