Among the prayers of the saints, the Anima Christi ranks as one of my favorites. For years I had contemplated the words, “Intra tua vulnera absconde me” (within your wounds hide me). I wondered, “What could that mean?” Then I read Corrie ten Boom’s book The Hiding Place. It is about her experience of the Holocaust. The Holy Spirit immediately connected the Anima Christi and The Hiding Place for me. In a flash my soul progressed an infinite distance along its path to union with God.
Another illuminating experience occurred recently for me. Upon finishing the book He Leadeth Me by Father Walter Ciszek, S.J, I noticed at Barnes and Noble a youth novel, The Endless Steppe, about a young girl’s experience of deportment from Poland to the steppes of Siberia. Since I had just finished reading Father Ciszek’s faith story about his 26 years internment in a Soviet gulag post WW II, I was intrigued by a young girl’s perspective of her imprisonment during WW II by the Soviets.
In The Endless Steppe Esther Hautzig, her parents, and grandparents are deported before the invasion of Germany from Poland to Siberia. As Jews, their only crime was being “Capitalists”. Esther’s mother, while gathering her belongings under the watchful eyes of the Soviet police, renounced her brother who knocked at the door so that he would not be deported along with them. Mrs. Hautzig lived to regret that deception for the rest of her life.
Despite enduring over five years of suffering as deportees in Siberia, the Hautzig family, less the grandfather, survived and were returned to their homeland after the war. Tragically, all of their family had been murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust precisely because they were Jewish. Mrs. Hautzig never forgave herself for disavowing her brother as he begged recognition at her door before the war.
Exile and the life it entails was the primary theme animating The Endless Steppe. I reflected that the suffering of exile, that the anguish of separation from loved ones, that the uncertainty of survival, that being sojourners in a strange land was precisely where God wanted the Hautzig family in order to preserve their lives. Exile by the Soviets to the Russian steppe was their hiding place from the Nazis.
“Thus, even while they [the Jewish people] are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject or obliterate them, lest I break my covenant with them by destroying them. For I am the Lord their God; I will remember them because of the covenant I made with their original ancestors whom I brought out from the land of Egypt, in the sight of the nations, so that I might be their God” (Leviticus 26:44).
Another Son of Israel, Joseph, from Genesis is the archetypal Old Testament figure of exile providing salvation not only for himself, but also for his entire nation. Reuben tried to save Joseph’s life by throwing him in the darkness of a pit. From there he was sold to Ishmaelite traders. If he hadn’t been sold into slavery in Egypt, he couldn’t have masterminded the plan to save Egypt, and by extension Israel, from famine.
In 1Samuel 19:2 we hear Jonathan tell David, “Saul my father seeks to kill you; therefore, take heed to yourself in the morning, stay in a secret place and hide yourself…” David recalls these experiences of being driven into hiding in his psalms. Repeatedly, he praises God as his protector while in exile from Saul, his King. He sings, “For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble: he will conceal me under the cover of his tent, he will set me high upon a rock” and “in the Lord I take refuge”. David connected his episodes of hiding in caves, with God’s means of protecting him. His great gift to us is illustrating that we are cradled safely in the palm of God’s hand despite what appears to be dire circumstances.
Throughout the scriptures I have found examples of exile preparing the people for true liberation. The Jewish Exile (597-538 BC), simply called the Exile, spawned the books of Job and Lamentations.
The deportation of prominent Jews from their homeland by the Babylonians was a defining moment in Jewish history. Although the apparent evil of exile caused suffering among the deportees, the Hebrews who remained suffered a worse fate: famine, death, and despair. Conversely, for the Jews in Babylon their exile became a purifying experience. They believed their own impurity caused their downfall. Therefore, while in Exile, their faith was actually strengthened. Constantly the Israelites harken back to God as their refuge.
Of course, we know that the New Testament is hidden in the Old Testament and that the Old Testament illumines the New. Given this axiom, it should come as no surprise that Jesus’ life is the ultimate example of exile being a place of safety and subsequent rebirth. As an infant His parents escaped to Egypt in order to save His life from Herod. Horribly, other Innocents, whose parents knew of no threat to their lives, continued living in Bethlehem and perished at the hands of a jealous Herod.
Jesus shows us throughout the Gospel how periods of exile like abandonment, emptiness, and even death work to the benefit of the plant, object, or person. A mustard seed planted in the darkness of soil must die to become a large tree. The wine must run out in order for the miracle at Cana. Lazarus dies from his illness and lies alone in a cave before Jesus renews his life. The sacrament of Jesus shows that only through His passion and death could His resurrection occur. For Christians, the only way to new life is through plunging into the waters of death through baptism and emerging, reborn, as Children of God.
Christians experience the world and its periods of darkness as Children of God who know that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). Throughout the world Christians suffer not only minor setbacks but the oppression of brutal governments. In China, Saudi Arabia, and Cuba, to name a few nations, Christians are persecuted for their faith. These Christians must feel alone and lost when sometimes they have no visible church upon which to cling. In the United States some Catholics feel abandoned by their elected leaders and clergy. The sheep believe they have no shepherd. However, the Good Shepherd is Jesus the Christ. We do not know God’s plan for those of us in exile. Perhaps God is allowing such situations outlined above to persist so that the faithful cling to Him and Him alone. No false idol can sustain a person stripped of everything that seems to matter. The greatest calamity to afflict one is not exile, but falling into sin and losing one’s eternal soul.
After reflecting on various stories detailing experiences of separation and loss, I remembered how several years ago I applied the words of St Catherine of Sienna to my own situation. Upon becoming a hermit, some wondered how she could renounce traversing the hills of Sienna. She replied, “If God wants me to wander the hills of Sienna for all eternity, then I will.” I echoed those words to encourage myself one day while sitting in our small, one window schoolroom teaching my children. I recognized that the loss of my former way of life: socializing, Bible studies, teaching aerobics, leading groups, and napping were God’s way of giving me a new life. In the sanctuary of my exile He protected me from vanities and increased my faith and love of Him.
My heroes in faith, Fr Ciszek and Corrie ten Boom, embraced God’s Will despite enduring inhuman experiences at the hands of their captors. Fr Ciszek accepted his many years in the gulag by recognizing that “He leadeth me” through every situation, day after day. Corrie ten Boom titled her book, The Hiding Place. I am convinced that, although the book tells the story of her and her sister hiding Jews during WWII in Holland, that her true intent with her title was to express, “To Do Thy Will is My Hiding Place”. Whenever we feel abandoned, we can pray with St Ignatius, “Intra tua vulnera absconde me”. Rocked in pools of warm, purifying blood safe in the palm of His hand, we are always living in the holy sanctuary of His peace, which surpasses all understanding.