When Damien de Veuster arrived in Hawaii in 1864, he found an island-community beset by infections. Over the years, travelers and seamen had introduced diseases like influenza and syphilis. Yet none were as bad as Hansen’s Disease, more commonly known as leprosy. First reported in Hawaii in 1840, leprosy devastated people in many ways. First, because the disease was highly contagious and untreatable until the 1930s, people contracting it had no hope of recovery. This often led to deep depression among its sufferers. Second, leprosy caused a progressive degeneration of their skin, eyes, and limbs. It thus disfigured people and eventually immobilized them. Finally, few diseases isolated people from their communities as much as leprosy. Sufferers were seen as outcasts and cautioned to stay away from everyone else.
In 1866, to curb the spread of the disease, Hawaiian authorities decided to consign lepers to an isolated community on the island of Molokai. On three sides, the colony, called Kalaupapa, bordered the Pacific Ocean, and the fourth side featured massive, 1,600-foot cliffs. Once the lepers were out of sight and no longer a threat to the general population, the government turned a blind eye to their basic needs. Shipments of food and supplies slowed down, and the government removed most of its personnel. The result was a highly dysfunctional community marked by poverty, alcoholism, violence, and promiscuity.
Puritan missionaries became convinced that leprosy stemmed from the people’s licentiousness. But Damien knew that was not true. He believed the people on Molokai were basically good, not corrupt, and that sin did not cause the spread of the disease.
In time, Damien came to see the neglected colony as the answer to his boyhood longings for adventurous missionary work. He asked the local bishop for permission to go to Molokai, and the bishop not only granted approval, but personally accompanied Damien to the island. He introduced Damien to the 816 community members as “one who will be a father to you and who loves you so much that he does not hesitate to become one of you, to live and die with you.”
This introduction did not surprise Damien, who had no illusions about what his mission would entail. He knew working in the disease-ridden colony virtually guaranteed that he would become infected too. Yet he never wavered in his commitment.
At first, the conditions around the lepers proved overwhelming. Damien often felt as if he had opened a door to hell. Victims wandered about, their bodies in ruin and their constant coughing the island’s most familiar sound. Damien could hardly bear the stench:
“Many a time in fulfilling my priestly duties at the lepers’ homes, I have been obliged, not only to close my nostrils, but to remain outside to breathe fresh air. To counteract the bad smell, I got myself accustomed to the use of tobacco. The smell of the pipe preserved me somewhat from carrying in my clothes the obnoxious odor of our lepers.”
Eventually Damien overcame the distressing sights and smells. His superiors had given him strict advice: “Do not touch them. Do not allow them to touch you. Do not eat with them.” But Damien made the decision to transcend his fear of contagion and enter into solidarity with the Molokai lepers. He committed to visit every leper on the island and to inquire of their needs.
One early realization was that to show the lepers the value of their lives, he had to first demonstrate the value of their deaths. So he built a fence around the local cemetery, which pigs and dogs regularly scavenged. He also constructed coffins and dug graves, committing that each leper, even if marginalized throughout his life, would receive a decent burial upon death. This had a remarkably uplifting effect on the community.
Damien also devoted his attention to the sick. He brought the sacraments to bedridden lepers. He washed their bodies and bandaged their wounds. He tidied their rooms and did all he could to make them as comfortable as possible.
What surprised the lepers most was that Damien touched them. Other missionaries and doctors shrank from the lepers. In fact, one local doctor only changed bandages with his cane. But Damien not only touched the lepers, he also embraced them, he dined with them, he put his thumb on their forehead to anoint them, and he placed the Eucharist on their tongues. All of these actions spoke volumes to the dejected lepers. They showed that Damien did not want to serve them from afar; he wanted to become one of them.
Damien was careful never to present himself as a messianic figure, soaring in from a higher, more privileged position. He invited lepers to join in the work, turning his service to the community into an act of solidarity. He had them help build everything from coffins to cottages. When the colony expanded along the island’s peninsula, his leper friends helped construct a new road. Under his supervision, the lepers even blasted away rocks on the shoreline to create a new docking facility. Damien also taught the lepers to farm, raise animals, play musical instruments, and sing. Although the lepers were used to being patronized or bullied, Damien spread among them a new cheer and sense of worth.
