This past Sunday marked the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Japan, and on Monday my students and I discussed decisions about what to do with their lives. As it so happens, tomorrow marks the 74th anniversary of the death of a man with not only links to Nagasaki but also lessons to consider about calling.
Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish priest and missionary with a brilliant mind (he earned doctorates in philosophy and theology and was a genius in math). In 1931 he travelled as a missionary to Japan and ran one of the largest Christian publishing operations in the country. He also founded a monastery in Nagasaki which survived the bombing of August 9, 1945.
Kolbe is best known, however, for his sacrifice in the German death camp of Auschwitz. Having moved back to Poland in 1936, Kolbe had organized a temporary hospital at a monastery which provided shelter to over a thousand refugees, including over 1,000 Jews whom he hid from German persecution. In 1941 he was arrested by the Gestapo and eventually imprisoned at Auschwitz.
Several months later, a prisoner from Kolbe’s bunker went missing. To deter further escapes, the deputy camp commander chose ten prisoners to be starved to death in reprisal. When one of the selected men cried out that he had a wife and children, Kolbe stepped forward and asked to die in his place. The request was granted, and Kolbe spent the final days of his life without food and water, comforting his fellow prisoners.
Ten statues representing 20th century Christian martyrs stand above the western entrance of
Westminster Abbey in London. Maximilian Kolbe is the first figure depicted (on the far left).
When thinking about the future, we often wonder what specific pathway God has carved out for each one of us. “Does God want me to study law or literature? Does God want me to become a teacher or a technician?” We often imagine that God has in store for us a very particular and “successful” life, if only we pursue the path He has designed.
But Kolbe’s story suggests that our questions may need to be adjusted. In the words of Christopher Wright, “I may wonder what kind of mission God has for me, when I should ask what kind of me God wants for his mission.”
We do need to make informed and thoughtful decisions about what to do with our lives. But the more important goal is to become, despite whatever life throws at us, a certain kind of person. Maximilian Kolbe had notable skills and accomplished some impressive feats, but his most noteworthy “success” was the kind of person he proved to be in the midst of darkness, defeat and loss.
When it comes to advising young people about future pathways, what message do we send about the most important criteria to consider? For instance, with reference to choosing a degree course, do we encourage students to ask merely, “What can I do with it?,” or also “What will it do to me—as a person?”
After we lay our formal studies and careers aside, one thing that will continue on is our character. Thus, along the way, we should inquire of our educational and job options, “What kind of me will they help to form?”