Monday, 16 August 2010

No Pain, All Gain

The roll call one July morning at Block Fourteen, where Saint Maximilian was being kept, revealed that a prisoner had escaped. Commandant Fritch’s policy in such cases was to assemble all the prisoners from the block in the yard where they would stand at attention the whole day. If, by the end of the day, the escapee had not been recovered, ten others would be chosen at random to die in his place – death by starvation.

By three o’clock the prisoner was still not found and Fritch selected his victims. One of them, Francis Gajowniczek, cried out, “My poor wife, my poor children! What will happen to my family!” At that moment another prisoner stepped up to the commandant with hat in hand. Fritch bellowed, “What does this Polish pig want?”

The reply came: “I am a Catholic priest from Poland. I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children.” 

A Witness recalls, “From astonishment, the commandant appeared unable to speak. After a moment he gave a sign with the hand. He spoke but one word: ‘Away!’ Gajowniczek received the command to return to the row he had just left. In this manner Father Maximilian took the place of the condemned man.”

From the hour that Father Kolbe descended into the starvation bunker – dark, cold underground cells of torture where human beings were left naked without any food or water to shrivel up and die in unspeakable agony – from that hour a great change came over the horrible place. Its keepers testify that the wailing and cries of suffering that earlier reverberated off the bunker’s walls were now converted into prayers and hymns. The change, in fact, was seen throughout the whole camp. Beatings were less frequent and less severe after the holy man’s sacrifice. Even Fritch himself took no more hostage – victims to die in the place of escapees.

“Never before,” said the guards, “have we seen anything like this.” When they made their morning rounds at the bunker to remove starvation – consumed corpses, they would find among the heaps of agonized, half-dead victims one who was always in prayer on his knees or standing, one who was always bright and fully conscious, one who was always peaceful and well kept. That one was Father Kolbe. “As if in ecstasy, his face was radiant. His body was spotless, and one could say that it radiated light,” an attendant reports. “I will never forget the impression this made on me.”

Last Saturday, on 14th August, in the midst of the seminary's Vocation Discernment 'Broken to Complete' Recollection, we also celebrated the memorial of St Maximilian Kolbe, a Catholic priest who volunteered to die on behalf of a fellow prisoner, who had a family to support. During one of the Recollection sessions, Fr Alex highlighted to us the amazing fact that while St Maximilian was approaching his death in a slow, painful way by starvation, an eye-witness account from one of the guards described his face to be "bright and fully-conscious, one who was always peaceful and well-kept... As if in ecstasy, his face was radiant. His body was spotless, and one could say that it radiated light." Fr Alex further shared his reflection that one of the reasons why many of the martyred saints could willingly die for Christ (such as St Lawrence, whose feast we recently celebrated, and was literally barbequed to death - and he could even joke with his torturers to flip him over while he was on his 'BBQ pit') could be that - they felt no pain! They could possibly have been so mesmorised by God and their love for Him that they truly felt no physical pain. And this was my take-away from the Recollection.

Looking back at my own vocation journey, during the many times that I would cry foul for the pain, suffering, resentment, jealousy, self-doubt, unworthiness etc. that I was experiencing, I realised these were the moments where I was focusing my attention very much on me, myself and I (the lonely trinity as shared by one of the seminarian brothers). Fr Ronald Rolheiser, in one of his recent columns in the Catholic News, also termed this as the 'Ego-drama' - where the drama of our lives were centered upon our Ego-self. In this Ego-drama, he explains that life is all about ME, about things having to always go MY way, and about getting the things that I want. The problem with the Ego-drama is that it is very much dependent on the situations in our lives, the external forces of circumstance, where we have little, if not more often than not, NO control over. That is why we often find ourselves going through mood swings depending on where the wind blows, frustrated when things don't go our way, angry and resentful when our loved ones get taken away, disappointed when our personal dreams and desires do not materialise, flustered when we see acts of injustice and persecution blatantly being carried out with no seeming end to it...