This refreshing spirit impressed visitors to the island. “I had gone to Molokai expecting to find it scarcely less dreadful than hell itself,” wrote Englishman Edward Clifford in 1888, “and the cheerful people, the lovely landscapes, and comparatively painless life were all surprises. These poor people seemed singularly happy.”
Despite the idyllic community Damien had built through a decade of work, the moment he feared finally arrived in December 1884. One day, while soaking his feet in extremely hot water, Damien experienced no sensation of heat or pain—a tell-tale sign that he had contracted leprosy. The disease quickly developed, causing Damien to write to his bishop with the news: “Its marks are seen on my left cheek and ear, and my eyebrows are beginning to fall. I shall soon be completely disfigured. I have no doubt whatever of the nature of my illness, but I am calm and resigned and very happy in the midst of my people. The good God knows what is best for my sanctification. I daily repeat from my heart, ‘Thy will be done.’”
Soon, he also wrote home to his brother: “I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.”
Even before contracting the disease, Damien spoke of himself and the people of Molokai as “we lepers.” He identified closely with those he came to serve and thus, before and after the disease, offered a powerful, concrete expression of solidarity. And it was for that reason he become known not by his homeland, but by the island community he served—Saint Damien of Molokai, patron of lepers.
Brandon Vogt is a bestselling author and works as the Senior Content Director for Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. Reprinted with permission from StrangeNotions.com
It is the little things that matter… Our long-anticipated visit to Denali National Park in Alaska was almost upon us. We purchased tickets for the following day's eight hour bus ride where we hoped to see the splendor of creation and an abundance of wildlife. Checking the weather forecast for our adventure, we were more than dismayed to learn precipitation was predicted to be 100% for the entire day! As disappointed as we might be, my husband and I decided it would be wise to change our plans completely, knowing there would be little chance of encountering anything but the inside of a bus on such a rainy day. Thus, it might be said that the next morning we ended up on a lark at Creamer's Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge in Fairbanks. Perfection in My Hand The knowledgeable volunteer docent leading our small group tour began by telling us facts about the sand hill crane, one of the species of birds which depend on the Refuge to feed and rest each fall en route to their wintering grounds to the south. We were astonished to learn that the trachea of these cranes was seven feet in length, wrapped in a convoluted fashion, much like the coils of a French horn. This design resulted in a distinct call, unique to the mother bird’s offspring, which allowed both to remain connected amid the vast throngs of cranes flying in formation each season. Just then a rush of these sleek gray birds rose up in the distance as we watched quietly. Tramping over the dew-laden ground, we then headed toward a tent where both volunteers and an ornithologist were busily weighing, measuring and tagging various species of birds in order to track populations over a period of years. After each bird was identified and their information recorded, it was time to release them back into the wild. As a worker handed a songbird to a member of our group, a palm-to-palm transfer was made, at which time the captured bird quickly took flight. When it was my turn, reaching out my palm, a yellow warbler was laid onto its back as my fingers cradled its small body. Unlike the two birds before, this one seemed to settle in, allowing me to stroke it’s feathers as our eyes locked. Suddenly there was a palpable Presence, as the tenderness of the Creator in this less than three inches of perfection in my hand was evident. The tears began to flow as the refrain of a song began to play in my mind as if synchronized, “All are welcome in this place, here in God’s amazing grace, all are welcome, all are welcome.” Time stood still, yet it could not have been more than a few seconds before I was urged to help the bird roll onto its side. That was all the encouragement needed, as the bird made its way into the sky. Trudging back to the car, silence was my companion. A sacred hush seemed the only appropriate response to this moment of grace. Open Arms The second stop on our agenda-less day was to an assortment of buildings that had been moved to Fairbanks to recreate a pioneer village. Wandering among the cabins and shops, I came upon a simple church. Opening the door, I walked past the rough-hewn plank pews toward the carved depiction of Jesus hanging from the ceiling. Hands outstretched, as if inviting those who entered to come in, the song’s lyrics lilted once again in my head. “All are welcome in this place.” Again and again this day I had unexpectedly encountered evidence of the lavish love of the Author of life. The care with which a sandhill crane’s call was designed, linking mother and baby; the yellow warbler, able to fly and sing yet weighing less than an ounce; the open palms of caring folks that both receive to give care, then release in trust. Finally, the reminder as I looked up, of the invitation being extended through the hands offered to all who choose to enter into God’s amazing grace. Always, all are welcome...
