Two Kinds of Life
(Zech.9:9-10; Rom.8:9, 11-13; Mt.11:25-30)
The Ancient Greeks recognised two different kinds of life: biological life (they called it ‘bios’) and spiritual life (‘zoe’). Both words were used in the New Testament when it was first written in Greek.
But in English Bibles, these two words were simply translated as ‘life,’ and their differences were lost.
So when we hear Jesus saying, ‘I came that they may have life, and have it to the full,’ (Jn.10:10), most of us aren’t aware that Jesus originally said, ‘I came that they may have zoe, and have it to the full.’
There’s a big difference between bios and zoe. We are all naturally born with physical life – bios, but it doesn’t last. Bios naturally degrades over time, and eventually dies.
The spiritual life of zoe, however, is eternal, but we are not born with it; it’s something we have to cultivate. Zoe begins with our baptism, and it grows in our hearts.
In his book Mere Christianity, CS Lewis says that the movement from earthly biological life to eternal spiritual life is what Christianity is all about. [i] But such change doesn’t just happen; we have to work at it.
In our second reading today, St Paul contrasts the worldly life with the life of the Spirit, and says that if you live according to the world (bios), you will die. But if you live by the Spirit (zoe), you will remain fully alive.
Someone who learnt this lesson well was Walter Csizek. Born in Pennsylvania in 1904 to Polish parents, he was a delinquent child, often picking fights, skipping school and roaming with street gangs. His father became so worried about him that he once took him to a police station and asked them to lock him up.
When he was thirteen, Csizek surprised everyone by announcing that he wanted to be a priest. His family wouldn’t believe it, but he did join the seminary and later, when Pope Pius XI called for priests for the Russian mission, he volunteered to go.
He went to Rome to learn Russian and finish his studies, and in 1937 he was ordained. However, he wasn’t allowed to enter Russia, so he served in Poland instead.
In 1939, when Germany and Russia invaded Poland, Csizek slipped quietly into Russia to see if he could minister there. He found work in lumber camps in the Ural Mountains, but in 1941 he was arrested as a ‘Vatican spy’.
For five years he was imprisoned, tortured and interrogated in Moscow, and then sentenced to 15 years’ slave labour in Siberia.
Despite the wretched conditions, he supported the other prisoners where he could, and he helped them discover the extraordinary strength and joy that comes from the Holy Eucharist.
They took great risks celebrating the Mass, sometimes in remote forests where they worked or in their barracks where they pretended to play cards. Small drops of wine were smuggled in and tiny pieces of bread were saved from their meagre rations. They had to look out for informers, but the Bread of Life was always a great source of comfort to them.
As CS Lewis said, the journey from earthly biological life to eternal spiritual life is what Christianity is all about. In essence, this is the story of Walter Csizek. By being forced to let go of the worldly comforts of bios, he discovered the eternal strength and joy of zoe.
Reflecting on his experience, Csizek said that through these ordeals, God was ‘bending himself’ to him and pursuing him. God had led him to an understanding of life and his love that only those who have experienced it can fathom. He had stripped away many of the physical and religious consolations that people rely on, and had left him with a few simple truths to guide him. And yet what a profound difference they made; what strength and courage they gave him. And he thought the reason God had brought him safely home was so that he could share this understanding with others.[ii]
Csizek was released in 1955, but forbidden to leave Russia. So, he worked as a mechanic and served openly as a priest until the KGB stopped him.
In the meantime, he managed to contact his family and in 1963 he was exchanged for a Soviet spy and returned home.
Many people tend to think that God is with them when life is good, and that he has abandoned them when things get tough.
But as Walter Csizek learnt, God is with us constantly, and he’s always encouraging us to live the only kind of life that lasts: zoe.
Our only long-term hope is the life of the Spirit.
[i] CS Lewis, Mere Christianity, Fontana Books, London. 1969:135.
[ii] Walter Csizek, He Leadeth Me, Ignatius Press, Fan Francisco, 1973:15.