Saturday, August 14, 2021

Maximilian Kolbe: Witness to Freedom

Today often takes me back to that crucial, dramatic Summer of 1989 (a time when so much was changing in the world and in my own life). There was a feeling in the air in those days (perhaps I felt it a little myself) that truth might actually have an impact on history, or that - in any case - it was worth suffering for, even dying for. It was a time when many people’s hearts were being stirred up (even if only in obscure and fragmented ways) by the truth, and they were moved to take risks for the truth, or to vindicate those who had long suffered for it: in Prague, in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, in Poland, in Hungary, in the Baltics, along the prison gates that were the borders of “East Germany.” People were becoming aware of “freedom” as a truth that belongs intrinsically to the dignity of the human person. Nevertheless, it was a fragile intuition: people wanted freedom, but they didn’t know why; they didn’t know what human freedom is for. Sadly, the so-called “free world” was little help in educating them. Self-centered, humanly disconnected, dissipated restlessness is not true freedom. Nor is true freedom found by wandering aimlessly over the globe amidst an ever expanding market of vacuous possibilities for diversion and distraction. Though much good was achieved after the fall of Soviet Communism, the social chaos of liberal Western "free societies" also poured into the new nations, and the ensuing years have brought a lot of pain, confusion, and strange backlash among these peoples who were thirsting for true freedom in 1989.

The freedom of the human person is the capacity to love reality and other persons; it is the capacity to give one’s self in love, to choose that which is true and good and “make it one’s own” in a way that not only enriches the person’s own humanity, but also empowers the person to “become a gift” to others and to open up in longing for the Mystery that speaks to every heart.

This is human freedom. We have only begun to struggle to discover what this means for ourselves and for our societies. We need to carry on this difficult work, even if world events tend to indicate that no one is interested in it today.

The only way to find freedom, to live in self-giving love, and to begin to build something that resembles a personalistic and communitarian society is by the light of freedom revealed in its fullest sense, in the One who said “the truth will make you free” and who also said “I am the Truth.” Letting ourselves be loved by Him, we will become free, we will learn to love beyond all our limits. Thus we will attain our true destiny in the fullness of freedom, and also we will live in this world with greater freedom and greater solidarity and attentiveness to one another and to the dignity of every person.

Today, August 14, we commemorate the life and the ultimate self-giving love of a free man, who was a bright light in one of the last century’s darkest places. And it was 32 years ago today, in 1989, that I wrote this poem in honor of Saint Maximilian Kolbe. Kolbe, a Polish Catholic priest, offered his own life in exchange for another prisoner in a reprisal execution in Auschwitz, and died in the "starvation bunker" on August 14, 1941.

Here I share once again (for whatever they’re worth) the words of poetry that his witness inspired in those hot and hopeful days of the Summer of 1989.

August 14th
I am the guardian
of the flesh and blood that I command.
I stand
from world's edge to windowless walls,
the quarry-block place markers 
around my becoming-all-things.
I am a mother's graceful, sweet breath
like fine, penetrating mist
against your broken, burned skin.
I am the witness
stepping out of place
beyond the trembling assembly 
of bony finger-clutched this-moment,
toward the timeless returning unto dust of you
and you
and you.
step forward...
                           ...out of place
for I am
your sacrifice.

—August 14, 1989