I am currently reading Sohrab Ahmari’s powerful book, The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos. The book’s focus is on examining questions posed by progressive modernism through the insights of great thinkers from many traditions down through the ages. The book is well worth reading, but what I found most striking was Ahmari’s own dramatic encounter with the freedom of the Cross through the example of St. Maximilian Kolbe. An encounter so dramatic that he and his wife named their first son Maximilian.
Ahmari immigrated to the United States from Iran into a culture of radical freedom. He fully embraced this newfound freedom and assimilated into the secular culture, leaving behind the tradition he lived for the previous 13 years of his life. This life of liberty and doing whatever he wanted eventually lost its luster, and he found himself questioning the undergirding philosophies of the West. He married a woman who immigrated from China and they both eventually converted to the Catholic Church. It was during this conversion to Christianity that Ahmari discovered St. Maximilian Kolbe:
I was thirty-one years old, on the cusp of becoming a father and a Christian, when I first learned the story of Maximilian Kolbe. It floored me utterly. It wasn’t the kind of account one could read and then calmly set aside.
In a culture of radical freedom based solely on being able to do whatever a person wants to do—which primarily means to seek pleasure, comfort, wealth, power, and safety—St. Maximilian Kolbe’s life makes very little sense. As Catholics, we can take for granted and forget the radicality of the saints. All the saints serve as a contradiction to the prevailing worldview of their day. For us today, sacrificing one’s self for others in self-emptying love is the opposite of what our culture calls us to do.
Consider the mantra “love is love.” There is nothing sacrificial in this particular calling. This form of “love” essentially reduces people to their desires, pleasure, and the desire to force others to conform their understanding, even long held moral beliefs, to that of the individual. Love, by its nature, is sacrificial. It is to desire what is good, true, and beautiful for another. It is “to will the good of the other, as other”, according to St. Thomas Aquinas. What does this definition ultimately mean in practice?
This call to love is nothing short of the Cross. We cannot love if we are unwilling to sacrifice. Love by its nature should and must hurt. We cannot love our spouses, children, parents, friends, priests, spiritual sons and daughters, and our neighbor if we are unwilling to embrace the Cross. Love requires us to give up what we want for the sake of another. The ultimate goal of our love for others must be the desire to see them attain everlasting life.
Even within the Church today, we far too often avoid, ignore, or flee from the Cross. We want comfort, safety, security, and the things of this world just as much as our non-believing counterparts. Too, we often buy the lie from our culture that we can attain eternal life and find freedom apart from the Cross. We try to skip to the resurrection, which leads us to seek the things of this world, rather than Christ. We will never find true joy, peace, and freedom without the Cross.
Ahmari discovered in St. Maximilian Kolbe the central truth of a life of holiness: We become fully human and truly free when we are crucified with Christ. Ahmari writes of his encounter with St. Maximilian Kolbe:
What gripped me the most, what I couldn’t get out of my head once I learned about Kolbe, was how his sacrifice represented a strange yet perfect form of freedom. An ordinary man, once Fritzsch had passed over him in the line, might be stunned by his luck and gobble up the night’s rations all the more eagerly, knowing how close he had come to death. Kolbe, however, climbed the very summit of human freedom. He climbed it—and this is the key to his story, I think—by binding himself to the Cross, by denying and overcoming, with intense spiritual resolve, his natural instinct to survive. His apparent surrender became his triumph. And nailed to the Cross, he told his captors, in effect: I’m freer than you. In that time and place of radical evil, in that pitch-black void of inhumanity, Kolbe asserted his moral freedom and radiated what it means to be fully human.
St. Maximilian Kolbe did not grasp at life. He did not seek his own safety and security. He sought to give his life away in love. He lived the Cross and ultimately gave his life as a martyr united to his Crucified Savior. Our culture, and far too often we Christians, can wonder how this is freedom?
When we meditate upon the Passion of Our Lord, something both deeply disconcerting and tremendously powerful takes place. We begin to see that Christ was completely free because He sought the will of the Father. He surrendered in love in order to bring about our redemption. He allowed men to beat, spit, mock, flog, and crucify Him because He understood that our ultimate freedom from sin and death depended upon His willingness to die for us. He suffered in love for others knowing it would bring about our salvation. We are called to live the same radical, agonizing, and difficult call. There is no way around it, except to risk losing our souls.
St. Maximilian Kolbe understood the power of the Cross. He knew that his sacrifice united to Christ Crucified would bring about the salvation of others. He wanted to give his life away for another in love as a radiant light in utter darkness. He understood at the deepest level of his being that to die in love for another is the highest calling a man or woman can embrace for love of God. The fears that so often assail us, especially the fear of death, are rendered powerless. Whether we give our life away completely or through small sacrifices each day, it is in this giving away, as opposed to grasping, that we become truly free.
The version of freedom our culture espouses today is actually slavery. It is slavery to sin and death. So many of us are enslaved by food, television, social media, power, pleasure, sex, money, honor, and material things. Even as Catholics, we falsely believe that we are free if we are safe, comfortable, and secure. This life isn’t safe, comfortable, and secure, however. We are ultimately free if we can walk the Way of the Cross in peace and joy regardless of what may come. We are free if we can give up these worldly things for the sake of another. We are ultimately free when we choose to die-to-self and to love as Christ loves.
While the bulk of Ahmari’s book focuses on tradition in response to the prevailing philosophies of our age, his own personal testimony witnesses to the power of the Cross. For too long the Church in the West has put down the Cross because it is too difficult, uncomfortable, and unpopular. We need the Cross now more than ever. We need to boldly live lives crucified with Christ. It is extremely difficult and we will fall repeatedly, but we must re-align our vision to Christ and come to understand that our freedom can only be found when we relinquish everything to Him and follow His will, no matter where it may lead. He will ultimately lead us to the Cross.