Lent 9 — Thursday in the First Week of Lent

Ask, Search, Knock — According to God’s Will

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St. Maximilian Kolbe

In the summer heat of August, 1941, St. Maximilian Kolbe walked into an isolation area in the Auschwitz concentration camp to await death. Kolbe was one of a group of men selected to die by starvation, as a warning to other prisoners.

Kolbe was not actually selected for the group. The Franciscan priest volunteered to take the place of another man who had a family. He walked willingly into starvation. 

In the midst of the suffering and slow death of his comrades, Kolbe prayed without ceasing. He prayed as all the others died. He prayed when the Nazis finished him off with a carbolic acid injection. And he died. A slow, agonizing death. While he prayed.

The agonizing beauty of Kolbe’s faith, and the dirty, gut-wrenching nature of his death, may seem a strange reflection in response to today’s promise in the Gospel: “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”

It’s hard for us, looking through the lens of this world, to see the answers for which we might ask and search in the story of St. Maximilian Kolbe.

It’s easier to place ourselves into our story today from Esther, who’s been married off to the Persian king after he became displeased with his first wife. Esther learns from her cousin and adopted father, Mordecai, of a plot by one of the king’s lieutenants, Haman, to have the Jewish people in Persia eliminated. And the killing was to begin with Mordecai.

Esther asks her people to join her in three days of fasting and prayer, after which the king is reminded of Mordecai’s past good service to him. He promises to Esther anything she asks, to which she makes the request that her people, including Mordecai, be saved.

The Jewish people are saved, and Haman ends up impaled on a rather large spike he had intended for Mordecai.

Prayer is powerful. Fasting is good. Faith is tremendous. Esther asked, and she was answered. She searched, and found. She knocked, and the door opened. It’s a powerful and beautiful story. And, we have no problem putting ourselves in Esther’s place, or in seeing God’s promises fulfilled in her. 

But, what about when we pray earnestly and feel no answer? Jesus has promised us, from the Sermon on the Mount, “everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 

“Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”

How do we hold onto these words when we feel like our whole world is stones and snakes? I think the only thing we can say is our Creator sees in ways we cannot see, knows what we cannot comprehend, and always desires what we need — viewed in an eternal and boundless realm far beyond our immediate concerns of here, and now, in this flash in the pan of mortal life. We must embrace the fact that the bread we desire so dearly may be nothing but a dead stone to us. The fish we think we must have, in our temporal view, may be a venomous snake, as seen in God’s eternal view.

St. James tells us in James 4 we may not be getting the answer we want, because we may be asking — wittingly or unwittingly — with the wrong motives: “You want something but don’t get it…. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”

Our pleasures, even when they seem immediate and imperative to us, may not be what God knows to be best for us.

In our culture of immediate gratification and rationalism this can be a hard pill to swallow. But, we place our emphasis in the wrong place. Our comfort, if we follow The Way, comes in knowing God’s will is being done — even if, or especially when, we feel ours is not.

St. John the Evangelist tells us we can take comfort in this: “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us — whatever we ask — we know that we have what we asked of him.” (1 John 5:14-15)

The key there is, “according to his will.” God is always going to answer according to God’s will. And if we’re asking something contrary to God’s will, God still answers us — it may just sound like silence on our end of the line.

Just before all this question of asking, searching and knocking, still in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructed the disciples: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (6:33)

In other words, when we align our asking, our searching and our door-knocking first, foremost and last, with the kingdom of God and his righteousness, the answers begin to align with our intents. They line up because we’ve chosen to align ourselves by God’s will, and not our own.

Again, this is hard for us to accept. It flies in the face of everything society and human nature tell us. As always, the Gospel turns our world on its ear.

Even Jesus struggled with this. In his agony, in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he was arrested, Jesus, his sweat running off him like drops of blood, cried out “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me.” But then, he uttered those all-important words: “yet not my will, but yours be done.”

That surrender to the will of God is how we reconcile the Almighty’s sometimes apparent silence to the promises of the Gospel. We ask. God answers according to God’s will. And God knows us better than we know ourselves, and loves us better than we can begin to love ourselves.

Viewed through this new lens, St. Maximilian Kolbe’s gruesome end is not a tale of unanswered prayer. It is a grimly beautiful account of faith and surrender that overcame fear of death.

Kolbe’s surrender came not in Auschwitz, but when he was 12 years old, in a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

“That night I asked the Mother of God what was to become of me,” Kolbe recalled later in life. “Then she came to me holding two crowns, one white, the other red. She asked me if I was willing to accept either of these crowns. The white one meant that I should persevere in purity, and the red that I should become a martyr. I said that I would accept them both.”

He accepted both. He accepted, without reserving anything of himself, the will of God. And, like Jesus, he laid down his life out of love for humanity, out of love for God.

In our asking, seeking and knocking, then, we must not simply be persistent. We must be courageous in adding, with all sincerity, to every prayer the words of our Savior: “yet not my will, but yours be done.”

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