14 August 2015

Reflection for the Feast (Memorial) of Maximillian Kolbe

N.B., I gave a version of this reflection at a Liturgy of the Word with Communion service today at my parish. The sections in italics were borrowed from the post I wrote earlier for this Feast day and reprised yesterday.

We may think of our humanity as something we possess, a given which cannot be lost, but Christians recognize that our humanity is more a task entrusted to us than it is a possession or simple given. Most specifically humanity is the living reality that comes to be when God who is a constituent part of our very being shines forth within and through us. We are truly human to the extent we image God, not in the weak and inadequate sense of imitating his love and mercy, but in the strong sense of letting these heal and transfigure us. We are truly human to the extent we ARE a covenant with God. Covenant for us is not a mere agreement or arrangement we have undertaken with God as some sort of business partner but something we embody and come more and more to embody over our lifetimes.

In Douglas Steere's Together in Solitude, I read the following passage last night. (Steere is a Quaker who writes marvelously on the topics of solitude and community, as well as on silence, prayer and the challenge and task of becoming human.) Here he writes of a story he heard which illustrates part of the task of becoming our truest selves, selves which allow the fire of God's love to flame through us and bring light and warmth to our world. Steere recounts, [[During WWII, a Quaker artist friend of ours who lived in East Berlin painted a water color of three men standing some distance away but in clear view of Christ on the Cross. Each man was holding a mask in his hands and looking up at the crucified one with a mingled gaze of longing and fear: of longing to follow the way to which Christ beckoned him, and of fear both at the loss of his mask which the sight of Christ on the Cross had struck from him and at the price that following the new way might exact of him.]]

Today is the Feast of St Maximillian Kolbe. As I noted in an earlier post his story is as follows: [[Maximillian Kolbe who died on this day in Auschwitz after two months there, and two weeks in the bunker of death-by-starvation. Kolbe had offered to take the place of a prisoner selected for starvation in reprisal when another prisoner was found missing and thought to have escaped. The Kommandant, taken aback by Kolbe's dignity, and perhaps by the unprecedented humanity being shown, stepped back and then granted the request. Father Maximillian sustained his fellow prisoners and assisted them in their dying. He was one of four remaining prisoners who were murdered in Block 13 (see illustration below) by an injection of Carbolic Acid when the Nazi's deemed their death by starvation was taking too long. When the bunker was visited by a secretary-interpreter immediately after the injections, he found the three other prisoners lying on the ground, begrimed and showing the ravages of the suffering they had undergone. Maximillian Kolbe sat against the wall, his face serene and radiant. Unlike the others he was clean and bright. ]]

[[The stories told about Maximillian Kolbe's presence and influence in Auschwitz all stress a couple of things: first, there was his great love of God, Mary the Imaculata, and his fellow man; secondly, it focused on the tremendous humanity he lived out and modeled in the midst of a hell designed in every detail to dehumanize and degrade. These two things are intimately interrelated of course, and they give us a picture of authentic holiness which, extraordinary as it might have seemed in Auschwitz, is nothing less and nothing more than the vocation we are each called to in Christ

Together, these two dimensions of true holiness/authentic humanity result in "a life lived for others," as a gift to them in many ways -- self-sacrifice, generosity, kindness, courage, etc. In particular, in Auschwitz it was Maximillian's profound and abiding humanity which allowed others to remember, reclaim, and live out their own humanity in the face of the Nazi's dehumanizing machine. No greater gift could have been imagined in such a hell.]] This was a man with no masks at all, no obstacles to the God who lived within and was mediated by him to others. He was authentically human only to the extent he revealed the God who is Love-in-act to others

In today's readings the accent is on our God, his mercy and what he does with human weakness and the stripping that life brings our way. In Joshua, for instance, the lection is a litany of verbs contrasting human need and the dynamic of Divine mercy: You were captive, lost, hungry, threatened, homeless and childless, and I delivered,  fed,  gave to, assigned,  brought you, led you, planted for you, etc. In every instance God is revealed as the merciful one who gifts us in our weakness and incapacity. The real fruitfulness of our lives is God's work in and through us. The passage comes to a climax in the following reminder: [[I gave you a land that you had not tilled and cities that you had not built, to dwell in; you have eaten of vineyards and olive groves which you did not plant.]] As difficult as some of the examples might be for us Israel struggled to affirm the truth that genuinely fruitful lives are reflections of the unmerited mercy and love of God.

In the gospel lection Matthew speaks of two of the main ways human beings are made increasingly ready and able to image and mediate God's love to others. The first is marriage where to some degree husbands and wives set aside their own agendas and honestly embrace their own strengths and weaknesses for the sake of spouse, of children, of their children's children, the church, the world around us and, of course, for God's own sake (for the sake of Love itself) as well. It is a life demanding profound honesty and sacrifice if it is to be the sacramental reflection of the union between God and the Human Person it is meant to be.

The second is religious life where Sisters and Brothers commit to stripping the masks we might adopt and wear otherwise and eschewing the things which might mark us as valuable in ordinary terms: the mask of financial success and wealth, the mask of power and influence, and finally, even the mask of our own will and agenda --- our own identity as director of the course of our own inner and outer worlds, however great or small we perceive these to be. Through this renunciation and a life of prayer we also open ourselves to allowing God to be the sole source of strength and validation in our lives. In this life too we embrace both joy and sacrifice for the sake of Love itself.

In my own vocation, what is true is that the hermit commits to laying aside many of her gifts simply so that she may witness to God's love and who that makes her to be; she commits to being a revelation of the covenant each person is with God, to the completion that we each know in God even when stripped of all of the talents we associate with ourselves and apostolic ministry. And that is really true of each of us as well. Our humanity is our most fundamental vocation and the greatest task of our lives. Whatever the vocational path we take to that union with God we are each called to be, it is humanity itself that is "our" (God's) greatest achievement and the single most important gift we can bring to the inhuman situations still so prevalent in our world. That is one of the lessons of Maximillian Kolbe's life and the real nature of any call to holiness.