Walter Ciszek Did Not Mind Talking About Himself

“The man who is truly humble and very close to God does not mind talking […]

CJ Green / 8.16.19

“The man who is truly humble and very close to God does not mind talking about himself. And so I’m going to talk about myself.”

– Fr. Walter Ciszek, S.J.[1]

The speaker of the above words survived twenty-three years in the Soviet Gulag. He was tortured, sentenced to fifteen years of heavy labor, and all the while acted as a priest to fellow inmates, saying Mass, administering Communion, baptizing, and performing marriages. It’s impossible to know exactly what he had in mind when he said he was happy to talk about himself, but given his life’s story, I’m inclined to take him seriously.

Consider the logic from a different angle: self-obsession can take many forms. There’s insecurity (self-consciousness), misery (self-flagellation), and false humility (self-effacement); there’s also justification by suffering and shame. We may toe a risky line to compare ourselves to Walter Ciszek, to take as instructive a quip from a man who both suffered and served in unimaginable quantities. But I believe the key words from his statement above are “do not mind.” The man was not bothered. He had been taken beyond all of that, past the tricks of the mirror maze.

Who speaks of him or herself apart from God and what God has made? Read St. Paul: “I consider myself in no way inferior to those ‘super apostles.’” When the mountains are made low, all the trees of the field clap their hands. The humble landscape is happy to sing of what it has become.

The obvious objection is: whosoever only talks about himself becomes taxing, not to mention boring. I’d also wager that’s the case with everyone, no matter how exceptional or “deserving” of speech you seem to be. Even with someone like Ciszek, you can bet that during his sermons, or while reading his memoirs, someone was zoning out or daydreaming about his or her own circumstances and fantasies. This was one of Camus’ great insights from The Stranger when he wrote, “I have to admit that whatever interest you can get people to take in you doesn’t last very long.” On trial for murder, Camus’ narrator becomes bored of the prosecutor’s speech. And to be honest, I could have given The Stranger a closer read: “Only bits and pieces—a gesture or a long but isolated tirade—caught my attention or aroused my interest.” Even if you’re reading every fifth word, still, maybe something meaningful slips through.

Attention isn’t earned or deserved; it’s a gift, just like life. Given, not negotiated for, lived, not owned. Each life is a story, unique in some ways, universal in others, and it is handed over from something beyond our control. In He Leadeth Me, Ciszek’s second memoir, the freed priest returns to these themes, the marriage of self and God. For him, the two remain distinct, yet reconciled:

There was but a single vision, God, who was all in all; there was but one will that directed all things, God’s will. I had only to see it, to discern it in every circumstance in which I found myself, and let myself be ruled by it. God is in all things, sustains all things, directs all things. To discern this in every situation and circumstance, to see His will in all things, was to accept each circumstance and situation and let oneself be borne along in perfect confidence and trust. Nothing could separate me from Him, because He was in all things. No danger could threaten me, no fear could shake me, except the fear of losing sight of Him. The future, hidden as it was, was hidden in His will and therefore acceptable to me no matter what it might bring. The past, with all its failures, was not forgotten; it remained to remind me of the weakness of human nature and the folly of putting any faith in self. But it no longer depressed me. I looked no longer to self to guide me, relied on it no longer in any way, so it could not again fail me. By renouncing, finally and completely, all control of my life and future destiny, I was relieved as a consequence of all responsibility. I was freed thereby from anxiety and worry, from every tension, and could float serenely upon the tide of God’s sustaining providence in perfect peace of soul.

[1] Spoken to Woodstock College, MD, as recorded by John L’Heureux in Picnic in Babylon (1967)