St. Maximilian Kolbe

Song Amidst Sorrow

Ten men stand gathered in prayer.  Maximilian Kolbe leads the group and begins to sing.  The men join him in song, and their praises echo from within Cell 18 of Block 11.  The men are shut in an underground bunker in Auschwitz, sentenced to die because of a prisoner escape.  And yet, in the midst of this great darkness, the men were singing. Their leader, Kolbe, chose to be there.  One of the men chosen to die had been Franciszek Gajowniczek, a Polish army sergeant. But Gajowniczek began to cry out, “My wife! My children!”  Maximilian Kolbe stepped forward courageously, saying, “I am a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children.”  And so after two weeks in the bunker, watching the men around him die, continuing to pray and sing, Maximilian Kolbe–instead of Franciszek Gajowniczek–died from a lethal injection of carbolic acid.

Biography

Maximilian Kolbe was born Raymund Kolbe on January 8, 1894 in Zdunska Wola, Poland.  At a young age, Kolbe had a vision of the Blessed Mother offering him two crowns–one white and one red–for perseverance in purity and for martyrdom.  Kolbe asked to receive both crowns.

The vision ignited within Kolbe a desire to serve Christ.  At 13 years old, Kolbe left to attend the Conventual Franciscan Seminary in Lwow.  He took the religious name Maximilian in 1910. He was ordained a priest and returned to Poland in 1919.

Kolbe taught the faith through radio broadcasts and publications.  His monastery near Warsaw gave shelter to Jews during the Second World War.  After his monastery published a series of anti-Nazi pamphlets, Kolbe was arrested and sent to Auschwitz on February 17, 1941, for hiding Jews.  

In July 1941, one of the Nazi commanders found that some prisoners had escaped. He ordered the execution of ten men.  When Maximilian Kolbe courageously volunteered to take the place of Franciszek Gajowniczek, the switch was allowed.

After two weeks, the guards came in with a lethal injection of carbolic acid.  They needed to clear the cell to make room for additional executees. Kolbe calmly accepted his death, never ceasing his prayers for the men that were persecuting him.

Franciszek Gajowniczek was reunited with his wife in 1946, but his two sons died in the war.  He attended Maximilian Kolbe’s canonization in 1981 and survived to the age of 93. Each year on August 14, he returned to Auschwitz, honoring the man who gave his life to save him.

St. Maximilian Kolbe and I

There are some saints that chose us, rather than us choosing them. I first remember hearing of St. Maximilian Kolbe, the saint with both the crown of martyrdom and the crown of heroic virtue, when I was in middle school. His story, that of a priest in a concentration camp that gave his life to save another, has stuck with me ever since.

For nearly two years now, St. Maximilian Kolbe has held a special place in my heart. Upon learning that I was pregnant, Maximilian Kolbe became one of my patrons as I asked for a healthy pregnancy, safe delivery, and healthy baby.

Madeleine’s middle name was originally going to be Cecilia. Neither Nicholas nor I felt strongly attached to the name. When we discovered we were having a girl, Nicholas and I knew that her middle name needed to change. There needed to be some connection to Maximilian Kolbe.

Nicholas suggested “Kolbe” as her middle name, but I felt it was too masculine. For a week or so, we prayed and struggled to find alternatives with a tie to St. Maximilian. Finally, we went to Mass.

During Mass, Nicholas turned to me and asked, “What about Immaculata?” It was perfect. Not only was it a tie to St. Maximilian Kolbe through the Militia Immaculata he founded, but also it was a tie to the Blessed Mother and a nod to me, as my birthday is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

He has been her patron ever since.

I first became fascinated by St. Maximilian Kolbe after a trip to Poland in 2015. There was no time to visit Auschwitz, but I saw multiple mentions of him throughout the trip. His courage and selflessness impressed upon my heart the great value that is a human life. Upon my return, I made him the subject of one of my creative writing assignments.

Maximilian Kolbe continued to pop up in various ways. I was working on an application to Dynamic Catholic in 2016. The topic I was assigned for my sample writing assignments? St. Maximilian Kolbe.

Last week, I began setting up my classroom. I looked at the saint outside my door, the saint designated as my classroom patron: St. Maximilian Kolbe, Patron Saint of Journalists.

