14 Aug – Saint Maximilian Kolbe, Priest, Martyr (1894 – 1941)
He was born on 8 January 1894 in occupied Poland: he joined the Franciscans in Lwów in 1910, and was ordained eight years later, as his country became free and independent for the first time in over 120 years.
He believed that the world was passing through a time of intense spiritual crisis, and that Christians must fight for the world’s salvation with all the means of modern communication. He founded a newspaper, and a sodality called the Knights of Mary Immaculate, which spread widely both in Poland and abroad.
In 1927 he founded a community, a “city of Mary,” at Teresin: centred round the Franciscan friary, it attracted many lay people, and became self-supporting, publishing many periodicals and running its own radio station.
In 1930 he went to Japan, studied Buddhism and Shintoism, and through the Japanese edition of his newspaper spread the Christian message in a way that was in harmony with Japanese culture. In Nagasaki, he set up a “Garden of the Immaculate,” which survived the atomic bomb.
He also travelled to Malabar and to Moscow, but was recalled to Poland in 1936 for reasons of health.
When the Germans invaded in 1939, the community at Teresin sheltered thousands of refugees, most of them Jews.
In 1941 he was arrested and sent to the concentration camp at Auschwitz, where he helped and succoured the inmates. In August of that year a prisoner escaped, and in reprisal the authorities were choosing ten people to die by starvation. One of the men had a family, and Maximilian Kolbe offered to take his place. The offer was accepted, and he spent his last days comforting his fellow prisoners.
The man he saved was present at his canonization.
Maximilian Kolbe’s martyrdom is the least important thing about him. We are none of us likely to find ourselves in a position to emulate his sacrifice, and speculation as to the heroic way in which we would have behaved in his place is a pernicious waste of time. What is important is that he acted the way he did because of who he was – or, rather, because of who he had become. It is because of who he had become that we revere him as a saint: he would have been a saint (though perhaps not canonized) even if he had not been martyred. And that process of becoming is something we can all emulate. We can all become people for whom doing the right thing is obvious, natural, and easy. It requires no heroism, no special gifts: just perseverance, and prayer.
Moses said to the people:
‘Now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you? Only this: to fear the Lord your God, to follow all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul, to keep the commandments and laws of the Lord that for your good I lay down for you today.
‘To the Lord your God belong indeed heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth and all it contains; yet it was on your fathers that the Lord set his heart for love of them, and after them of all the nations chose their descendants, you yourselves, up to the present day. Circumcise your heart then and be obstinate no longer; for the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, triumphant and terrible, never partial, never to be bribed. It is he who sees justice done for the orphan and the widow, who loves the stranger and gives him food and clothing. Love the stranger then, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. It is the Lord your God you must fear and serve; you must cling to him; in his name take your oaths. He it is you must praise, he is your God: for you he has done these great and terrible things you have seen with your own eyes; and though your fathers numbered only seventy when they went down to Egypt, the Lord your God has made you as many as the stars of heaven.’
One day when they were together in Galilee, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘The Son of Man is going to be handed over into the power of men; they will put him to death, and on the third day he will be raised to life again.’ And a great sadness came over them.
When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the half-shekel came to Peter and said, ‘Does your master not pay the half-shekel?’ ‘Oh yes’ he replied, and went into the house. But before he could speak, Jesus said, ‘Simon, what is your opinion? From whom do the kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their sons or from foreigners?’ And when he replied, ‘From foreigners’, Jesus said, ‘Well then, the sons are exempt. However, so as not to offend these people, go to the lake and cast a hook; take the first fish that bites, open its mouth and there you will find a shekel; take it and give it to them for me and for you.’
Love the stranger then, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Are you a foreigner where you live? Maybe you have studied or worked abroad at some point in your life, or even now. Maybe you have just returned from living overseas for a period of time. How did you feel when you first arrived? Can you recall those tentative, uncertain, shy, and anxious moments of wondering if you would fit in? Were you terrified of sorely sticking out and being targeted or stared at?
I have just returned from living in the USA for the past year. It has been just two weeks since my return to Singapore. While this has not been a long arrangement, coming home entailed much adjustment. Why? My husband and I relocated for his work right after we were married. We spent a couple of months finding our footing in a foreign land, setting up a brand new (short term) first home in a strange neighbourhood, finding a church community, etc. After we had struggled and established a wonderful routine there, we had to start making plans to leave, pack up, and return home. All in a span of 12 months! Upon our return home, we have been without a place to call our home until we found a rental apartment. We moved temporarily back into our respective parental homes and adjusted to living apart until we could find a place. Essentially, we were pilgrims or wanderers. I truly felt like a stranger passing through all manners of foreign lands, living with this season of feeling up-rooted and un-rooted.
I am acutely aware of the scripture readings today, which speak of the transient nature of our earthly sojourn. So often we take for granted our privilege of living in our own country, or having a home of one’s own. This is especially true when one lives in a place of general prosperity and stability. Yet as Christians, who may live in all parts of the world with such diverse circumstances and experiences, we are reminded constantly of the Israelites and their endless desert wandering. Though they are God’s chosen people, He never gave them the cushy life of permanence and stability. This is the reality of life we must acknowledge. It unnerves, yet matures us.
I believe that more than a mere literal reading, us modern Christians are also given a heritage example of what our earthly time really means. We are all strangers in this foreign land of the world. Our true eternal address, if we so desire, is heaven-bound with God our Father. This cannot be a contrite statement of tokenism. None of us will live on this earth forever! In fact, this should hit us squarely between the eyes that we are stewards of our homelands, families, and our environment. Likewise, our fellow commuter on the bus or train, who may clearly be of a different nationality, is no lesser than us in the eyes of God who has so graciously ordained the very soil on which you and I happened to be born in.
How then have we chosen to treat the man on the street; the one who is also our brother and sister in Christ? As I write this, I am reflecting on the terrible wars, civil unrest, and terrorist sieges happening over the world. Though we condemn these actions, some of us are so far removed (physically) from the events that we think it is something the ‘others’ have failed at. But what have we personally chosen to do in our own department of lives? Where have we been sounding like clanging cymbals and gongs about ‘Love’ but have not acted ‘IN Love’?
I have been challenged indubitably for the past few days in my own microcosm of life. We must not reduce the racism, violence, or terrorism that is happening on this large scale to ‘loving thy neighbour/stranger’ in tokenism. But instead, to think specifically of that ‘neighbour/stranger’ you are tempted to distance or hate, or the one who seems to deserve your wrath for a transgression. Is it possible to try and love that one whom, for some reason, you just cannot find mercy for in your heart? Try that. Then try to radiate that same sensibility outwards. It’s easier to condemn others for larger faults, than to admit to one’s own cosy hypocrisy.
(Today’s OXYGEN by Debbie Loo)
Prayer: I pray for peace in the world. I pray that I will choose to be at peace with the people I live with and the many others who cross my path.
Thanksgiving: I give thanks for my lot in life. I continue to be grateful for my daily portion, even if a part of it may taste sour or bitter.