Don’t wait to speak your own convictions

The other day, a friend of mine shared something gripping on which he has been reflecting lately. He said, “You don’t want to hear your deepest convictions from someone else for the first time; say it yourself.”

I was really taken by this idea — that it’s a shame to hear your own deepest convictions and insights spoken aloud by someone else before you have had the courage and boldness to speak them yourself.

My friend told me that he found this idea in an 1841 essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson. The next day, I read the essay and here’s the crucial section to which he alluded:

Continue reading

A Moment for Anonymous Heroes

I am obsessed with the stories of noble lives and acts of heroism.

In particular, I have been very focused on stories of heroism during the Second World War, particularly in the context of the Holocaust.

I cannot imagine my sustained engagement with the history of the Holocaust if not for the stories of the Righteous Among the Nations, who risked their lives to save Jews, as well as many other stories of courage and martyrdom.

These lights illuminate the darkness, clarify it and, to some modest extent possible, dispel it.

What I have begun thinking about more recently is how many stories of heroism are unknown to us and can never be known.

The stories that we have are a sliver of the humanity that persisted in the most dehumanizing of contexts.

Yet, there are surely many more stories that were snuffed out before they could edify successive generations.

The stories that we do know can help us exercise our imagination about what might have constituted noble and courageous responses in dire circumstances.

Can we let ourselves also be fortified by the confidence that there were also many anonymous heroes?

The facts of their righteousness may be known only to God, but the confidence that they existed can be known to us in hope.

Photo: Wall of Death at Auschwitz

Deathly urgent

Lately, I have been reflecting on how thinking about my death gives me greater urgency to say ‘yes’ to things.

It is easy to say, “Not yet,” “Not now,” “I’m not ready,” “I need more education,” “I need more authority,” “I need more time,” etc., etc.

I realize that, so many times, I am tempted to say ‘no’ to good and worthwhile endeavours simply because they demand audacity.

But then, when I consider that I will die, it gives me the courage to say yes to these things instead.

Mortality is motivational.

Here’s a video very much in this vein with a great ending about what makes human life “very good.”

The Courage of Kolbe

Today is the Feast Day of St. Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish priest who willingly offered to take the place of a prisoner destined for death in Auschwitz.

For many years this story has permeated my moral and spiritual imagination, and it has always been a great honour to get to share this remarkable story for the first time.

When you visit Auschwitz, it is possible to see the starvation cell in which Maximilian was held and to contemplate this story of sacrifice.

Maximilian’s selfless act was not a moral fluke. It was, to use an expression a friend offered recently, very much “in character.”

Earlier this year I heard another anecdote about Kolbe that I hadn’t heard before. I don’t have the source for it with me now, but from memory I will endeavour to retell it.

It is told that there was a prisoner in Auschwitz who was made to retrieve a corpse from a pile of bodies and move it to another place, probably to be burned. This prisoner, a Catholic man, was so repulsed by the pile of corpses that he could hardly bring himself to do it. Of course, not complying would have its own consequences for him. Fr. Maximilian saw this man’s distress and, looking between this man and then to the pile of bodies, whispered, “And the Word was made flesh.”

At this, a slight brightness returned to the prisoner’s eyes and he was consoled by this word (and the Word) to the extent that he was able to pick up the dead body and carry it reverently.

I am so taken by this story that shows that the Incarnation is a breakthrough. The compassion that God has for man is shown in His willingness to come alongside us and lift us up from the world of sin and darkness.

Will we have the courage, whenever and wherever we see a desecration of persons, to give encouragement and consolation with the poignant reminder that God is truly with us?

Justifying Our Contempt for Death

In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry Wind, Sand and Stars, the author discusses the character of both his friend Guillaumet as well as that of an old gardener in juxtaposition with the story of a suicide. Take a look at the contrast between them that he paints by his description:

Continue reading