I very nearly cried.

Just today, Nicholas informed me that St. Maximilian Kolbe’s birthday is January 8th. I was baptized on January 8th. Clearly, I am meant to have a connection with this saint.

This year, in all of my classes, we will be beginning class with prayers written by or asking the intercession of St. Maximilian Kolbe. He is a saint that demonstrates that there is light amidst darkness, hope amidst despair, love amidst great evil. And that is the sort of saint that many of us need in our lives to continue to hope when all else seems stacked against us.

St. Maximilian Kolbe, Pray for Us

St. Maximilian Kolbe, we ask you to help us to grow in selflessness and generosity.  Inspire us to sacrifice ourselves and our desires for the good of others. Help us to remain joyful even in the midst of great darkness and suffering, and to pray especially for those that have wounded us.

St. Maximilian Kolbe, you were willing to give your life to save the life of another.  Help us to more deeply recognize the sacredness and infinite value of each human life. Grant that through your prayers, all families, prisoners, and drug addicts may find joy and peace in Christ.

If you would like to read more about St. Maximilian Kolbe, you can find a creative piece I wrote on him here.


Beauty in the Broken

I have often struggled with feeling broken and betrayed by my body.

It began with our struggle with infertility and my anxiety, when I felt that because my body would not carry a child, that not only was I broken, that I wasn’t fulfilling my vocation as a woman and spouse.

When I became a mother, during my pregnancy I thought to myself, “now, finally, I am healed.” As I passed each milestone, and birth came closer and closer, I let go of those feelings of brokenness and rejoiced in my body. My body was creating life, and I rejoiced in the pains and struggles of pregnancy, because I no longer felt betrayed by my body.

I thought that feeling of brokenness and betrayal by my body would change definitively with my daughter’s birth. I thought her birth would heal that wound, the feeling that my body had betrayed me.

And yet, after Madeleine’s birth, that wound remained.

I was a mother now. Everything we had prayed for had happened. Her birth was beautiful. Madeleine was even born on her due date, the feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel after I’d prayed a novena to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel that she would arrive on time.

And yet, in all that joy, I was drowning.

My body was a stranger to me. Nothing prepared me for how different my body felt to me after Madeleine’s birth. And then on top of that, Madeleine would scream when I tried to feed her. It sometimes took an hour and a half just to feed her.

It was then that I started to notice my hands.

I remember a reflection during our marriage prep that asked you to hold your betrothed’s hands. It asked you think about how these hands, the hands holding your own, would be the hands to care for you when you were sick, to comfort you in times of difficulty, to hold and love your children.

After Madeleine’s birth, my hands ached. They were constantly stiff and sore. I blamed having to take hours to nurse Madeleine and constantly hold her in the same position. But it kept getting worse. I thought perhaps my De Quervains Syndrome (like carpal tunnel) was returning and was sure that after a time it would get better.

Then my shoulders started to ache. I blamed my ring sling, and stopped wearing it. But the pain remained. I couldn’t lift my hands above my head without pain. I blamed having to sit in the same position for hours to feed Madeleine.

But then one night, Madeleine woke up crying. She needed to be fed. And I struggled to get to her.

I struggled to move myself out of bed. My whole body was stiff and sore. Madeleine’s crying became louder and louder. I felt terrible. And then, when I finally got to her, I realized I couldn’t pick my baby up out of her crib.

I woke up Nicholas, who brought Madeleine to me in the rocking chair. I could barely hold her, even with my nursing pillow. It was that night that I realized something was terribly wrong.

About two months after that night when my hands refused to work (this past November), I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis.

The doctor explained that my immune system had started to attack my joints. I would need to be on an immunosuppressant indefinitely. She explained that it was probably my pregnancy that had triggered the autoimmune disease.

And once again, I felt betrayed by my body.

My pregnancy and Madeleine’s birth had started to heal the wounds of betrayal I had felt after almost two years of infertility. Suddenly, those wounds were cut open again. My body was literally attacking itself. It wasn’t functioning as it should, again, and it was affecting my ability to care for my daughter. I was angry, I was hurt, I was broken.

