Today is August 14.
Today is the “Feast day” of St. Maximilian Kolbe. I did the math on the side of the desk-calendar the previous lady left here. On this day, ninety-four years ago, one of the infamous Nazi “doctors” walked down the stone steps into the dark dungeon where Kolbe had been left, with nine others, to die of insanity/ suffocation/ starvation/ whatever. Kolbe had outlived his cell mates, and the Nazis wanted a faster turnover. So the “doctor” approached him, and the weakened, seated Kolbe held up his arm, and the doctor gave him a lethal injection that killed him.
That is the story. That is the story of St. Maximilian Kolbe. He died on this day, ninety-four years ago. It’s common for the saints to be celebrated on the day they died, a “birthday,” if you will, into heaven.
I have heard the story many times, but it silences me, still. I teared up at mass today, and I probably will again as I try to write this.
Kolbe is, somehow, so much of what I want and so much of what I don’t want at the same time. Ha. Isn’t that just Christianity for you? “Good Friday? Nah. Let’s just jump to Easter!”
There is a prayer that is sometimes prayed at night by Catholic-folk. My Franciscan friend has night-blessed me with it before: “May God grant you a restful night and a peaceful death.” A peaceful death.
In my mind a “peaceful death” should look like a soft bed and maybe soft candles and, I don’t know, Ave Marie playing in the background and maybe you’re just asleep anyway, but then, during sleep, maybe during an awesome dream, you die and encounter Jesus and Mary and all of the cool people you’ve known who have died and you’ve been missing.
To me, what “peaceful death” doesn’t look like is a Nazi-dungeon, surrounded by men who have slowly died all around you and, by the way, you’re starving to death.
What the heck, right?
And that’s what kind of just overwhelms me about St. Maximilian Kolbe’s story. He was all things good. He wrote so many solid teachings, founded international missions, breathed new life into a flipping order of priests. Like, the man built a new seminary…so he could assist and train hundreds more priests. And this is the one who ends up dying in the concentration camp?
I think it doesn’t make sense at first because of the shady theology we sometimes toss about in our brains. Somehow, in our capitalistic society, we’re taught that God is the ultimate capitalist. And we can earn, I don’t know, holiness-points by going to church and being a good person and sometimes not saying mean things about people, even though we really, really want to. And then, God (who is generous and good and wants us to be happy, by the way, and all of those things to the UTMOST and let’s not talk about justice because nahhhhhh) can look at our holiness-points and apply DOUBLE holiness-points because the parable-of-the-good-stewards, yo. And then with those holiness-points we can earn things like stress-free jobs or Jane-Austen-y husbands or any other things. Don’t lie. It’s a mindset.
Not to point all of the fingers at myself or anything, but I do this a lot. There’s this one story about St. Theresa of Avila, where she gets thrown from a horse into the mud and she says to God, “If this is how you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few.” Humph. But, like, welcome to my particular brand of spirituality. I could probably write a stupid inspiration-a-day calendar based off of all of the stupid times I’ve been like, “GOD, FLIPPIN GET ME OUT OF THIS STUPID, TOO-HARD MESS” and “COME ON, GOD, I’M JUST TRYING TO BUILD THE $#*&% KINGDOM” and “WAHHHHH WHY DO YOU NEVER MAKE THIS EASY FOR ME?? WE ARE SUPPOSED TO BE ON THE. SAME. TEAM.”
But, in the back of my mind, there’s St. Maximilian Kolbe. He was the one (kind of) who introduced me to my Consecration-to-Jesus-through-Mary. I can’t forget him. I can’t forget the cell I stood in, oddly? miraculously? ten years ago this very day. And I know that he did so, so many things well but then, in the end, he died this horrific martyr’s death. So, so weird. So, so contrary to prosperity gospel and “Good things happen to good people” and all the other things I kind of want to believe in.
Speaking about prayers-about-death, though, there’s this other one, too, that we’re taught as kids. It’s a prayer asking Mary for her prayers. And you ask her to pray for you “now and at the hour of my death.”
The hour of my death?
Yeah, welcome to real-talk spirituality at its finest.
Tomorrow, August 15th, is the Feast of the Assumption. On that day we celebrate Mary and her entrance into heaven and, also, I guess, all that she is and all that her life meant for us here on earth (I’ll give you a big hint and it has to do with GOD coming down and joining us dust-people and holding our wounded and giving us food and love and all else).
August 15th, the Feast of the Assumption, was St. Maximilian Kolbe’s favorite feast day, I’m told.
I’m told he prayed countless rosaries over the course of his life, fingering the beads which hung from the side of his simple habit, praying through all of the things that happened to him.
Every day, then, he would have asked Mary to pray for him at the hour of his death. And the hour of his death, it turns out, was the eve of her celebration, too. The day she was remembered for entering heaven, he was able to enter with her.
I don’t know why this strikes me, but it does. Somehow, this is the shred of hope that shines like a tiny spark in the vast darkness that was the European Holocaust.
Today, at mass, my friend Kenny read the reading from Joshua about Joshua saying to the people, “Make your choice, friends. Decide today who you will serve. As for me and my family, we will serve the Lord.” (Paraphrased).
Wait, upon research: this is not the reading for the day. DANG IT. Oh well. It’s still worth reading.
Joshua gives them the choice, and they choose God. Why? Because they know that He saved them, in the past.
I thought about that today, at mass. Like, if Kolbe was told by some heavenly-power, “Look, you could live an ordinary life where you do a few things and then die OR you could die alone and naked and starving in a prison-camp by some of the most violent evil the world has experienced but it will be for Jesus. Well??”
I think that Kolbe would still have died for love and light and hope and courage and generosity. Prosperity gospel no where to be found.
In the Bible, again (jumping back to the Bible) Joshua talks about these other gods the Israelites could have, but they say, “Eh, not worth it. This one God, the one who saved us in the past, is worth it.”
It reminds me of that scene in The Silver Chair where the three captives are told that everything they know is a lie, that they should abandon their old, silly beliefs and embrace the new, dark order. And then one of them, (the marshwiggle) throws his hand in the fire and says (paraphrased), “Look, even if what I knew was a lie, I still prefer it to what you are saying.”
And Kolbe is kind of that guy, to me.
The Nazis were everywhere, ruling and destroying the world he knew and loved. And they were saying, “Listen, we think that your way of helping the vulnerable and loving your enemies and sacrificing everything for Jesus is stupid. Oh, plus, we’re in power. And we will make you suffer in every imaginable way. We’re kind of like gods, actually. You will rely on us for food and shelter and even life.”
But Kolbe was like, “Nah. Your ‘life’ is a lie. I know life, because I have encountered it, and that was on a cross and, by golly, I’ll just choose love and forgiveness and suffering.”
And that’s kind of why I celebrate every August 14th.
And today we get to choose, too, whom we will serve, with Joshua and Mary and Kolbe and every single other person in the world.
So, today, I try and hope that I, like Kolbe, choose God, too, fully aware that that life is one with no guarantees. Well, there is one guarantee. It’s this: life. Eternal life.
Happy Feast day, ya’ll.
P.S. Brother Thomas has said better things about Kolbe before, too. FYI.