This is my Camino. Welcome.

Reflection on St. Max which has been blowing my mind since December

Really, it has.

I’m sure you all remember Brother Thomas:


Right? I see this kid on the New Year’s Retreat.

This year I was supposed to be solemnly in line for confession, but the lines were long and our eyes kept meeting and he was making weird faces at me until finally I was like, “Forget this, I’m the last person in line anyway” and I went and sat next to him and whispered, “Tell me about your last year”

And he was like, “I’m telling you, it’s like I stuck my head in a furnace of grace.”

And then I laughed and nodded…because I know man, I know.

He helped with summer camps with beebee children (read: high school) and then took a pilgrimage across Europe in the footsteps of St. Maximilian Kolbe which, really, is the coolest thing.

Later that evening (after confessions) he gave a talk on St. Max Kolbe and, guys, it’s been BLOWING MY MIND.

I can’t even.

So, we’re just going to go over a few things, here.

I’m starting kind of where he ended and then closing with my favorite reflection of the evening, just in case he happens to read this and be like, “This isn’t how I presented at all.”

I know it’s not, Brother Thomas. I’m taking some artistic liberties.

Friend-of-Kolbe, brother Thomas kneeling in the back.
Friend-of-Kolbe, brother Thomas kneeling in the back.
First of all, he met a man who knew Kolbe while Kolbe was alive.

Granted, the man is now pretty old and in assisted living, but still. It’s kind of stunning, isn’t it?

And they asked him (if he would) to share some memories of Kolbe.

The man shared three things:

  1. When Maximilian Kolbe listened to you, he listened totally.
  2. Maximilian Kolbe was soft-spoken (because he only had use of a percentage of one lung and he wasn’t that healthy) but, when he spoke, everyone silenced themselves and craned to hear.
    and lastly, finally,
  3. “He was a man.”

I love all of these, and all for different reasons.

First, that, when he listened, he listened totally. He was able to put aside his distractions, put aside his thoughts, and really listen and focus in love with the person he was with.

Literally, this is now a goal of mine. Not saying I’m close…but, at least I’m thinking about it.

The part about being soft-spoken is so interesting. Because, well, he spoke love so loudly, didn’t he?

And that he was a man…it just silences you, doesn’t it? Because we have this notion of “manhood” and it’s usually this young man, I don’t know, doing the things of the original Old Spice commercial: shirtless and riding a horse and using power tools and wooing women.

And Kolbe was none of those things.

But he did know what he believed. He did act in love and compassion and brazen, brazen courage.

“And he was a man.”

I, too, visited Auschwitz once. This you knew.

From the  Yad Vashem Photo Archive
From the Yad Vashem Photo Archive

Brother Thomas spoke about the rooms of shoes.

Oh, mercy, the shoes.

Brother Thomas remembers a pair of blue shoes in particular (I remember a pair of brown). Piles and piles of shoes.

Brother Thomas talked about his own shoes. Every time you buy a pair of shoes, he said, you buy them with dreams attached. He remembered the shoes he bought for his prom; the boots he bought before moving to Seattle. Today I’m wearing a new pair of boots–I bought them thinking about winter and gatherings and how cute they’d look with my skirts.

We buy shoes with dreams. And the prisoners all had dreams. They all had ideas about their lives: goals and plans and hopes.

That’s what we see when we see the stolen shoes: we see shattered dreams. Because they didn’t get their shoes back. The didn’t get their dreams or hopes or blessed plans. They were greeted with death–violent, violent death at the hands of medical experiments and malnutrition and torture.

The concentration camps, said Brother Thomas, destroyed the dreams of everyone who entered…except for Maximilian Kolbe.

There are no relics of St. Maximilian Kolbe, except for a few strands from his beard, trimmed by a friend before he was taken away by the S.S. guard.
There are no relics of St. Maximilian Kolbe, except for a few strands from his beard, trimmed by a friend before he was taken away by the S.S. guard.
Maximilian Kolbe entered a place where people were forced into cramped “bunk beds,” where the first person in would determine on which side of your body you’d sleep, since they were crammed so tightly everyone slept on their sides. And the diarrhea would drip from the top bunk to the bottom bunk because the men were all ill and malnourished.

And here Kolbe would kneel to pray as everyone else filed in–always guaranteeing him a slot on the abhorred bottom bunk.