But if there’s anything I’ve learned from infertility, it is that there is beauty in brokenness.

My body had betrayed me again, but I decided that wouldn’t stop me from being a good mother, from being a good wife, from being a daughter of God. Instead, I tried to turn to the Cross. I repeated to myself in times of weakness, “this is my body, given up for you.” I repeated it when it was difficult to pick up my daughter. I repeated it when I struggled to feed my daughter because my hands ached. I repeated it when I woke in the middle of the night to Madeleine crying, needing me, and my body was stiff again. I repeated it when I looked in the mirror and was unhappy with my body because my arthritis had prevented me from exercising until my medication started working.

I decided that my RA would not change how I parent, would not change my fitness goals, would not change my vocation, would not change my faith. I began researching ways to heal my body through diet and exercise. I have set a goal for myself to run a Spartan race either this summer or fall. I have decided to show my daughter that having a chronic illness does not mean that you cannot be active, that you cannot do extraordinary things, that you cannot lead a life of adventure and faith.

I started trying to take care of myself. I began a new diet about two months ago to help with inflammation. I purchased an exercise program to help heal and strengthen my core from pregnancy. I’m going to be blogging more often as part of self care and posting updates about my progress with training and treatment of RA. I’ve been trying to pray more often and focus on joy and acceptance.

We cannot choose our crosses. I do not know yet what purpose this cross carries, but I know that when we received news of my diagnosis and told my husband, that he had a profound sense of peace. “We need this,” he said.

I remember the reflection given during our marriage preparation now whenever I look at my hands and the hands of my husband. For although my hands are sometimes inflamed and in pain, I know that Christ has gifted me my husband to be my hands and feet when my own will not work. Before I was a mother, I felt broken because of our struggles to have a child. I felt betrayed by my own body, angry that my body wasn’t working as it ought, crippled by my body’s brokenness. Now, I feel broken because there are some days when my whole body aches. And yet, I know that I need this. I need to remember that I am broken, that I am weak, that I am wounded. Because in my brokenness, I am reminded to look at Christ on the Cross.

God gives us what we need. He challenges us, and allows us suffering so that we might realize our littleness. So that we might turn to the Cross, see Christ bloody, bruised, and beaten, and know in our hearts the great sacrificial love of Christ for us. Christ on the Cross shows us the profound depths of God’s love for us, and will always stand as a reminder to us all that there is immense beauty in the broken.

A Letter to my Future Children

When Nicholas and I decided to be open to children from the beginning of our marriage, we both hoped for the best. I could never have anticipated the heartbreak that has accompanied us on our journey towards having a child. I broke down the night after I took a negative pregnancy test during our fourth month of trying. And so as I knelt in front of our home oratory with tears streaming down my face, I felt a deep sense of loss. I had been so sure I was pregnant. I was heartbroken and crushed, and I started pouring my heart out in my journal. This letter to my children, whom I deeply longed to hold in my arms, is what resulted from that experience of loss. In a sense, It is this letter that marks the beginning of my journey with infertility. 

A letter to my future children, April 30 2016 

Oh my child, how I love you. I love you so dearly and my heart breaks that you are not yet with me. For I have loved you. Before God formed you in my womb, I knew you. I knew the tears I would shed for love and want of you. I anticipated the joy I would experience in finding out that you were coming. I anticipated the fear I would know as you grew. The pain as you were sick. My beloved child, before I was ever a mother, I loved you with a maternal love.

 I prayed for the joys and the sufferings. I poured out my heart to Christ. I saw you at once a child and grown, and my heart welled up with joy and sorrow.  

 I have consecrated your hearts to Christ and promise to raise you as saints. Yet even now I know I must commend you to your true mother, Mary. She will always protect you.

I am imperfect, and I may hurt you. Already this fills my heart with deep sorrow. I beg your forgiveness, my child, and ask you to commend me in prayer to Christ through the Blessed Mother.

 I cannot explain my love for you. I only know that I am your mother. You have always been a part of my heart and you always will be, even if you come to my arms through the sacrifice of another. You will always have a place in my arms and prayers. But until you can be in my arms, I hold you in my heart. But know that for me, you have always been here, though I cannot know the time or the way you will come to me.

