Prisoner #16670 and The Interrogation of My Heart
Prisoner #16670 and The Interrogation of My Heart
It was recently the Feast day of Fr. Maximum Kolbe, a Franciscan Friar who died in the Auschwitz Nazi death camp in 1941. Usually when the year roles around August 14th, I carve a sacred space out of the day to reflect on Fr. Kolbe’s life but more his death. His death reflects so much of Christ’s Love and I am drawn to it with the same conundrum of emotions I feel when thinking of Jesus’s death. This year though, perhaps not unsacred itself, but work nonetheless did not grant me the space usually assigned to that date and I have not been able to shake the feeling of loss.
Like many other Christian’s who stood up and spoke out against the Nazi’s, Fr. Kolbe, a Catholic priest was sent to Auschwitz to pay for his defiance. Fr.Kolbe was stripped of his habit, given a worn prisoner's outfit and the name #16670. It has been recorded though that even through the nightmarish hell and abuse he suffered in the concentration camp, Fr. Kolbe still acted as a Priest. Often after working inhumane hours, eduring beatings and living on little bits of bread, he risked further beatings by leaving his bed late at night and crawled on the floor, going from bed to bed to hear confessions and pray with those facing some of the darkest history of our humanity. What conundrum and Cross he must have felt. Did this man filled with Heaven’s Love feel as if he had been sent to hell? Surely, the splinters of the Cross must of tore into his hands as he crawled on the floor, to hear prayers of those feeling forsaken by God, piercing his own heart under its weight. Yet Fr. Kolbe loved life and encouraged joy, prayer and song. His body might have been locked in a treacherous prison camp but there was something about his Spirit that was free.
One morning however, when it was time for roll call and the prisoners were to told to line up, one prisoner was missing. Auschwitz, in all its evil, held a policy that if someone did not report for roll call and was assumed escaped, ten men would be chosen to die in his place the slow cruel death of starvation. Fr. Kolbe watched that morning as 10 men were chosen by the Nazi officer on duty to die in the starvation cell known as the “Death Block”. As the Nazi officer lined them up to lead them away, one Jewish man cried out “Oh my poor wife, Oh my poor children. I shall never see them again.”. At that, Fr. Kolbe stepped out of the ranks and bravely walked up to the Nazi Officer. Fr. Kolbe stated that he was a Catholic Priest, and was requesting to take the man who had cried out's place. Everyone fell silent, guards, prisoners- everyone. In a place where man had to struggle every day and mere survival was all that could barely be hoped for, no one had ever asked this, had ever volunteered to die in another’s place. Shock must of deepened as the Nazi solider agreed and one man was exchanged for another in Death’s Line of humans it had gathered.
There is overwhelmingly so much to think about in this story that I hope you can see why my heart is captivated by it every August 14th…but today, I am thinking of The Last Supper with Christ. Like Christ, Fr. Kolbe knew that man needed a savior. He did not ask for a moment to speak with the doomed man to see if he was “qualified” to receive Fr. Kolbe’s life in lieu of his own. This man wasn’t even of the same Faith as Fr. Kolbe! Surely, Fr. Kolbe could have thought, must have thought about all those of his own Faith whose beds he crawled to night after night. Surely, they needed him, deserved his life more than this stranger…He was their Priest! Surely, if he was to give his life up for someone, he could at least wait until it was for one of his “own” people…heck, while this was surely an unjust death sentence, how did he even know this man was good or if he went on living would do anything good? He could even wait until it was at least for a well-known “good person”!...But Fr. Kolbe didn’t ask any of those questions. He acted like Jesus, and laid his life down for someone who needed a savior because he knew his Savior, Jesus.
The man, Fr. Kolbe gave his life up for had not done anything deserving death and in essence, Fr. Kolbe gave him his bread, and his life as he stepped into his “sentence” of starvation. Today I am thinking of The Last Supper and The Cross in relation to Fr. Kolbe's story. How much of what Fr. Kolbe did, is and isn’t like what Jesus did. At The Last Supper, Jesus did not ask if the Disciples were “innocent”. In fact, He pointed out the ones who weren’t! And what makes matters even worse is that these weren’t strangers, these were his friends! He KNEW He was giving up His Life and Himself as Bread to a "Betrayer" and a "Denier". He did not ask if they were “qualified” or were “worthy” to receive His Human/Divine life in place of their flawed sin-forsaken one. He didn’t even tell them to go get "cleaned up", and in right order and then come back and “THEN” He would feed them “Himself” and be their Savior. He didn’t separate and define who He would feed and die for and who he wouldn’t. No. Jesus just knelt down and started washing feet.
