In my last conversation with Father Gawronski before his death, we reflected on Joseph Pilsudski who fought to re-establish Poland has a country after World War I. Fr. Raymond believed that, in a certain sense, this leader prefigured Saint John Paul II. Both men were confident in the victory of good over evil, not only on a global level, but also on a personal level. Both stood up against the odds and helped people realize their own greatness through sacrifice to something greater than themselves. For Pilsudski it was a resurrected Poland. For John Paul II, it was a new springtime for the Church. We mused over how years before John Paul commanded us not to be afraid to cross the threshold of hope, Pilsudski had already counseled, "To be conquered but not to surrender is not to be defeated, but in victory to sit on one's laurels is certain disaster."
At his funeral, friends shared about their visits with Father Gawronski. Rather than having guests come to his room to visit, he would insist on getting up and going out to greet them even when he could do so for only very short periods of time and at great effort. He did not complain as his body gave out, but joked and laughed until his visitors found themselves laughing despite themselves. At the same time, he remained firm in his hope and would make every effort to exchange the most beautiful insights. Most of all, he remained faithful to prayer.
Father Raymond was profoundly aware of his own inadequacies, weaknesses, and failures, but he believed that the saving power of the Cross was not limited by his own sinfulness or the sinfulness of others. Like Pilsudski who refused to surrender to his political and military foes, Raymond Gawronski was not defeated by suffering and death. A faithful son of the Pilgrim Pope, he did not believe our failures and spiritual wounds ultimately define who we are, but rather we are defined by the love of God.
When we are confronted by the mystery of death, our faith tells us that the Lord is accomplishing something new and wonderful: a new heavens and a new earth, even as everything in this world, including our mortal bodies, seems to be falling apart around us. Our sacrifices and patient endurance of these trials and hardships make a little space in this fallen world for others to glimpse the wonder of God's love. Father Gawronski is a witness that even though our efforts to serve God seem feeble and ineffective, if we have made these efforts with confidence in Him, we have not labored in vain.
This is an important example for us as we strive to live for the love of God by prayer. As we try to serve God and our neighbor faithfully, we may well be mistaken about most everything, not clear on what to pray for, or even how to act. Even when we find ourselves unable to do anything that is truly good -- we still know by faith that God is not mistaken in His love for us and that He is always at work to bring about good even when we fall short. He knows the truth about who we are and He can not be thwarted in His great purpose -- to save us and raise up all that is good, noble and true about who we are in His sight. Christian faith knows that even as our own weakness and the weakness of others cause us to lose trust in everything else, we have only found an even deeper reason to trust in the Lord.
Christianity, Father Raymond insisted, has three syllables: life, death and resurrection. Death is a difficult, alienated syllable, one which has plunged our whole culture into a indulgent nihilism. Yet the witness of spiritual fathers like Raymond Gawronski, even as they contend with their own death, point to another way. With Christ, the alienation of sin and death is never the last word. Instead, the prayer of faith makes death the royal pathway to a deeper solidarity with God, ourselves, and with one another.