I want to thank you for sanctifying me. I want to thank you for teaching me how to love. For though you are not yet in my arms, I know my beloved child, that you will lead me to Christ as I strive in my imperfection with the Blessed Mother to bring you to His Heart.

 My darling, I pray for you. I pray each day for you. I sometimes fail in my prayer life, but you are always in my heart. Never doubt how deeply you are loved and how much your father and I have desired you. For we have desired you with longing and pained hearts, but the wait is worth it.

 For though I love you my child, I do not love you enough. I can never give the love you truly deserve, for that love is the love of Christ. And it is only in His time that you, all of you, will come. But I know you will come. For I hope in the Lord. My Lord is my good shepherd, in Him I put my trust. My heart is waiting on the Lord, watching and waiting for my beloved children.

Love always,

Your Mama
This is the seventh post in a series for National Infertility Awareness Week. 

Entering into the Tomb

During lent of last year, I began praying the Servite Rosary.  Rather than five decades of Hail Marys, each meditating on a portion of Christ’s life, the Servite Rosary has seven septets of Hail Marys, each meditating on a particular sorrow of Mary. I fell in love with the seven sorrows of Mary. I found a profound beauty in meditating on Mary’s suffering that gave a sense of purpose to my own crosses. I found comfort in knowing that Mary knew deep suffering and could guide me and love me in my own suffering. I admired her acceptance and love even in the face of unimaginable persecution.

The Seven Sorrows of Mary has its roots in Luke 2:34-35, “And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary His mother, ‘Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed— and a sword will pierce even your own soul—to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed'” (emphasis in bold added). The image of the Sorrowful Mother, or Mater Dolorosa, finds its biblical roots in this passage. In this image of the Blessed Mother, we see Mary’s heart pierced by seven swords. The presentation of Christ in the temple is the first sorrow of Mary, as it is there that she learns of the suffering she is to endure. But her suffering is given a purpose, for through it “thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” Mary’s suffering reveals the beauty in our own sufferings. She carries our hearts with her own to Calvary, so that our suffering may have purpose as well.

I was able to meditate on Mary’s obedience and acceptance during the Presentation of Jesus in the temple. During the second sorrow, the flight to Egypt, I meditated on the loss and anxiety that Mary felt, and her grief for all the children that had lost their lives. I prayed about the sense of failure, heartbreak, and loss that Mary and Joseph could have felt when Jesus was lost in the Temple. I tried to imagine the grief Mary felt when seeing her beloved Son under the weight of the cross. I thought about Mary’s tears and sharp pain and imagined her prayers as she stood at the foot of the cross. I contemplated the love and tenderness with which Mary looked at Jesus when He was laid in her arms after his death, trying to imagine Mary’s thoughts in that moment. But when it came to the seventh sorrow, Mary laying Jesus in the tomb, I was at a loss.

I didn’t know what to think about during this mystery. I didn’t know how to pray it well or relate to Mary in this moment. I felt lost as to how I should enter into Mary’s suffering in that moment. I felt that I was unable to relate to her suffering, and of course that remains true in a way. No other person can understand Mary’s grief in her son’s persecution and death. But we can use our own sufferings to try to enter into her journey with Mary, and when meditating on this particular suffering, I didn’t know how to enter the tomb.

Then when I was kneeling at our home oratory over the summer trying to pray through Mary laying Jesus in the tomb, and I felt her calling me to go deeper. 

As I reflected on Mary laying Jesus in the tomb, I tried to identify and understand her pain. Suddenly it became clear to me—Mary experienced barrenness. It felt as if for the first time, her womb was empty. The tomb became a physical manifestation of the pain of Mary’s heart. She bled and wept for her child. She could no longer hold Him in her arms. She felt emptiness and a deep longing.

