Cherishing the Gift of Life

When St Maximilian Kolbe was canonised as a martyr, I was rather dubious. It seemed to me that the pope (St John Paul II) was stretching the traditional definition of martyrdom too far. St Maximilian was, by all accounts, a martyr of charity, but did he die in defence of Catholic truth?  Then again, although I shared his enthusiasm for the latest and best printing equipment, I was not drawn to the Friars of the Immaculate and their particular forms of devotion, nor did I share their particular conception of mission. Wasn’t St Maximilian just a little too alien to be my kind of saint? What a horribly officious little prig I was (and maybe still am)!

I realise now that the witness Maximilian Kolbe gave to the truth of the Cross was immense. He gave his life for another and, in so doing, taught us something important about life itself and the nature of priesthood. He died because he cherished life, not because he saw it as of no consequence, and he fulfilled his priesthood by sacrificing himself as our Lord Jesus Christ sacrificed himself.

I was thinking about this when I heard on the radio that a fellow cancer-sufferer intends to take his own life today at the Dignitas Clinic in Switzerland. I am praying that he may have a change of heart, not because I want him to experience more pain and suffering — I don’t — but because the gift of life is the most beautiful gift any of us ever receives; and it is given us on trust. To choose to end it strikes me as inutterably sad and is symptomatic of the throwaway culture we have embraced so heartily in the West. If life isn’t perfect, scrap it.

In September Parliament will have another Assisted Dying (Suicide) Bill before it*. If passed, those of us with terminal illnesses may well feel pressure to ‘do the decent thing’ and lift a burden from our family/community and the State. Then what of the old, the disabled, the not-very-bright, the socially inept, the criminal, all the imperfect beings that go to make up the definitely perfect world in which we live? We all have a tendency to argue from our own experience and do not always see the wider implications of choices made from a particular perspective. Most of us have probably experienced times when we felt that life was not worth living — when pain, grief and despair sucked everything human from us and left us an empty shell. Most of us will have seen someone we love suffer great pain and anguish. But is choosing to end life the best way of dealing with pain and suffering, or even imperfection as society views it? In his bunker, St Maximilian Kolbe experienced the torment of starvation, thirst and unbearable heat, but he went on, encouraging others, praising God and, yes, cherishing the gift of life. May we think very seriously about how we ourselves do the same.

* A Private Member’s Bill proposed by the Labour MP Rob Marris.


Standing Up and Being Counted

We all like to think that, should the time ever come, we’d stand up for what we believe. ‘Standing up and being counted’ has not yet been devalued by our politicians as other phrases have (cf ‘the right thing to do’). Standing up and being counted is what we do when confronted by something we see as wrong, simple as that. It suggests plucky little David outfacing and ultimately overcoming Goliath. Today, however, the feast of St Maximilian Kolbe reminds us that the outcome isn’t always positive. Maximilian overcame evil and death, but only at the sacrifice of his own life. He volunteered to take the place of the condemned soldier and himself died an agonizing death from starvation, assisted at the end by a lethal injection of carbolic acid. Until his strength gave out, he tried to keep up the spirits of his companions by singing hymns and praying aloud. He was a priest until the last, a man for others.

When St Maximilian was canonized as a martyr I felt a little uncomfortable. Could he be said to have died in defence of the Faith? He was indeed a martyr of charity, but wasn’t it blurring the distinctions to call him a martyr tout court? I deeply regret the arrogance of my younger self. Maximilian Kolbe had many traits that I personally find unsympathetic (God does tend to make saints according to his own notions rather than mine), but can there be any better ‘defence’ of Christianity than to live according to its tenets under the most trying of circumstances? Maximilian’s death in that sweltering bunker was horrible; but it taught others how to live. He gave his life freely because Christ had given His life for him. And incidentally, he made one English nun rethink the way she views martyrdom.

Note: If you want to know more about St Maximilian, the Wikipedia article is not bad.