You may have heard of a book written by the Servant of God, Father Walter Ciszek, S.J. (1904‑1984), titled “With God in Russia” (Ignatius Press, 1997). After his ordination to the priesthood in 1938, Father Ciszek, a Pennsylvania native, served in a part of Poland occupied by the Soviet Russians. He volunteered to go incognito with Polish workers who had been enticed to work in lumber camps deep in the heart of Russia. In 1940, the Soviets discovered that he was a priest, and he was arrested and spent over twenty years in the notorious communist prisons, where he underwent torture, and in labor camps, where he worked in the mines and with constructions gangs alongside other political prisoners. Long presumed dead by the Jesuits and by his family, Father Ciszek was released in 1963 as part of a prisoner exchange for two convicted Soviet secret agents.
Father Ciszek’s book describes his experiences in those horrible, yet grace‑filled years. The title of the book seems to be self-contradictory: “With God in Russia.” Considering the times and circumstances he was describing, how could God appear to be present? These events took place in an atheistic state, which had officially declared that God did not exist, which had closed practically every Church in the Soviet Union, killed and persecuted countless priests and Bishops and made every effort to export its atheistic communism throughout the world. Yet, through the miracle of faith and grace, Father Ciszek was able to write of God’s presence, even in those circumstances.
I share this inspiring story with you this week as we enter the heart of the summer and as so many who are able prepare to spend some much-needed and much-deserved vacation time. There can be a tendency to treat God as an intruder when we are on vacation! Subconsciously, we can treat the idea of God, or spending any time thinking of Him while on vacation as being the ultimate “damper” or “killjoy” for our vacation period. In that sense, we can think of the title of this week’s reflection as containing two contradictory ideas, God and vacation, just as Father Ciszek caught the attention of the world when he gave his book the title “With God in Russia,” which seemed to present two completely contradictory ideas. I hope that we can reflect this week on the fact that, just as Father Ciszek was not presenting two contradictory ideas, neither are we when we speak of giving God a place during our vacation time.
God is the source of all our blessings
In the Old Testament there is a wonderful understanding of God as the source of all blessings on the part of our Jewish ancestors in the faith. This was a very important part of God’s revelation to them and it was a frequent theme of the Prophets, whose vocation was to constantly recall the Chosen People to fidelity and to a consciousness of all they had received from God. This idea of God as the source of all blessings and human ability is frequently expressed in the Psalms. Perhaps you might listen for this idea during the Responsorial Psalm when you are at Mass or when you are reading the psalms as part of your prayer life. In Psalm 127, verse 1, we find one phrase in particular which expresses this idea: “Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build. Unless the Lord guard the city, in vain does the guard keep watch.” We might extend this idea to our vacation time, reminding ourselves that our ability to work, to earn money, to have leisure time and to have a vacation all come to us from the Providence of God. It really doesn’t make much sense to exclude Him from what He has actually made possible! Saint Paul puts it this way: “What do you possess that you have not received?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). Saint Teresa of Avila writes: “To be humble is to walk in the truth, for it is absolutely true to say that we have no good thing in ourselves and anyone who fails to understand this is walking in falsehood” (Interior Castle, VI, chapter 10).
In an address Pope Benedict XVI recently gave to a Congress taking place in the Diocese of Rome, he spoke about the danger of “putting God in parentheses” in our lives. This would seem to address what our topic is this week as well. Pope Benedict lamented how “our civilization and our culture too often tend to place God in parentheses, to organize personal and social life without him, to maintain that nothing can be known of God, even to deny his existence. But when God is laid aside, all our hopes, great and small, rest on nothing” (Address at Saint John Lateran, 10 June 2008). Similarly, at the Inauguration of his Pontificate, Pope Benedict reminded us that we should not be afraid to give God His proper place in our lives, as if He will deprive us of freedom or of joy. He said, also echoing the words of Pope John Paul II at the beginning of his own Pontificate: “Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to Him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation” (Homily, 24 April 2005).
The observance of the Sabbath on the part of the Jewish people was connected to the ideas we are speaking of. The reason that they abstained from unnecessary work on the Sabbath, just as we are called to do, was a means of acknowledging that if God didn’t bless their work, they would not receive any blessings upon what they did. In other words, everything wasn’t up to them. So they were commanded to set aside a day when they did no work as a means of acknowledging God’ s sovereign power as the source of all good things. This should be part of our conscious celebration of Sunday each week and it should be a part of our legitimate time of rest on vacation. The loving Father who makes everything possible is not an intruder or a “killjoy” when we enjoy our leisure time; He is the source of it.
It is curious to note that as societies and individuals exclude God from their lives and from the marketplace, statistics do not show that there is a greater joy accompanying this trend. In fact, the opposite is shown to be true. When we think that everything depends on us and we treat God as an intruder, the result is not peace and contentment but a never-ending search for an ever-elusive joy, often sought apart from God. As you read these words, I am attending World Youth Day in Sydney, Australia. The tens of thousands of young people who are gathered here are proclaiming in a very public way that God is the source of their joy. The joy that I observe among them is authentic because it comes from Jesus, the only way, truth and life.
I hope that as many of you as possible are able to have some leisurely vacation time this summer. Do not forget to invite God to be a part of that time. He who grants all blessings and makes both work and leisure possible is not an unwelcome intruder but a much-loved friend, who only increases our joy when we invite Him to be part of lives. “With God on vacation” is not a contradiction in terms; it is the only way to peace and serenity.