Mary experienced barrenness after the death of her child. She had given birth to the Church, yet her heart felt alone and empty. She grieved the loss of her son, feeling powerless in the midst of her pain.
 Yet, she did not cease loving. Though her pain was no secret and the depths of it cannot be comprehended, she took others into her maternal heart, emptying herself. She did not despair, but hoped, trusting in her beloved Spouse, the Holy Spirit, to guide her amidst this barrenness. She trusted and hoped also in the Heavenly Father and her Son, recalling Simeon’s prophecy. Yet, the dagger pierced not only Her Heart, but Her Womb, and she bore with all women the pain of barrenness, the pain of loss, the desire for a child, for Her Son. And she wept upon bearing this pain for the whole world, wept for love of us, cleansing our impurities so that our wombs and hearts may be filled. She remained a mother though, even in the midst of her barrenness, and comforted the newly born Church. Her heart bled internally for us, yet she never ceased her prayer and her hope.

 And on the third day, her womb and her heart were full again. And so I too await the resurrection. I offer my pain to lessen the pains of the Blessed Mother, knowing that she pours her graces upon me as I rest in her womb and heart.

This is the sixth post in a series for National Infertility Awareness Week. 
The photo used today is an original image of Our Lady of Seven Sorrows done by Amberose Courville. 

 

 

Infertility as Disease: Accepting and Navigating the Medical Side of Infertility

It was my first Mother’s Day mass after being married.  The previous month I had an experience where I was sure I was pregnant. I can’t explain this experience, and no test I took that month was positive.  But the next cycle did arrive later than usual and with more pain than normal.  During the consecration, my husband and I began to sob.  We felt a sense of loss that we couldn’t explain, a sense of deep heartbreak. And then during the blessing for mothers, the priest saying mass didn’t include Godmothers or spiritual mothers, so I didn’t stand up for the blessing.  And I cried even more, because I so wanted to be able to stand up for that blessing.  It was after that experience, that my husband and I decided to seek medical help for fertility because of my medical history. Making that decision was very emotional for me, because it meant opening up a very private part of our lives to medical intervention.

Infertility is not merely a cross or a struggle.  It is a symptom of an underlying disease. According to RESOLVE, about 12% of married women (1 in 8 couples) have trouble getting pregnant or carrying a pregnancy to term.  Of those struggling with infertility, approximately one-third is related to female causes, one-third related to male causes, and one-third is attributed to both or is unexplained. Trying to figure out what is causing this struggle has been a trying and long journey. Besides my hormone levels and pain, we have very few clues as to what could actually be behind our infertility.  The CDC lists numerous possible causes for infertility in women, including but not limited to Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), improper function of hypothalamus or pituitary glands, obstruction of the fallopian tubes, abnormalities of the uterus, and endometriosis.  Infertility in men can be caused by varicoceles, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, heavy alcohol use, improper function of the pituitary and hypothalamus, and cancer treatments.  However, many of the causes of infertility remain unknown.  It is my hope that our scheduled consultation with a NaPro surgeon might give us some answers.  Sometimes a couple can be perfectly healthy in all respects though, and still struggle with infertility.

Infertility needs to be treated as any disease would be.  I am grateful for the experience I had with Napro-technology as a teenager.  Rather than simply handing me the pill, they showed me how to track my cycles.  I learned more about my body, my cycle, and how I was affected by my cycle.  I learned more about what should happen when my reproductive system is functioning normally. I took bio-identical progesterone timed with my cycle to help adjust my hormone levels. I learned from my experience with Napro-Technology as a teenager that I should expect medical care that respects my dignity and seeks to provide me with a treatment that addresses the underlying cause of my symptoms.

It was natural then, when we decided to seek medical advice for achieving pregnancy, that we turned to Napro-Technology (NaPro) again.  Developed by Dr. Hilgers at Creighton University, it is a system of treating infertility that is rooted in Catholic theology and modern science.  I am immensely grateful for my doctor and the doctors that trained him in this system.  NaPro is an alternative approach to infertility treatment.  Many treatment systems begin with trying to identify physiological causes of infertility, but then move into artificial reproductive technologies such as artificial insemination, IUI, IVF, and others. NaPro sets itself apart from other treatment systems because it uses knowledge about the women’s cycle and hormone levels based upon her fertility charts to treat her.

