Most of us, at some time or other, feel a failure. The reasons we do so are many and various. Sometimes we have indeed failed someone or something, and living with that knowledge can be painful in the extreme. More often, we feel a dissatisfaction with self which may be entirely irrational but which nevertheless clouds our vision, makes our spirits plummet and proves impossible to shake off by our own efforts. I wonder if St Maximilan Kolbe felt a failure during his last days in the bunker as he slowly starved to death. His life had been full of activity and, as this world goes, success. He had realised a vast spiritual ambition but now he was reduced to his humanity alone. He had had compassion on a married man and volunteered to take his place, but after that last fine act of generosity there was the slow working out of its implications in the heat and stench of the bunker. The hymn singing and attempts to lift the spirits of others were surely an effort, and there must have been times when he doubted, felt like giving up, questioned whether it had any value, simply wanted it all to end.
The difference between a martyr and ourselves is that a martyr goes on when we give up; accepts humiliation and failure when we rail against them or despair; sees God, where we see only emptiness or evil. St Maximilian may have felt a failure, just as Jesus on the Cross may have felt a failure; but the failure was swallowed up in victory. He is an encouragement to us all, and it is no accident that it was his compassion, rather than all his many other gifts and works, that taught him how to be a true Christian in the hell of a Nazi death cell.