One of the most harrowing news stories of the past few weeks was the abduction of two LDS missionaries in Russia. We all followed it. But as the story grew, I found it resonating in my mind with something else - the way a toothache often creates "sympathy" pain in a nearby tooth.
Then it came to me.Many weeks before, Kathleen Howard of Mancuso's - the little Catholic store on south Main - had told me about Father Walter J. Ciszek, the American priest who'd gone into communist Russia in 1941 to proclaim the gospel. He'd been abducted and held captive by the government.
Kathleen was so taken with the man's story she brought me her personal copy of his book, "He Leadeth Me."
Last week I went back to Mancuso's and bought a copy for myself.
"He Leadeth Me" is the story of a young man's joy at leaving home to serve Christ in Russia. It is also the story of his terrifying capture and eventual release.
The difference in Ciszek's story, however, was it happened in "Communist Russia."
Father Ciszek ended up spending 23 nightmarish years in Soviet prison camps.
It was Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy who claimed happy families are all happy in the same way, and while reading Father Ciszek's story one gets the feeling happy Christians are probably all happy in the same way as well. He describes his "call" to Russia in the same sunny tones that Christian missionaries everywhere will recognize:
The moment (Father) Makar spoke of going to Russia my heart leapt. I was so excited, so seized by a deep, interior joy, that I had to restrain my emotions in order not to seem foolish . . I knew what I was going to do next, what I had wanted all my life. . .
The days of preparation and travel were both exhausting and exhilarating. Then came the teaching, the ministering and eventually the horror of his capture. "My mind simply could not adjust itself to all that was happening - especially the total loss of freedom and immediate deprivation of all rights," he says. It was as if an iron door had been slammed on the world, locking him into a universe of new rules and boundaries.
Things would get worse. Father Ciszek's account of his years in Siberia will bring tears to the driest eye. He sang hymns to himself. He tried to soften the hearts of his captors. And he dealt daily with what he calls "the arrogance of evil." He found courage and serenity in prayer.
Then, in 1963, he was mysteriously released - though at first freedom terrified him. Finally, however, he'd find himself and find his task. "I sat in the train headed for Norilsk," he writes, "exhilarated by my new freedom. . . . What did it mean for me to be free, for any man to be free?"
He discovered that freedom, for him, meant a chance to turn his years of suffering into a textbook about humanity. "He Leadeth Me" is not a catalog of despair but a handbook of holiness. Chapters carry the titles "Faith," "Humility" and "Humanity" - not "Fear" and "Hate." Every paragraph is a compass needle pointing upward.
When his captors beat him, Father Ciszek tells himself, "A man of faith is always conscious of God, not only in his own life but in the lives of others. This is the basis of true charity."
When his Christian teachings fall on deaf ears, he tells himself, "I at least presented them with an alternative to the party line . . . I offered another answer at least to the questions that troubled them."
And when he is hauled before a firing squad to die, he learns that death is terrifying, though for Christians there is "no hidden terror." Death holds only hidden expectation.
Like the two LDS missionaries held captive in Russia, Father Ciszek was not asked to "lay down his life" for his church. But he did feel compelled to "set down his life" for it. And his saga is a lesson manual for us all - whether we're held captive by ruthless Russian nationals or the fears found in our own hearts.