Unlike common suppressive or destructive approaches, NaProTECHNOLOGY works cooperatively with the procreative and gynecologic systems. When these systems function abnormally, NaProTECHNOLOGY identifies the problems and cooperates with the menstrual and fertility cycles that correct the condition, maintain the human ecology, and sustain the procreative potential. -NaProTechnology site

Since NaPro is rooted in Catholic theology, I know that none of the treatments recommended by my doctor will be contrary to Catholic teaching.  The Church teaches that the procreation of children should remain within the marital act.  Having experienced the heartbreak of infertility, I can understand why couples turn to artificial means for having a child, and they have my deepest sympathies.  We should not treat parents who have turned to artificial means of treatment harshly, nor should their children be treated differently, as their children have equal dignity.  That being said, for my husband and me, we know that these are not an option for us.  I see in treatments like IVF and IUI the same sort of approach that using the pill to treat all cycle issues results in–treating the symptoms and not the disease. This is precisely part of Dr. Hilger’s motivations for creating the system of NaProTechnology, after he observed a paradigm shift in the treatment of infertility.

“Until 1978, most of the effort in medicine in evaluating and treating women with infertility was placed in trying to identify and treat the underlying causes.  In 1978, in vitro fertilization produced a paradigm shift.  It led to a “skipping over” the causes and this continues up to the present time to be the foundational management approach.  In essence, this is a symptomatic or Band-Aid approach to treatment, not one that gets to the root causes.” -NaProTechnology site

Fortunately, NaPro is just as effective (and in some cases more effective) as IVF and it is less expensive.  Treatments used by NaPro involve hormone correction, fertility-focused intercourse, use of modern fertility medications such as Clomid or Metformin, and surgery to correct possible endometriosis, tubal occlusions, and other physiological issues. NaPro results in pregnancy in 38.4-81.8% of cases, depending on underlying causes (NaPro textbook, pg 691).  IVF, however has between a 20-40% success rate.

If you are struggling with infertility, there are options for you.  You don’t have to spend $10,000-$12,000 on fertility treatments.  You can seek treatment that helps you understand the underlying cause of your fertility issues. There is hope, and there are doctors that don’t use NaPro that take a similar approach.  I do know that NaPro isn’t for everyone, and that many Catholics approach NaPro as a miracle fix for infertility.  It can actually be hurtful to couples with this struggle when NaPro is approached as the “end all be all” infertility treatment.  The reality is that 20-60% of NaPro patients don’t get pregnant, depending on the underlying cause.  There is nothing that any person can do to guarantee a pregnancy. Sometimes that is hard to accept. The greatest blessing of using NaPro is remembering that children will happen in God’s time.  We cooperate with Him by seeking medical help and better understanding my fertility, but in the end, the Lord is in control.  It is God who creates and gives life.  And while I sometimes want to shout at the Lord, “Why not now, God?” I know that this suffering is not without purpose.  I know that His timing is perfect, though His timing doesn’t seem to match my plans.

Through it all, I learn to let go.

I let go of control, I let go of my pride.  I let go of my desire for having a child to be easy.  I am humbled each time I have to take medicine so that my body can do what it already should. For a time I would spend the evening crying after every blood draw, as they were a reminder to me that my body was broken. I now begin to look at every pill, every medication, every procedure as part of my labor. For after the fall of man, God said to Eve, “I will intensify your toil in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children” (Genesis 3:16).  I have come to understand that toil in childbearing is not limited merely to the actual birth of the child.  For those with infertility, it is all that they undergo in order that their bodies may function as they should.  It is all that they do to try to cooperate with God in procreation.  I still struggle with accepting the medicalization of this process.  It feels like medicine is invading something that should be very private and deeply personal.  I still struggle with the stress that comes with trying and hoping again each month.  But I have learned that when I hand these things over to Christ and say “Not my will, but thine” that I feel a sense of peace.

My husband and I are helpless in a sense–there is nothing in our power that we could do to guarantee that this month will be “the month.” But what we can know is that Christ holds us close to His Heart.  He walks with us as we try to walk with Him on the path to Calvary.  And when we reach Calvary, we cling to hope.

For we know that on the third day, there will be the resurrection.

 

This is the third post in a series for National Infertility Awareness Week. You can read the first two here: Gratitude: The Gift Amidst the Cross and here: Put Out Into the Deep