Jesus Christ suffered and died. He really did, physically and horribly. And we are called to enter FULLY into His death by uniting our sufferings to His.
There is indeed a difference between staying fixated on His death like its the only reality and by allowing death to overcome us for the sake of our beloved. It’s just, we don’t always have a clear enough sense of our identity or self worth in order to make a sincere gift of ourselves! That’s why Christ is the essential element in all of daily life. HE AND HE ALONE is capable of making visible what is invisible, the spiritual and divine. If you understand where this is coming from, you’re in good company. St. John Paul the Great recognized the importance of self-gift as it relates to our very bodies, but He always approaches the beauty of the Gospel through the lens of integration. In other words, it’s less about what we DO, and more about who we ARE and who we are BECOMING with every given choice we make.
What we do simply EXPRESSES who we are, and when we shift our focus onto the more critical outcome of that, we have achieved an essence that transcends our darkened nature of exaggerated anxiety and discombobulation. Unfortunately, not everyone has it all together like that, giving us the call to be lights amidst the darkness and disorientation. Even when it’s hard. Even when the one we are called to serve is ungrateful or uncouthe in some way! It is precisely in those moments that we can only say, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” And then we can rest in the peace of a deeper and more virtuous life of fraternal charity!
But first, THE DEATH.
This morning brought us to Auschwitz Concentration Camp, where millions upon millions of men, women, and children were stripped of their dignity, tortured, disfigured, murdered, and beyond. The greatest atrocities enacted upon them were enough to completely discredit our own inconveniences as the day wore on. Nothing like it had ever been so horrific in this world, and sadly we have seen the ideologies of eugenics and sexual experimentation flourish from those dark days. Without getting into the permanent effects their utopian aspirations embedded within our culture, we knew we had come to a place of great sorrow.
The silence was deafening.
Hundreds of thousands of us had flocked to the place that replaced God with man. “Work will set you free” the infamous gateway proclaimed to the masses (“Arbeit Macht Frei” in German) as the Nazis subjected them to the absolute horror within. It was almost as if they were so fearful the Truth of their methods for cleansing the human race would get out that they enslaved those same “unfit” souls to do the dirty work so as to cover up their atrocities. The work camp was the first place we visited, and as we passed under those gates, it was time to enter a solitude together that would last for as long as one needed.
The most terrifying deaths were not the gas chambers or the showers, not the crematorium or the exhaustive work…not even the experimentation on those unfit or “abnormal” individuals. Rather, death often came in the form of a silent, long-lasting agony of depravation. Death by starvation and neglect gave the Nazi regime an intimidation factor that overcame many escape attempts. In fact, this is the very cause of the great St. Maximilian Kolbe as he made his legendary leap into martyrdom.
He gave his life for a young father with a wife and children at home. He chose to starve to death in the man’s place after another man escaped the camp, and for the next two weeks, he ministered and prayed with the other nine men who were sentenced to join him. At the end of that horrific ordeal, as Kolbe lay helpless and reduced to a skeletal frame, the soldiers came to inject him with a lethal dose of carbolic acid, and then–burning him in the crematorium–they scattered his ashes to the winds.
We had just spent the morning praying a Divine Mercy Chaplet for St. Maximilian Kolbe and St. Teresa Benedicta (Edith Stein). After witnessing the very building where he starved to death and the rubble left over from the crematoriums which consumed them both…Madeline made a particularly inspired move as she lay a small wildflower on the small red triangle that we discovered embedded in the cobblestone on the street where Kolbe died. That small red triangle was the symbol they pinned to the “striped pajamas” of every Catholic priest who entered Auschwitz. To us, it was a gravestone for our heroic martyr. To the world, it was a relic from a bygone era, and we paid our respects to those who lost their lives without the consideration of a dignified burial.
And yet, while we felt the echoes of humanity and breathed in that lifeless air, a particular place of sorrow gripped me with anguish like I never before encountered. A simple gravestone in front of a serene little pond lay towards the end of Auschwitz-Birkenau., inscribed with the words:
“To the memory of the men, women, and children who fell victim to the Nazi genocide. In this pond lie their ashes. May their souls rest in peace.”
Weeping on my knees then, I could hear their screams for the first time. I could hear the cries of anguish and despair as I looked out over the vastness of Auschwitz. I could hear the attempts to overthrow the soldiers, the gunfire, explosions, and even the nausea and smell of cooking flesh. The Nazis tried to cover their tracks at the end of the war, by physically burning down the bunkers and the gas chambers, destroying documents and attempting to erase history. Indeed, I saw no list of survivors or the lost, and though I’m sure one exists somewhere in a museum we did not see–I can only imagine how incomplete it must be, many of the nameless individuals who simply disappeared from the face of the Earth.
This is what it means to live a “hidden” life, for no one can possibly know the thoughts, prayers, or joys of these people as they faced this Hell on earth. Yet, as the darkness bore down upon us, something clicked in our hearts at the same time. We were not there simply to mourn the dead and cry in anguish over the past. Birkenau’s gate was known as the “Gate of Death”, but just two days before, we had just entered the “Gate of Mercy” in Warsaw at the end of Days in the Diocese!
Surely, Christ’s VICTORY began with his merciful love on the Cross! On Good Friday, that incredible Man and Son of God entered the Gates of Mercy with His Passion and Death! His Blood and Water were the very streams which healed the darkened souls of Hell’s occupants. “MY GOD MY GOD–WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?!” He cried out, and at that moment, He knew. “It is finished.” Not His work on the Cross, but rather His gift of Truth became His crowning achievement, and it accomplished the very same Red Crown of Martyrdom in which St. Maximilian Kolbe and so many others shared.
And it was time for us to experience just a small taste of that red crown…
TO BE CONTINUED.