Yet, in recent times, I realised that it is when I begin to shift my focus away from my Ego-self, and centre it on God alone, do I then find my apparent pain, frustrations, anger etc slowly fade away, making room for inner joy, peace and hope to slowly pour into my heart. This is what Fr Ronald Rolheiser terms as the 'Theo-drama' - where we make God centre-stage of our life drama, making our lives not about us but about Him, and surrendering and subjecting every aspect of our life according to His plans, His ways, and His will. The difference in the Theo-drama is that spiritual state of heart and mind is independent of external circumstance, and dependent instead on an unchanging, unfailing, ever-loving, ever-faithful God. And because God never changes His loving and faithful nature, so too will we not be moved in our spiritual state of inner joy, peace and hope - which may even flow into our emotional and even physical states of heart and mind - so long as our gaze and focus continues to be centered on God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (the Holy Trinity that never leaves us feeling alone or in despair).

The effects of the Theo-drama, and the idea of some martyrs possibly feeling no pain before their death, was somewhat concretised in my own experiences of self-mortification that I attempted since Lent this year, by kneeling without a cushion for an hour before the Blessed Sacrament on certain days of the week, and especially by my record experience of kneeling for 3 whole hours before the Blessed Sacrament just before the Good Friday procession at St Joseph's church - as described in my previous entry 'In His Footsteps'). Although initially, I could feel the pain emerging from my knees as if my body got heavier by the minute, it was when I continued to fight the pain and remain focused on the Blessed Sacrament that I began to enter deeper into the presence of Christ, to the point of being almost mesmorised by God Himself, and oblivious to my surroundings, not anxiously counting down how long I had to stay in that position for, and truth be told - oblivious of any pain that I was initially feeling! Indeed, it was like going through a tiny sliver of what some martyrs may have had to go through while being slowly tortured to death - NO PAIN! 

But of course, to reach that true stage of replacing the Ego-drama with the Theo-drama, of dying to self to the point of feeling no pain, and experiencing all the gain of peace, radiance and ecstasy, does not happen overnight. As I'm sure was the case for many of the martyrs, it demands the daily consciousness of seeking out opportunities to practice dying to self, dying to the ego; to constantly subject ourselves to the pain of being bread broken for others in order to slowly internalise the Theo-drama, and make it such a part of our daily lives that it becomes second nature. It demands choosing to sacrifice my comforts and inconveniences for the sake of others. It demands making choices that are not self-motivated but motivated by love for others. It demands that I die to my will of how things should be done, and learn to entrust things to God's way of doing things according to His time and purpose. It may even demand me to die to my pain and frustration in view of certain injustices or persecutions that I see happening in the church today, and focus on the hope and victory of God in His time.

And so for me, this truly encapsulates the theme of the Voction Discernment Recollection - 'Broken to Complete', whereby one follows Jesus not just in the way of which vocation He calls us to follow, but more so in following Jesus all the way to the cross, where He broke Himself by dying on the cross, so as to complete His mission of making His Church one complete Body, bringing us completeness of joy, peace, love, and ultimately salvation. And so regardless of whichever vocation we may be called to - whether religious life, marriage, or even as a single - all of us are called to break of ourselves through the sacrifices that comes with every vocation, so that we may echo the words of St Paul who proclaimed, "At present I rejoice when I suffer for you; I complete in my own flesh what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his body, which is the Church." (Colossians 1:24). It is also through this dying to ourselves, that we truly forget our entire ego-self, and bring our complete attention towards God, as if the self dies away, to the point that there is no 'self' left to feel any physical or emotional pain and suffering, such that "it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Galatians 2:20).

With every daily moment-to-moment step of dying to our ego-self, I believe we can be one step closer of experiencing what St Maximilian did - that amidst all the turmoil, suffering, stormy days that we may be subjected to, we can still truly feel NO PAIN, but only ALL the GAIN of God's never-failing, everlasting love, joy and peace that leaves us radiant and in complete ecstasy.