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?

“The Opposite of Everything Bad I Ever Did”

In Charles Camosy’s Losing Our Dignity, he mentions a documentary about prisoners providing hospice care for their fellow innates.

Intrigued, I searched for the trailer for this film titled Serving Life.

Take a look:

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Finding God in All Things

On this feast day of St. Ignatius of Loyola, I thought I’d quickly scan the Internet to see what came up in connection with Ignatian spirituality and death.

I was pleased to find this 3-minute video in which a young man named Jurell Sison reflects on the death of his grandparents.

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“We serve with reverence.”

My friend just sent me this photo of the sign outside of Majestic Mortuary Service Inc., a funeral home in New Orleans.

The motto caught her attention, and I can see why.

The dead are not the only ones who deserve to be treated with reverence, of course. For the living, too, this is their due. Yet, if you went to a restaurant that advertised “We serve with reverence”, you might think that’s a bit much.

This, however, shows my point that how we die (and how we naturally conduct ourselves before the mystery of death) has the power to humanize our culture.

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Hair, makeup, and palliative care

I was interested to come across several news stories about a new documentary created by filmmaker Lorraine Price. The film tells the story of an 83-year-old woman named Kathleen Mahony who, as Price tells us, “volunteered to do hair and makeup for the terminally ill at the palliative care unit at Notre-Dame Hospital in Montreal [for the past 31 years].”

Price was inspired to make the documentary in honour of her grandmother who had been a very classy and elegant woman. In this interview, Price reflects:

Her style was loud and unapologetic. But when my grandmother passed away in hospice care, on top of having dementia, she was barely recognizable to me—her hair was short and white, her nails nude, and her lips pale. It felt as though she was gone long before she left us. I was so absorbed by my grief and the desire to mitigate her suffering that I neglected to consider the importance of that outward-facing identity that she had cultivated her whole life.

I would love to see this documentary because we desperately need good examples of how to treat those who are approaching the end of life.

There is a universal, inherent dignity that is innate, yes. But there is also the matter of dignifying – we can add to a person’s dignity by bestowing honour, appreciation, and affection.

In another interview, Price remarked, “Kathleen doesn’t do their hair because these patients are dying. She does it because they are human and they deserve to feel dignified and like themselves even when they are at their most vulnerable.”

Kathleen’s service is precisely the kind of hidden work that will benefit our culture greatly by being brought into the light.



Worth Doing Badly

Tonight I am remembering the oft-cited G.K. Chesterton quotation, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.”

It is seems to me that some of the things I find particularly worth doing and so that remain worth doing, even badly, are: studying new languages, attempting new skills, and learning more about cultural and religious traditions.

In the clip above, I was on a coffee plantation tour in Mexico when I stopped to attempt to make tortillas.

As you can see, it went rather badly.

As you can also see, I was smiling quite a lot and found it worth doing.

What is it about certain things that make them worthwhile even if we are not excellent at them?

In one of his letters, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote:

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The Humanness of Burial

I was pleased to see Fr. Raymond de Souza’s piece in the National Post titled, “What happened at the Kamloops residential school was an offence against humanity.”

In it, he discusses the thought of Hans Jonas, a German Jewish philosopher about whom I wrote my undergraduate thesis.

Separately from that thesis but very much related to these themes, I wrote this short academic paper in 2017 about what it is that sets human persons apart from animals and machines.

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Where is Your Devotion to the Mystery of the Person?

Recently, I sat down with my friend Anna to listen to some of her stories.

It might surprise you that this young woman told me, “The happiest time of my life was working 16-hour days in a retirement home during COVID.”

“My body ached and my heart rejoiced,” Anna testified.

She spoke with such empathy about the elderly residents.

“Imagine! A person who has lived a hundred years might be reduced to ‘June at Table 20.’ The residents might have lived a long, fruitful life only to be reduced to their dietary preferences in their final months and years.”

Because Anna regards these seniors’ long lives with reverence, she does not like to see nor participate in taking such a reductive view of the human person.

Instead, she relishes doing her utmost to serve the residents and considers every conversation as an opportunity for a meaningful interaction.

“My favourite residents are the ones who would get agitated easily,” Anna told me. “And it became a challenge: ‘How can I make them happy?'”

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“If we die, we want to die together.”

Today I listened to this podcast episode that one of my best friends recommended in which Rahf Hallaq, a 21-year-old English language and literature student, speaks about the terror of experiencing the Israeli airstrikes in Gaza.

“She’s so articulate in humanizing herself and her community,” my friend told me in offering the recommendation.

When I listened, I was amazed. I think it is the first time that I ever cried while listening to a podcast. In fact, there were a couple occasions that I teared up while listening to Rahf share her story.

Apart from geopolitical calculations and political arguments, Rahf gives us a window into the impact that wider events are having on her own life in a way that is very concrete and personal.

In fact, Rahf’s testimony reminded me of what Eva Hoffman noticed about a Dutch Jewish woman who kept a diary during the Holocaust when she said, “Etty Hillesum lived at a time when the macrocosm of historical events almost completely crushed the microcosm of individual lives.”

Like Etty Hillesum, Rahf Hallaq, through this podcast episode, sought not so much to give a sweeping account of the political situation as to give us an account of her own soul.

It is moving to hear of her speak about her passion for books.

“My dad is the one who made the love of books grow inside me,” she reflects.

Then she shares about the impact of reading Orwell’s 1984 saying, “I mean, when you’re living under oppression, and when you read those books, you feel like you’re not the only one who’s going through this. You feel like these words are actually speaking about you and to you. They give you the power to talk about your own ideas after that.”

Naturally, she was totally devastated about the bombing of a local bookstore that was connected to so many memories for her and her friends.

In the episode, Rahf also speaks about how families in Gaza all huddle together in the same room during the airstrikes because, “If we die, we want to die together.”

Listening to her speak about how her dad used to try to tell her that the bombs were fireworks, in an effort to put her at ease, is also heartbreaking.

My friend was completely right. This story humanized Rahf and the people of Gaza.

It is hard to fathom the real lives of Gazans, but hopefully Rahf will be able to continue bearing witness to “the microcosm of individual lives” by sharing her own experiences with such candor and poise.



This World Day of the Sick

In 1993, John Paul II inaugurated the World Day of the Sick to be celebrated each year on February 11th. He wanted the annual day to serve as “a special occasion for growth, with an attitude of listening, reflection, and effective commitment in the face of the great mystery of pain and illness” and he specifically addressed all those who are sick, calling them “the main actors of this World Day.”

What did he mean by this?

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