Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Strength and courage

There are many tales in hagiography of courage and strength, but not all of them impress. The modern mind is resilient to signs and wonders. What is strength and courage if it is supernatural? Surely, it is divine signs and wonders that religious people look for in the saints.

Maybe so. 

However, the closer I look at the saints, the more human they become. They were angry, they shouted, they cried, they laughed, they loved. Any suggestion otherwise is to think them less than human. And saints, if they really are saints at all, are human through and through: man is a creature of flesh and spirit, and the spirit cannot function except in and through the flesh. Humanity is rooted in the earthly nature from which it was divinely formed, and the pretence that we could live as though already in heaven is a false one. 

For me, the modern saints, those canonised by the iconic John Paul II, are the ones who teach me most about the nature of earthly holiness. In part, this is because they live in a time which, although I may not be able to remember, is recent history, such that I can ask my elders, see films and research about the times in which they lived.

Today is the Feast of Maximillian Kolbe. He was born in 1894. Although his work as a Franciscan friar before the outbreak of World War II is admirable, it is his behaviour towards his fellow prisoners in Auschwitz which has brought him most attention. Kolbe provided shelter for refugees from Poland in his Friary in Niepokalanów. For this, he was arrested on 17th February 1941 by the German Gestapo, and imprisoned in Pawiak prison. On 28th May 1941 he was transferred to Auschwitz as Prisoner #16670. 

Towards the end of July 1941 three prisoners escaped from the camp, prompting the deputy camp leader, SS-Hauptsturmführer Karl Fritzsch, to pick ten men at random to be starved to death in an underground bunker,  thereby deterring others from similar escape attempts. One of the selected men, Franciszek Gajowniczek, cried out, "My wife! My children!", and, famously, Kolbe volunteered to take his place, saying he had no wife and children - he was the better choice.

In the starvation cell, he celebrated Mass each day and sang hymns with the prisoners. He led the other condemned men in song and prayer and encouraged them by telling them they would soon be in heaven. Each time the guards checked on him, he was standing or kneeling in the middle of the cell and looking calmly at those who entered. After two weeks of dehydration and starvation, only Kolbe remained alive. The guards wanted the bunker emptied and they gave Kolbe a lethal injection of carbolic acid. Some who were present at the injection say that he raised his left arm and calmly waited for the injection. His remains were cremated on 15 August, the feast of the Assumption of Mary.

Franciszek Gajowniczek lived until March 13, 1995, and attended the beatification of Kolbe in 1971, and his canonization in 1982. He said,  that 'so long as he ... ha[d] breath in his lungs, he would consider it his duty to tell people about the heroic act of love by Maximilian Kolbe'.

Here's the thing. And, do not go accusing me of heresy. Maximillian Kolbe was an amazing man. He loved humanity. Really loved it. And because he loved so much, he gave his life. That is what makes him a saint. His love for humanity was the one thing he had in common with God. I have been to that cell, and seen the place where Kolbe died. Nothing there speaks of God, except for the fact that there one man, a saint, gave his life for love of his neighbour.

As it happens, Maximillian Kolbe is the Patron Saint of the year for one of my friends, and a reader of this blog. Therefore this post comes, of course, with prayers for him and his intentions, and a hope that he, alongside the rest of us, might learn to love humanity more and more in every moment God gives.

I thought carefully about what I could do about food for this saint. On the occasion I visited Auschwitz, after a long drive through the night and the early dawn, and following an emotional and poignant morning, I went with friends into Krakow. There, sitting outside a bar in the sunshine, my friends and I enjoyed one the best vegetarian meals I have ever tasted. Perhaps this was because we were hungry. Perhaps it was because we, for once in our privileged lives, appreciated what we had. I cannot offer a recipe for today. The story I have told, of Maximillian Kolbe, is too recent, too raw, to commemorate so cruel and tragic series of events, humanity acting upon humanity, with food. 

So, all I have to suggest is this: go out, walk and take in the air, walk for miles and miles until you are really hungry. Skip lunch, you will be okay. Get outside more in the afternoon, continue your walk, do the gardening, play football, swim, laugh, feel human. Finally, late in the evening, when you are completely starving, call up your local, family run, homemade, take - away. Eat with pleasure the food that is given to you. Afterwards, completely satiated, ring back your take away and say 'thank you'. Tell them how much you appreciate their hard work and dedication to the life sustaining beautiful thing that is the food which keeps humanity together. Thank God for them.

1 comment:

Cole Matson said...

Thank you for the prayers. I've been celebrating the feast day privately, but also felt I couldn't actually "feast". I just read this post now, and wish I had earlier!

The priest here in Edinburgh mentioned a podcast with an interview of an eyewitness to St Maximilian Kolbe's sacrifice, who was only a teenager at the time. Here's the link: http://saintcast.org/?p=75

God bless you, and St Maximilian Kolbe, pray for us!