It was an unexpected treat falling asleep last night listening to the poetry of R.S.Thomas last night. ‘Poetry Please’ on Radio 4 was repeating a program to mark the 100th anniversary of the Welsh Poet/Priest . A fascinating amalgam of extreme nationalism, misanthropic bitterness but also wonder and almost mysticism. His poetry is so powerful that he was short-listed for the Nobel Prize for literature. It was almost too much listening to poem after poem on the program as they are so rich – it was like being forced to eat a banquet of great food too quickly. However there was one poem that made me get out of bed to go and dig it out of my small collection of his books. I don’t now why it hadn’t registered before – but I think it is worth reading again and again.
THE ANSWER (by R.S.Thomas)
Not darkness but twilight
In which even the best
of minds must make its way
now. And slowly the questions
occur, vague but formidable
for all that. We pass our hands
over their surface like blind
men feeling for the mechanism
that will swing them aside. They
yield, but only to re-form
as new problems; and one
does not even do that
but towers immovable
Is there no way
of other thought of answering
its challenge? There is an anticipation
of it to the point of
dying. There have been times
when, after long on my knees
in a cold chancel, a stone has rolled
from my mind, and I have looked
in and seen the old questions lie
folded and in a place
by themselves, like the piled
graveclothes of love’s risen body.
Father Walter Ciszek is an American Jesuit who spent 23 years as a priest in Soviet prisons and doing hard labour in Siberia, from 1940-1963. His time included 5 years in the infamous Lubyanka prison in Moscow, and 15 years in a Siberia mainly working in and around the town of Norilsk. He has written a mesmerising account of those years which has been recently republished by Ignatius Press, it is called ‘With God in Russia’.
Reading the book is a testament to an incredibly tough guy – who also seemed to be blessed with a deep faith and outstanding pastoral skills. His survival was a miracle in itself – enduring long periods of isolation and interrogation in Moscow. Then the harrowing stories of him being transported to Siberia after being sentenced as a ‘Vatican Spy’ to 15 years hard-labour. The conditions which he endured as they left Moscow which was under prolonged attack by the Germans.
The account is absorbing and well worth reading, told with clarity, without sentimentality, at times so crisply that it catches the breath – the terrible hardship and cruelty expressed in a couple of sentences. Highlights for me include –
- His faith in God’s providence that helped him beyond the limits of physical endurance, with never any hint of feeling sorry for himself (maybe twice in the whole book did he momentarily succumb to despair)
- How when in solitary confinement – for months on end – he would order his day around the ‘ordo’ he remembered in the novitiate – from his Jesuit training, to keep him from going mad.
- How his fellow prisoners, even the violent thieves, were keen to protect him as a priest in a savage world of survival. How well organised he and the other priests became – and the remarkable ministry they were able to give in secret – sacramental, but also giving retreats!
- His constant and varied scrapes with Death – Physical Torture, beaten and being injected with chemicals by KGB, Explosions in Coal Mines, Being fired on by Russian Soldiers during a prison revolt, Immersion in Freezing Rivers when logging, Surviving Scurvy from inadequate prison rations, Acute Food Poisoning, prolonged periods of starvation, Constant exposure to arctic conditions in inadequate clothing, Fumigation on two week barge journey etc etc!
- The risks prisoners would take, even unto death, to hear Mass or go to confession – their courage of practising their faith in the face of brutal repression
- And finally how he celebrated Easter and Christmas both in captivity and then when he was released on a limited permit. When he was freed, he celebrated an Easter Vigil that finished at 3am – although communion was distributed from then until after 9am so big were the crowds. Right under the noses of the KGB. It was such a success – with so much joy – with so great numbers greeting each other ‘ Christ is Risen’ – ‘He is risen in indeed’ that he was forcefully deported to another town and banned from religious activities!
Reading the wonderful interview that Pope Francis gave to Thinking Faith and other Jesuit journals last week – what comes across is the great freedom with which he speaks and also the humility with which he looks back on his past. There is an interesting parallel between him and St Ignatius the founder of the Jesuits. When we were Jesuit novices we had seminars on what is referred to as the ‘autobiography’ of Ignatius. This was written towards the end of his life, somewhat reluctantly, Ignatius was wary of vainglory. He had been urged by the young members of his new order to leave them an account of his life before he died, he seem to avoid it, but eventually he submitted and dictated his memories to a young Jesuit – Goncalves de Camara.
At a time when saint’s lives where often written after their death by their adoring followers, the literary style was usually hagiographic. Emphasising their virtues, downplaying or ignoring their vices, often from a desire to inspire devotion – the result was that the Saints lives didn’t seem very human, or distant from what many of experience in normal life. Ignatius is determined in his autobiography to do the opposite – he wants to show young Jesuits and also those who read about his life, about his mistakes and how God has worked through them and transformed him. Some historians even think that de Camara ‘toned’ down some of the passages, particularly of Ignatius as a young man in order not to cause a scandal.
Pope Francis’s interview comes across in a similar tone. He speaks frankly, and without excuses or self pity about the mistakes he made as a young Jesuit. He was put in as a provincial in his thirties, a very young age, and in his own words ‘My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems’ How refreshing it is to hear the Pope talk in such ways. Francis talks about a period of ‘great interior crisis’ in Cordoba– – again mirroring Ignatius who went through great spiritual turmoil in Manresa after his initial conversion and overly zealous ways. I am convinced that in life we often learn more about ourselves through failure than success – as long as we are supported through our failures in a loving environment. Both Francis and Ignatius give testament to this, and theirs is the ultimate loving environment – an regular, deep and intimate prayer life. This is how grace works through weakness. This is easy to forget when we have an education system that is obsessed with measurable success.
If you have a bit of time – read the Pope’s interview – and if you are too busy, make time!!