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. 

 

 

A Cross Not Without Purpose

I found myself particularly emotional during a Sunday mass in Lent of this past year.  I went up to receive Jesus in the Eucharist and then came back to my pew and sobbed.  Nicholas held me tight, as I cried out to God in prayer, “Lord, the cross is too heavy. I cannot carry it.”  Saying this over and over was the only way I knew how to pray in that particular mass.  I felt my brokenness and need for Christ deeply. I was humbled and as I looked at the image of Christ on the Cross, and slowly my prayer became “But not my will but thine be done in me, O Lord. Not my will, but thine.”

There are moments in my prayer and life when this cross feels senseless. These are the moments when Christ allows me to feel more fully the weight of the pain I am carrying, though I know He still carries most of it for me.  Christ allows this cross to be felt more heavily so that I can be broken. I have noticed that all of my struggles have allowed me to feel broken and helpless so that God can enter into my brokenness, break down my pride, and flood my heart with needed grace.

I don’t want to be broken.

I want to be in control. I want to be able to fix my own problems. I don’t want to have to rely on anyone. I don’t want to need anyone. I want to be fiercely independent, channeling my passion into healing all those around me.

But I am not in control. I don’t have the ability to fix my own problems. I desperately need others in my life to help me on the path to holiness. And I can’t focus on healing those around me while neglecting myself.

To break down my independence and pride, God allowed me to carry the cross of anxiety. I felt so little and small during the worst moments of my anxiety. I saw my brokenness, and I wanted to run from it. I wanted to deny it. One of the most difficult steps in healing from my anxiety was admitting that I couldn’t do it on my own. And so the Lord broke down my wall of fierce independence so that I could rely on others, especially my husband, and let other people into my heart.

Now Christ is breaking down my illusions of control.

I have tried herbal teas, different diets, researched different supplements, all in the hopes of optimizing my fertility. Nicholas calls it trying to make “super baby”. I have stressed myself out about not doing everything I can to help increase our chances. And yet, none of this can guarantee that we will have a baby.

When and how we have children is in God’s hands. I can’t control it. It is the letting go of control, letting go of my plans, and the patient trust in Christ’s will that has been the most challenging for me.

I have struggled with feeling that because Nicholas and I do not have children yet, that our love is not fruitful. I have struggled with feeling handicapped in living out my vocation. And yet, our love is fruitful. And since my primary vocation is to be a sign of Christ’s love to Nicholas, I am certainly living out my vocation. Infertility has become a part of the way that Christ calls both of us to fruitfulness and to living out our call to be Christ to one another.

Fruitfulness in marriage should not be limited  to procreation. Yet, this is a common view, held by many faithful Catholics.  I have heard Catholic radio announcers greet a caller with a large family (usually five or more children) with the following statement: “Thank you for your ‘yes'”. This is deeply hurtful, as we said ‘yes’ too. We said yes to being open to children, and yes to trusting in the Lord while carrying this cross. My husband and I give life to each other through daily love and support. Nicholas pours his heart into his work at the seminary, and I know that he couldn’t do that without my support. He serves all the seminarians and students there joyfully, and I am so proud that my husband is working at an institution that forms priests and leaders for the Church. I work with preschool through high school age students. When I work with the preschool children, I teach them, pray with them, show Christ’s love to them, and tend to their hurts. I try to let them know that they are deeply loved. And I know that part of the grace and patience to do this stems from my marriage and the love that Nicholas shows me daily.

We recognize the fatherhood of priests. We recognize the motherhood of sisters, or nuns. We even honor those single individuals in our community that have participated in the formation of young children and youth on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. In other words, the Church openly celebrates paternal love that is beyond the bounds of biological procreation. Why then, is it a different story with couples who have not yet conceived or have suffered miscarriages and have no visible children?

Infertility is not merely a cross. It is an opportunity to witness to the deeper reality that we as married couples do not get to decide how our marriage is lived out. It is a witness to a motherhood and fatherhood that is lived spiritually rather than physically. It is a witness to the fact that fruitfulness is not limited to procreation. Infertility, understood in this way, is a charism. It is a call to live out fruitfulness even in the midst of barrenness.

“The infertile give their suffering unto God. They lift it up to the Father in Eucharistic love, asking that it may be transformed. For some, they give their suffering over to become adopting or foster parents. For some, they bestow their diminishment upon the Eucharistic altar, discovering there a new mission in the world to love those on the margins. The infertile couple fulfill the mission of marital love whether they have children or not.” -Timothy O’Malley, The Charism of Infertility

Children are a supreme gift. They are not guaranteed in marriage. They are a blessing, and yes, they are the primary sign of a couple’s fruitful love. They act as a visible sign. Infertile couples have the opportunity to witness to the invisible reality of spiritual paternity. In placing their Eucharistic love for one another at the foot of the altar, they offer up their sufferings and unite themselves more deeply with one another and with Christ. Infertility has caused me to take my role as my youngest brother’s godmother more seriously. It has allowed me to see myself as a spiritual mother to the children with whom I work, for I strive to love them with a Eucharistic love and pray for their well-being. I rejoice with them and thank God for the joy that they bring me daily. If we are open about our struggle with infertility and break the silence around this cross, we can witness to a deeply spiritual love. We can serve as a sign to other married couples of the deeper spiritual realities of marriage and the call to participate in the suffering of Christ. Infertile couples can serve in a particular way to remind those with children that “the goal of marriage is not the production of a happy family alone. Procreation itself can become an idol if it is treated as a measure of our own success as a sexual being, as a couple in love, as a form of ‘Catholic identity'” (O’Malley). We often measure a family’s “catholicity” by the number of children they have, and when we do so, we make procreation an idol. We pass judgement on those families that could not have more children. We claim that one family is more blessed than another.

When we invite others to journey with us in carrying the Cross of infertility or early loss, we serve as a reminder of the supreme blessing of children, a reminder that children are an undeserved gift. We serve as a reminder that parenthood must not only be a physical parenthood, but also a spiritual parenthood. We become witnesses of the fruitfulness of Christ’s love in the Church.We witness to the communion of saints and the reality that it is God who “[determines] their relationship with him, their relationship to one another in him, and their relationship as parents to the spiritual and bodily children they receive from the Creator Spirit, the Sanctifier” (Cardinal Ouellet, qtd. in O’Malley). We call other families to more deeply unite themselves to the Cross. Rightly lived, this witness to families with children can become a sort of spiritual paternity in which each family, both fertile and infertile, more deeply recognizes the unique blessings and fruitfulness Christ has given to them.

At times, the cross is too heavy. But then I realize that I have been trying to carry it on my own. And so in those times, I turn more deeply to Christ. I open up my heart to my husband. I reach out to friends and family. When the cross is too heavy, I begin to realize how I can more fully live out Eucharistic love in my marriage. I allow Christ to show me how I am living out fruitfulness and saying ‘yes’ to his call to be a wife and spiritual mother. I start seeing how in carrying my cross with Christ and Nicholas, that we can witness to others, showing them that the primary goal of marriage is transformation through the Eucharistic love of Christ. It is perfection through suffering. And though I may not understand why Christ has chosen the suffering of infertility to lead my husband and me toward a deeper love and perfect holiness, I can take comfort in the knowledge that this cross is not without purpose.

Properly lived, this cross is a gift to the Church that allows us to live more fully with the communion of saints and the Church Militant. And for that, I will praise the Lord even in the midst of my sorrow. I will surrender my will to Him, knowing that the Lord is good and His Mercy endures forever.