In the mist of their mess, in their disorder of righteous self, knowing that these very folks, the one’s right in front of Him, who called themselves His friends would all leave Him (save John), He washed ALL their feet. He fed ALL His Body as Bread –which signified Himself taking their place in Death’s Line of humans it had gathered. Jesus quite understood what He was doing for people who didn’t understand. He knew they needed a Savior. So He ACTED like Himself and knew in the end, this was the greatest way to teach who God IS. He still knows this!
Now this might be extreme, but it is worth pondering. How often do we “starve” people, send them to some “death block” in our hearts because they do not fall in line with protocol, do not profess our “faith”, are not who we say or think they “should be”…so they become undeserving of our time, our funds, our prayers, our hope and good wishes, OUR GOD! Instead with all kinds of self “justifications, ” we put them in some cell of our dark self, and will not “feed” them the very things that give US life… This is what fascinates me about Jesus and Fr.Kolbe-neither put conditions on their Love, on their ACTions. They just were LOVE IN ACTION reacting to what love does, not what evil does..
Fr. Kolbe’s life and death also reminds me that Fr. Kolbe understood that God,-Jesus did not ration Himself. Are there not times perhaps when it is easier to give someone “part” of Jesus, wanting them to do “xyz” before they get the rest of Jesus? But Jesus is always fully Himself…. My ability to let Him be or want Him to be Himself with another, says more about me than the one I am trying to ration God to. Is there a way to fully acknowledge that someone deserves the full Presence of God without my trying to hinder it, not because they are worthy of it (for nor am I!) but because God, Himself has made Himeself Present on earth for this very reason! Of course, each relationship with God delvelops, grows and deepens but God is not less present at any of our stages of growth..So the question is, do I do anything that tries to "regulate" God from acting like God with another human being until they meet some demand or formula that I have established to earn God's Love?
Jesus, did not withhold His Perfect Divinity and gave it to us through His sacred Humanity, that we might partake in it, be Saved by it and know how much we NEED His Love ALWAYS – in ALL our brokenness and disorder God is our only hope. And Fr. Kolbe, knowing His Savior Jesus and how he was Loved by Him, lived out the thing Jesus asked of His Disciples (even the screwed up, messed up, slow learning ones who later in life understood!) “Love one another as I have Loved you!”.
Sometimes around the HoH we deal with really tough and hard situations that involve systemic issues of poverty, the effects of drugs or other ugly things my heart deems as crimes against humanity. Situations that can sometimes make me want to hang up my hat, or determine that this person is “unqualified”, “disordered”, dang, outright messed up….and I begin to see myself laying brick for that “Death Cell” where I feel I can justify withholding the actions of my God, His Mercy….all the very things that got me God when I needed a Savior, and looking at my messy mortar job, that attest that I will ALWAYS NEED a Savior…. I think of my friend and fellow Catholic Worker, Nic.
Nic and I take turns saying to each other, “ The only one that doesn’t want someone to have God is the devil. Think about it, it’s true” God gave Himself to everybody. Will I let Him do that and more will I tell the truth about it..God is for me as much as He is for another. Some days it is easier to look at one side of the coin than the other, but the Truth is the value is in the whole coin, not just one side.
We can’t earn God’s Love, whether it comes from a direct experience or through one of His conduits-Disciples. It is a Gift that is given and True Love brings Life and want healthiness for us. It does not say “get healthy” and then I will “feed” you the Life and Healthiness of The Love of God that I, myself need to be healthy. No, it says, while I cannot or do not want to participate in what is unhealthy, I will continue to hold out what is Life and Health and what is the merciful Love God. Sometimes, that can mean washing a betrayers or deniers feet, sometimes that means showing a Nazi guard what Heaven’s Love does to death, sometimes that means dismantling one’s own judgment and putting on Christ’s.
~ Peace and Always,
*Fr. Kolbe, went to the “Death Block”, and it is recorded that over the course of two weeks he led the men in song and prayer. As one after the other died Fr. Kolbe stayed by their side, reminding them that soon they would be free and death could not hold them but God’s Love would. After every last man had passed on, except Fr. Kolbe, an executioner was sent in to give him a lethal injection. Fr. Kolbe, just smiled and prayed as the executioner injected the poison in his arm. He knew he was going to Heaven, where Jesus would gather all in Life and there would be no more destruction.
* The Auschwitz Camp had a revival in Spirit and the legacy of Fr. Kolbe lives to this day. The Jewish man whose life was spared spent the rest of his life telling the story of the Catholic Priest who saved his life.
* In October of 1982 with the opening papal decree "Greater love hath no man than this ..." by Polish Pope John Paul II , Maximum Kolbe was canonized as a Saint and his life story was given to the Church as an example to learn from.
*Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” Matthew 5:7