Kolbe entered a place where even the trees and lawns were stripped of every leaf and blade from hungry prisoners…and he would surrender his food to others.

The camp was laced with electrical fences–a constant temptation to end your misery through suicide. I read the following testimony just this evening, as testimony from Sigmund Gorson, a Jewsih survivor of Auschwitz:

I was born in a precious family where love was abundant. All my family, parents, sisters and grandparents were murdered in the Concentration Camp. I was the only survivor. For me, it was extremely hard to find myself alone in this world, in the horror and hell that was lived in Auschwitz, and alone thirteen years old.

Many youth like myself lost all hope of survival, and many jumped into the high voltage barbed wires to commit suicide. I never lost hope of finding someone among the immense mass of people who would have known my parents, a friend, a neighbor, so that I wouldn’t feel so alone.

This is how Father Kolbe found me, to put it in simple terms, while I was looking for someone with whom I could make a connection. He was like an angel for me. Just like a mother hen takes in her chicks, that’s how he took me into his arms. He would clean my tears. I believe more in the existence of God ever since then. Ever since the death of my parents, I would ask myself, Where is God? I had lost all faith. Father Kolbe gave me back my faith.

Father Kolbe knew I was a young Jew, but his love would embrace everyone. He gave us lots of love. To be charitable in times of peace is easy, but to be charitable the way Father Kolbe was in that place of horror is heroic. I not only loved Father Kolbe a lot in the Concentration Camp, but I will love him until the last day of my life.

St. Maximilian Kolbe offered words of hope and light in the darkest place.

And when ten men were chosen to be placed in a dungeon until they went crazy and starved to death, he volunteered in the place of one of them.

Now, one of the prison guards was not a Nazi. He was a Polish man, hired because he spoke both German and Polish. His record of the situation remains.

He has shared that the men would go crazy before they starved–yelling and screaming in agony and violence. There were multiple cells of this torture (I’ve been there, remember), and it was truly a place of darkness.

But, shared this Polish translator, not when Kolbe was sentenced. He led the men in songs and prayers. The dungeon, shared with Kolbe, became, in the words of the translator, like a Cathedral. Kolbe led the men in song.

I’ve read other translations, but this the one I could find at the moment (from the Polish man):

The ten condemned to death went through terrible days. From the underground cell in which they were shut up there continually arose the echo of prayers and canticles. The man in-charge of emptying the buckets of urine found them always empty. Thirst drove the prisoners to drink the contents. Since they had grown very weak, prayers were now only whispered. At every inspection, when almost all the others were now lying on the floor, Father Kolbe was seen kneeling or standing in the centre as he looked cheerfully in the face of the SS men.

Father Kolbe never asked for anything and did not complain, rather he encouraged the others, saying that the fugitive might be found and then they would all be freed. One of the SS guards remarked: this priest is really a great man. We have never seen anyone like him ..

Two weeks passed in this way. Meanwhile one after another they died, until only Father Kolbe was left. This the authorities felt was too long. The cell was needed for new victims. So one day they brought in the head of the sick-quarters, a German named Bock, who gave Father Kolbe an injection of carbolic acid in the vein of his left arm. Father Kolbe, with a prayer on his lips, himself gave his arm to the executioner. Unable to watch this I left under the pretext of work to be done. Immediately after the SS men had left I returned to the cell, where I found Father Kolbe leaning in a sitting position against the back wall with his eyes open and his head drooping sideways. His face was calm and radiant ..’

And there you have it.

Remember, at the beginning, we talked about the shoes? And how everyone left their shoes and their dreams behind?

Brother Thomas told me: this wasn’t so. In Auschwitz everyone’s dreams were destroyed…except for Father Kolbe’s. Because St. Maximilian Kolbe’s only dreams were to go to heaven and to help other people get there, too. And that’s what he did. He went to Auschwitz and accomplished his dreams.

Think about that.

He entered AUSCHWITZ, whose sole purpose was evil, and emerged with dreams intact.

A life heroically lived.

He was, as his friend shared, a man.

5 thoughts on “Reflection on St. Max which has been blowing my mind since December

  1. Hi Nell, my name is Colleen, I am Thomas’ mother. Thank you so much for your beautiful writing on St Maximilian, you really brought him to life. I also enjoyed “seeing” Thomas at work through your words. I will be more aware of St Max by my side after reading your reflection. Blessings.

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