In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Witold Pilecki was a Polish army officer who served during the Second World War. A staunch Roman Catholic, he became part of the Polish resistance after Poland was occupied by Germany, and in 1940 he volunteered to be purposely arrested and imprisoned in Auschwitz. His mission was to organise resistance and to gain intelligence for the Allies. He was interned there between September 1940 and April 1943, when he was finally able to escape the camp and write his report.
I could have told a lot of different stories with the same heart. Nearly every saint’s story has this type of compassion for others, but I chose this story for today because sometimes when we think about saints it’s easy to go ‘oh well, they’re saints. Of course they behave like that.’
Pilecki hasn’t been canonised, but he is an example of the type of self-giving, what we call kenosis, which is the calling of every Christian. I mentioned that Pilecki was a devout Christian, and I think at the heart of his actions was a man who, even if he was afraid – and who would not have been – was also unafraid to give himself, to save others, because he was trying to live a Christ-like life.
That is at the core of Jesus’ message today: Take up your cross and follow me. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Mt 16.25)
Jesus is talking about the things that we cling to that stop us from living our life in Christ. They are the things we fear losing, and that fear means we become overly-focused on them to the point where they become our reason to live.
They can be the obvious things like money and possessions, of security and control. Other things include status, our reputation, any position of authority and influence. These are all areas which feed into the picture we have of ourselves, which we use to build up our self-worth.
And finally there is clinging to life itself. Life is precious and we should treasure it, but it is part of our journey, not our final destination. We are made for heaven, but if we forget or reject that then of course this life becomes what we cling to. C.S. Lewis wrote “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’; aim at earth and you will get neither” (from ‘Mere Christianity’).
If we think of the 3 things that the devil tempted Jesus with in the wilderness – bread, angels to protect him, and all the kingdoms of the world, we can see that they are these same desires: to survive, possessions and status. Was this experience on Jesus’ mind when he answered Peter’s rebuke in trying to prevent his death on the cross? Did he hear an echo of those temptations, hence his reply: ‘Get behind me, Satan!’?
For ourselves, firstly we need to reflect on the things that we are afraid of losing – once we can pinpoint our stumbling blocks, then we can begin to let go of them.
Secondly, we need to reset our minds on heaven.
Following the end of the Second World War, Pilecki, again left the freedom of Italy to return to Poland and report on the political situation under the Soviet-occupation. Instead of being hailed as a hero, he was arrested , tortured and sentenced to death. After the announcement of his sentence he said “I’ve been trying to live my life so that in the hour of my death I would rather feel joy, than fear.” He was 47 years old.
When we live to be with God, by letting go of our fear and living for heaven, we will come to realise, that without knowing it, we too have found our life, not lost it.