Often when we think about "God's will" we think of trying to figure it all out. What is God's will? What am I supposed to do? How can I discover God's will?
Seeking answers, we pore over Scripture. We talk to trusted spiritual advisers. And we look within, too: one of the themes of Christian spirituality is the idea of "discernment," in which your desires help to reveal God's desires for you. We look for signs of those desires in our lives.
But there is a danger: We might overlook the fact that God's will often doesn't need much "figuring out" or "discernment." Sometimes it's right in front of us. And that's what one of my heroes realized in the midst of a harrowing experience in a labor camp in the Soviet Union. And just this week the Vatican announced that it had given its formal approval to beginning the process that could lead to this amazing man's canonization.
Walter Ciszek (1904-1984) was an American-born Jesuit priest who had been sent by the Jesuits to work in Poland in the late 1930s. Originally hoping to work in the Soviet Union itself, Ciszek found it impossible to gain entrance and ended up in an Oriental-rite church in Albertin, Poland. When the German army took Warsaw in 1939, and the Soviet Army overran Eastern Poland and Albertin, Ciszek fled with other Polish refugees into the Soviet Union, hoping to serve them (in disguise) as a priest.
In June 1941, Ciszek was arrested by the Soviet secret police as a suspected spy. He spent five years in Moscow's infamous Lubianka prison and then was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in Siberia. In addition to his forced labor, he served as priest to his fellow prisoners, risking his life to offer counseling, hear confessions, and -- most perilously -- celebrating Mass.
We said Mass in drafty storage shacks, or huddled in mud and slush in the corner of a building site foundation of an underground... Yet in these primitive conditions, the Mass brought you closer to God than anyone might conceivably imagine.
Ciszek wouldn't return to the United States until 1963. By then many Jesuits assumed that he was long dead. And why wouldn't they? The Jesuits, who had given up hope for his return, sent out an official death notice in 1947. But toward the end of his captivity, Ciszek was suddenly and surprisingly permitted to write letters home. Only then did family and friends learn of his "rebirth."
After a complicated diplomatic exchange was worked out with the help of President John F. Kennedy, he returned to the United States on Oct. 12, 1963, coming directly to the Jesuit community of America magazine in New York. Thurston Davis, S.J., the editor-in-chief at the time, wrote in the next week's issue, "In his green raincoat, grey suit and big-brimmed Russian hat he looked like the movie version of a stocky little Soviet member of an agricultural mission."
Ciszek settled down to work on the story of his time in Russia, called "With God in Russia," detailing the extreme conditions in which he lived -- capture by the Soviets, the interrogation, the long train ride to Siberia, the wretched prison camps, and his eventual release into the Russian population as an ex-convict always under surveillance. The book, still in print, was a huge success. But a few years later he realized that the book he really wanted to write was the story of something else: his spiritual journey. That book is called "He Leadeth Me."
Ciszek wrote that he wanted to answer the question that everyone kept asking him: "How did you manage to survive?" His short answer was "Divine Providence." The full answer is his book, which shows how he found God in all things, even in a Soviet labor camp.
Much of this has to do with his understanding of surrendering to what the future had in store for him. In one of the most arresting chapters of the book, Ciszek has a startling epiphany about what it means to follow "God's will."
For a long time, as he toiled in the labor camps, he had been wondering how he would be able to endure his future. What was "God's will?" How was he supposed to figure it out? One day, along with another priest friend, he had a revelation. When it comes to daily life, God's will is not some abstract idea to be figured out, or puzzled over or even discerned. Rather, God's will is what is presented before us every day.
[God's] will for us was the 24 hours of each day: the people, the places, the circumstances he set before us in that time. Those were the things God knew were important to him and to us at that moment, and those were the things upon which he wanted us to act, not out of any abstract principle or out of any subjective desire to "do the will of God." No, these things, the 24 hours of this day, were his will; we had to learn to recognize his will in the reality of the situation.
This truth is so freeing that Ciszek returns to that theme again and again in his book. This recognition sustains him through many years of hardship, suffering and pain.
The plain and simple truth is that his will is what he actually wills to send us each day, in the way of circumstances, places, people and problems. The trick is to learn to see that -- not just in theory, or not just occasionally in a flash of insight granted by God's grace, but every day. Each of us has no need to wonder about what God's will must be for us; his will for us is clearly revealed in every situation of every day, if only we could learn to view all things as he sees them and sends them to us.
What is Ciszek's response? Surrender to what life has placed before him. "The challenge lies in learning to accept this truth and act upon it," he writes. This is something that everyone experiences: our lives change in ways we cannot change.
Now, when life changes for the better, acceptance is no problem. You meet a new friend. You get a promotion at work. You fall in love. You learn that you'll soon become a mother or a father, or grandmother or grandfather. In these cases "acceptance" is easy. All that one needs to do is be grateful.
But what happens when life presents you with unavoidable suffering? This is where the example of the Jesuit approach to obedience may be helpful. The same thing that enables a Jesuit to accept difficult decisions by their superiors is the same thing that can help you: the realization that this is what God is inviting you to experience at this moment. It is the understanding that somehow God is with you, at work and revealed in a new way in this experience.
Let me be clear: I'm not saying that God "wills" suffering or pain. Nor that any of us with ever fully understand the mystery of suffering. Nor that you need to look at every difficulty as "God's will." Some suffering should be avoided, lessened or combated: treatable illnesses, abusive marriages, unhealthy work situations, dysfunctional sexual relationships.
Nonetheless, Walter Ciszek understood that God invites us to accept the inescapable realities placed in front of us. We can either turn away from that acceptance of life and continue on our own, or we can plunge into the "reality of the situation" and try to find God there in new ways.
This essay was adapted from "The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life."