St. Damien teaches us to love

  • April 29, 2010
In Belgium recently, someone unexpectedly crossed my path.

A theological conference in Leuven included a service at nearby St. Damien Church. Entering, I met a man, a fellow conference-goer I hadn’t met before, who said, “Come down to the crypt where St. Damien is.” I followed him down, paused with my hand on the doorknob, sensing that that door led to a life-changing encounter.

Inside, a candle burned before the tomb of Damien, canonized there last year. As a child, I’d heard of the priest who went to work with lepers until he became one, but didn’t want to know more because lepers seemed scary. From my new friend, I learned Damien was Belgian, born in 1840, joined the “Picpus” community, prayed to become a missionary, served and died on Molokai Island in Hawaii. The islands, then an independent monarchy, were overwhelmed by unfamiliar European diseases.

Listening, I became aware of the face looking out at me from a photograph above the grave: pensive, ravaged by disease. A man in shabby black clerical cloak, one scarred hand resting on his knee, the other hidden in a sling.

Not long after his death in 1889, two faces of Damien were presented to the world: one holy and heroic, the other false, sinful and selfish. Which was the real Damien?

(The disciples, perhaps, had a similarly perplexing experience of Jesus. Pretender, criminal, blasphemer? Holy man, divine one? Some proclaimed one face, some another. How to know the truth of someone?)

Damien was considered a selfless missionary who served quarantined lepers at Kalaupapa and Kalawao, brought wonderful reforms there, contracted leprosy and died among his people, faithful to and beloved by them. But other stories about him circulated, too. In 1889, the Sydney Herald published a letter written by a Hawaiian minister Rev. Hyde, exposing Damien as a fraud, a self-serving, boorish, bigoted man who caught leprosy by sleeping with women on the island.

Who was the real Damien? What was the truth of his life? How can we discern anyone’s true face?

A remarkable response to these questions emerged from Robert Louis Stevenson, who read the Herald letter and decided to find the true Damien. How? By going to Molokai, putting his feet on the earth Damien walked, talking to those who knew him, including those who disliked him, seeing what he saw.

After seven days there, Stevenson wrote to Rev. Hyde. He laid out the same facts, but in a completely different setting. The difference is in the way he observes, the spirit in which he receives and tells the stories. In concluding Damien was a holy man, Stevenson depicts holiness. Not as synonymous with good breeding, high education, wealth or a pleasing personality. How easy it is to slip into thinking such ideas of success are God’s too.

Stevenson acknowledges Damien was headstrong, ignorant and inefficient; not particularly popular. In these very qualities, he finds, Damien’s holiness emerged, for he went where others wouldn’t. By giving his life to the leper communities, he made public their plight, drawing the help of people who wouldn’t otherwise have come and who brought the gifts he lacked (nursing, building, educating). He was called bigoted; once, he planned to distribute a gift of money only to Catholics there — as Hyde reported. Stevenson accepts this story, but adds that a colleague remonstrated with Damien well into the night, explaining why the money should be for everyone, and finally Damien not only agreed but thanked his colleague for leading him out of error. Stevenson reconsiders many criticisms made by Hyde; for example, that Damien went to Molokai without orders — which Stevenson takes as a virtue rather than a fault.

Hyde intimated that Damien contracted leprosy through sexual contact. Stevenson refuted this story by interviewing Molokai residents, noting that even those who disliked Damien didn’t bring this charge against him. Even if Damien had fallen in this way, he adds, on the anguished island where he gave his life, then the rest of us, standing on safe ground, not bearing what he bore and not giving as he gave, “should be moved to tears” not judgment. Today we know what neither Hyde nor Stevenson knew — that Hansen’s disease is not transmitted sexually, and that 95 per cent of people are immune to it. Why was Damien, one of the five per cent susceptible to contagion, the person moved to accompany these outcast, unimportant sufferers? He became like Christ by becoming like his people — even unto death, even unto unjust judgment.

Truth may not be easy, but it’s real. In order to see truly, one might have to change where one stands, turn around (the etymological meaning of “repent”), go places one would rather not face (the well-travelled Stevenson calls Molokai, even after the reforms, the most “harrowing” place he ever visited, “a pitiful place to visit and a hell to dwell in”). In order to see the truth, one might have to learn to love.

St. Damien of Molokai’s feast day is May 10.