Dr. Roy Schoeman, tells us how atheism dragged him into a pit of hopelessness and how he got out of it I was born and raised Jewish. I went to Massachusetts Institute of Technology where I lost my belief in God, and essentially became an atheist. I went on to Harvard Business School, and after getting my degree was invited back to join the faculty. So at the age of 29, I found myself as a professor of marketing at Harvard Business School. Although it may sound surprising, that's when the bottom fell out of my world. Ever since I was a small child, I knew life must have a real meaning, which I thought would come from entering into a personal relationship with God. I expected this would happen at my Bar Mitzvah (sort of like Catholic confirmation) at the age of 13. When it didn't, it turned out to be one of the saddest days of my life. Then I thought real meaning would come from success in worldly life, but as a professor at Harvard, I was already more successful in a worldly career than I had ever hoped, yet still there was no meaning or purpose in my life. Therefore at that point, I fell into the darkest despair of my life. Mystical Way Early one morning, I was walking in a Nature Preserve by the ocean, among the pine trees and sand dunes. I was just ambling along, lost in my thoughts. I had long since lost hope in believing that God existed. But all of a sudden, the curtain between Earth and Heaven disappeared, and I found myself in the presence of God, looking back over my life as if I had died. I saw that everything that had ever happened to me had been the most perfect thing that could have been arranged coming from the hands of an all-knowing, all-loving God, not only including those things that had caused the most suffering, but especially those things. I saw that I would have two great regrets after I died. Firstly, all the time and energy I had wasted worrying about not being loved when I had been held in an ocean of love, greater than anything I could imagine, at every moment of my existence, coming from this all-knowing, all-loving God. And secondly, every hour I had wasted doing nothing of value in the eyes of Heaven, since each moment contains the possibility of doing something valuable in God's eyes. Every time we take advantage of that opportunity we will very truly be rewarded for it for all eternity, and every opportunity we let slip and don't take advantage of, will be a lost opportunity for all eternity. But the most overwhelming aspect of this experience was to come into the intimate, deep and certain knowledge that God Himself— the God who not only created everything that exists, but created existence itself—not only knew me by name and cared about me, He had been watching over me, every moment of my existence, arranging everything that ever happened to me in the most perfect way. He had actually known, and cared about how I felt every moment. In a very real way everything which made me happy made Him happy, and everything that made me sad made Him sad. I realized that the meaning and purpose of my life was to worship and serve my Lord, God and Master who was revealing Himself to me, but I didn't know His name or what religion this was. I couldn't think of this as the God of the Old Testament, or this religion as Judaism. The picture of God that emerges from the Old Testament is of a God far more distant, severe and judgmental than this God was. I knew He was my Lord and God and my master, and I wanted nothing else but to worship and serve Him properly, but I didn't know who He was or what religion to follow. So I prayed, “Let me know your name so I know what religion to follow. I don't mind if you are Buddha and I have to become a Buddhist; I don't mind if you’re Krishna and I have to become a Hindu; I don't mind if you’re Apollo and I have to become a Roman pagan. As long as you're not Christ and I have to become Christian!” Well, He respected that prayer and did not reveal His name to me. But I returned home happier than I had ever been in my life. All I wanted was to know the name of my Lord, God and master who had revealed Himself to me, and what religion to follow. So every night before I went to sleep I would say a short prayer that I had made up to know the name of my Lord, my God and master who had revealed Himself to me in that experience. Beauty beyond Words A year to the day after that first experience, I went to sleep after having said that prayer, as well as a prayer of thanksgiving for what had happened exactly a year earlier. I thought I was awoken by a hand touching my shoulder gently, and was led to a room and left alone with the most beautiful young woman I could ever imagine. I knew without being told that it was the Blessed Virgin Mary. When I found myself in Her presence all I wanted to do was fall on my knees and somehow honor Her appropriately. In fact the first thought that crossed my mind was: “Oh my Goodness I wish I at least knew the Hail Mary!’ but I didn't. Her first words were an offer to answer any questions I might have for Her. Well, my first thought was to ask her to teach me the Hail Mary, so I could honor her appropriately, but I was too proud to admit that I didn't know it. So as an indirect