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.




It is sad that many people now principally hear the word ‘martyr’ in the context of what, for want of a better term, I can only call Islamic extremism. There is a world of difference between the suicide bomber who inflicts death on others in the name of religion and the Christian martyr who suffers death rather than betray the One in whom he/she believes. Seeking martyrdom is, according to the Christian understanding, wrong; but if today you should want to be a martyr, you do not have to travel very far. Go to North Africa and the Middle East, to the lands of the first martyrs, and there you will find opportunity in plenty. The Christians of Mosul and Qaraqosh know all there is to know about the cost of witnessing to Christ.

St Maximilain Kolbe, whose feast we keep today, knew about that cost, too. He stood up to a brutal regime and paid the price for his Christian beliefs. In an earlier post, Standing Up and Being Counted, I reflected on the nature of his martyrdom and my own initial difficulty in seeing him as a martyr in the classical sense. In another, Feeling a Failure, I wondered aloud about the thoughts and feelings he experienced in that dark bunker as his life ebbed away. Today, however, I think I would simply ask his prayers, and the prayers of all the saints, for our persecuted brothers and sisters. The martyrs of our own day are no less glorious in their fidelity than those of the past.


Feeling a Failure

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.