A couple of my readers reminded me that yesterday was the feast day of St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan who earned the martyr’s palm in an Auschwitz starvation bunker. At first I protested that I’m a Max, not a Maximilian, but they said it made no difference. Rather than wait for the Church to canonize any of the millions of papillons or shiba inus who share my exact name, I figured I might as well celebrate. Life, as St. Maximilian reminds us, is short — sometimes.
Here, as in so many other instances, I had prejudices to overcome. The future saint – or, as he was then known, Prisoner 16670 – was not among those initially chosen to suffer collective punishment for the apparent escape of an inmate (who was later found drowned in one of the camp latrines). Instead, he volunteered to take the place of a Polish army sergeant named Franciszek Gajowniczek, who later recalled him speaking words along these lines:
“I want to go instead of the man who was selected. He has a wife and family. I am alone. I am a Catholic priest.”
Given a parochial reading, this sounds like an awfully dour message for Catholic singles. To that point, Kolbe had managed a pretty impressive contribution to Christendom. He had launched an ecclesial movement, the Militia Immaculata, whose monthly magazine – in Polish, Rycerz Niepokalanej – gained a circulation in the hundreds of thousands. To boot, he had undertaken missionary work in the Far East, founding a monastery in Nagasaki that would survive Little Boy’s surprise visit in August of ’45.
When the Germans invaded Poland, Kolbe did his bit for his country, helping to convert his monastery into a shelter for war refugees, and circulating patriotic messages through the press. Even in captivity, he devised means of keeping his ministry alive, reportedly hearing confessions and offering his rations to fellow prisoners. And yet — it seems — by his own reckoning, none of these responsibilities counted a straw against Gajownicek’s towards his wife and kids.
Fortunately, on close examination, it doesn’t appear that Kolbe was thinking in consequentialist terms, much less proposing a fixed set of protocols along the lines of “Women and children to the lifeboats first.” From a very early age, he seems to have regarded martyrdom as a personal vocation. In a childhood dream, the Blessed Mother offered him his choice of a white crown, representing purity, and a red crown, representing martyrdom. Greedy kid that he was, Kolbe demanded both. In Auschwitz, he was heard to say, “Every man has an aim in life. For most men it is to return home to their wives and families, or to their mothers. For my part, I give my life for the good of all men.”
Martyrdom is not for everyone — not even for all Catholic singles. In his life of St. Maximilian’s spiritual forbear, Francis of Assisi, Chesterton joked that the founding friar’s unexpectedly warm reception in the Ayyubid sultan’s court could have formed the plot of a “tragedy-comedy called The Man Who Could Not Get Killed.” Francis, poor guy, couldn’t even talk the ulema into a trial by ordeal that would give him the opportunity to fling himself headfirst into a fire.
But last winter, after Pertev and I decided — more or less amicably — to call our marriage off, I started casting about for some spectacular act through which I might redeem what I considered my failure. With ISIS waging war just around the corner in Syria and Iraq, I did not have very far to look. After writing about the Lions of Rojava, a section of the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit that solicited foreign volunteers, I made discreet inquiries about joining.
Assuming my eyesight would disqualify me as a recruit, I asked to be embedded as a correspondent. Nevertheless, the possibility of dying in odium fidei, as some argued that journalist James Foley had, was very much in the front of my mind, and not at all unattractive. Media people have coined the term “Hemingway disease” for a writer’s ambition to win credibility in the cannon’s mouth. My yearning for a glorious death — or at any rate a glorious game of chicken — to make up for a fruitless life might better be called the Guy Crouchback disease, after the sad-sack, idealistic hero of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honor trilogy.
Not to ruin the suspense, but the Lions never deigned to respond. My time, as the good Book says, had not yet come. The funny thing is that if any Church authority had called on all singles past a certain age to live, as penitents, in community, devoting the remainder of their lives to the most menial forms of service, I’d have responded by hoisting my third finger like the oriflamme. A swift and prestigious end still sounds less horrible than a protracted and tedious one. Never mind that regimented drudgery is much more typical of a soldier’s life than getting shot at.
Fortunately, self-abnegation on the grand scale is also a calling, and whoever discerns it in error tends to be a cross for the very people he or she wants to help. Once I asked a nun what sorts of people tended to make life religious life miserable. Without hesitating, she answered, “People who are needy.” There, thanks be to God, is my out.
St. Maximilian Kolbe felt called both to a life of austerity and to martyrdom. (Surely the Virgin offered a choice strictly as a formality.) Safe and sound in the States and in the cool light of reason, I can only say, on both counts, “Better him than me.” To which St. Maximilian would probably answer, “Tak — that’s the whole point.”