way of getting her to teach me the Hail Mary, I asked her what her favorite prayer to her was. Her first response was, “I love all prayers to me.” But I was a bit pushy, and said, “But you must love some prayers more than others.” She relented and recited a prayer in Portuguese. I didn't know any Portuguese, so all I could do was try to remember the first few syllables phonetically and write them down as soon as I woke up the next morning. Later when I met a Portuguese Catholic woman, I asked her to recite the Marian prayers in Portuguese for me, and I identified the prayer as 'O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to Thee'. As perfectly beautiful as Mary was to look at, even more profoundly affecting was the beauty of her voice. The only way I can describe it is to say it was composed out of that which makes Music, Music. When she spoke the beauty of her voice flowed through me, carrying her love with it, and lifted me up into a state of ecstasy greater than I ever imagined could exist. Most of my questions simply flowed out of my being overwhelmed by who She was. At one point, I stammered out, “How can it be that you're so glorious, that you're so magnificent, that you're so exalted?” Her response was just to look down at me almost with pity and shake her head gently and saying 'Oh no, you don't understand. I'm nothing. I'm a creature. I'm a created thing. He's everything'. Then again out of a desire to somehow honor her appropriately, I asked what title she liked best for herself. Her response was, “I am the beloved daughter of the Father, Mother of the Son and Spouse of the Spirit.” I asked her several other questions of somewhat less significance, after which she spoke to me for another 10 or 15 minutes. After that, the audience was ended and I went back to sleep. The next morning when I woke up I was hopelessly in love with the Blessed Virgin Mary, and I knew I wanted nothing other than to be as fully and completely Christian as possible. From that experience I realized, of course, that the God who revealed Himself to me a year earlier had been Christ. In Search of There was a shrine to Our Lady of La Salette about 45 minutes from where I lived. I began to go there three or four times a week, just to walk in the grounds, to feel the presence of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and to commune with her. The shrine was owned by the Catholic Church and so, sometimes, there would be a Holy Mass taking place. Whenever I was in the presence of a Mass, I was filled with a tremendous desire to receive the Eucharist, even though I did not know what it was. Those two things led me without too much of a detour into the Catholic Church—knowing who the Blessed Virgin Mary is, and wanting to receive Communion, daily if possible. On entering the Catholic Church, I not only did not stop being Jewish but, as I see it, became more Jewish than ever, since in doing so I became a Jewish follower of the Jewish Messiah, rather than a Jew who had not recognized the Jewish Messiah and remained in “pre- Messianic” Judaism. As I see it, the Catholic Church is post-Messianic Judaism and Judaism is pre-Messianic Catholicism: two phases in one and the same plan for salvation for all mankind. I am infinitely grateful that I received these experiences. I was brought into the fullness of the truth, into a personal relationship with God beyond anything I ever imagined could exist, into knowing the answers to all the questions about Man, about God, about the meaning of life, about what happens after you die, and so forth that tormented me growing up. Most importantly, I gained a well-founded hope of an eternity of unimaginable bliss and love in the presence of God. ARTICLE is based on the inspiring testimony shared by Dr. Roy Schoeman for the Shalom World program “Mary My Mother”. To watch the episode visit: shalomworld.org/episode/mary-my-mother
En route with the three Magi and be amazed! The Epiphany is a feast of light. We hear from the prophet Isaiah, “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you” (Isaiah 60:1). We look to the actions of the Magi to guide our journey to the Lord Jesus, who is revealed as the light and salvation of the world. If we want to encounter Jesus too, we should pay attention to what the Magi did. What did they do? Three actions: they looked up to see the star; they realized what it meant and left their homes and activities to set out towards the light; and, they brought valuable gifts to worship Him. Look Up This is where the journey begins. Have you ever wondered why the Magi alone saw the star, and realized its significance? Perhaps few people were looking up to the heavens, because their gaze was focused on the ground with their own immediate concerns. I wonder how many of us look up to the sky? How many of us are like the Psalmist who says, “My soul looks for the Lord more than sentinels for daybreak...” (Psalms 130:6), or are we more like, “Hey, it’s enough that I have good health, a solid bank account and stock portfolio, access to a 5G network, and a little entertainment, especially on Sunday in which I can watch wall-to-wall football games!” Do we know how to long for God, to expect the freshness that he brings to life, or do we let ourselves be swept along by the frenetic pace of our lives? The Magi understood that to truly be alive, we need lofty goals—we need to dream big!—and we need to keep looking up. Get Going The second thing the Magi did, which is essential to finding Jesus, is to get up and begin the journey. When we stand before Jesus, we have a disconcerting either-or choice: is he Emmanuel, God among us, or is He not? If He is, then we have an obligation to give Him our total, uncompromised commitment so that our lives revolve around Him. Following His star is a decision to move towards Him and to advance steadfastly on the way He laid out for us. Although our journey is often two steps forward, one step backwards, the key is to keep our gaze on Jesus, pick ourselves up with His aid when we fall flat, and keep moving forward. However, we cannot do that without getting off our couches, detaching ourselves from our comfort and security, and setting out instead of standing still. Jesus makes demands: He says that we are either for Him or against Him. In the spiritual path, there are only two directions: we’re either moving towards God or away from Him. If we want to move towards Jesus, we have to overcome our fear of taking risks, our self-satisfaction, and our laziness. Put simply, we have to take risks, to let go of our self-referential lifestyle if we are going to find the Child. But, those risks are worth it because when we find the Child, we’ll discover His tenderness and love and rediscover our true identity. Bring Gifts At the end of their long journey, the Magi do as God does: they bestow gifts. God’s ultimate gift is His divine life, which He invites us to share for eternity. They offer what is most valuable for them: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These gifts represent what St. John Paul II calls The Law of the Gift: we abide in an authentic relationship with God when we live how God operates with self-giving love. The best gift you can give to Jesus is your very life! Give freely, without reservations—don’t hold back, keeping something for yourself. Give without expecting anything in return—including the reward of Heaven! This is the truest sign that you have found Jesus in your life. For he says: “The gift you have received, give freely as a gift” (Matthew 10:8): to do good towards others without counting the cost, even when unasked, even when you get nothing in return, even when it is unpleasant. That is what God wants of you because that’s how God relates to us! Look at how God comes to us: as a Child—He became small for our sake. As we celebrate the Epiphany, let us look at our hands: are they empty of self-giving or are we offering the free gift of ourselves without expecting anything in return. And, let us ask Jesus: “Lord, send forth your Spirit that I may be renewed; that I may rediscover the joy of giving.”
Last week, I had the great good fortune to sit down for a Zoom interview with Jordan Peterson, Jonathan Pageau, and John Vervaeke. As I’m sure you know, Peterson, Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, is one of the most influential figures in the culture today. Pageau is an artist and iconographer working in the Orthodox Christian tradition, and Vervaeke is a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto. All three of these gentlemen have a powerful presence on social media. The topic of our conversation was a theme that preoccupies all four of us—namely, the crisis of meaning in our culture, especially among the young. To kick things off, Peterson asked each of us to give our definition of meaning and, more specifically, of religious meaning. When my time came, I offered this: to live a meaningful life is to be in purposive relationship to value, and to live a religiously meaningful life is to be in purposive relationship to the summum bonum, or the supreme value. Following the prompts of Dietrich von Hildebrand, I argued that certain values—epistemic, moral, and aesthetic—appear in the world, and they draw us out of ourselves, calling us to honor them and to integrate them into our lives. So, mathematical and philosophical truths beguile the mind and set it on a journey of discovery; moral truths, on display in the saints and heroes of the tradition, stir the will into imitative action; and artistic beauty—a Cézanne still-life, a Beethoven sonata, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass—stops us in our tracks and compels us to wonder and, in turn, to create. To order one’s life in such a way that one consistently seeks such values is to have a properly meaningful life. Now, I continued, the perceptive soul intuits that there is a transcendent source of these values: a supreme or unconditioned goodness, truth, and beauty. The fully meaningful life is one that is dedicated, finally, to that reality. Thus, Plato said that the culminating point of the philosophical enterprise is discovering, beyond all particular goods, the “form of the good”; Aristotle said that the highest life consists in contemplating the prime mover; and the Bible speaks of loving the Lord our God with our whole soul, our whole mind, our whole strength. Jordan Peterson, echoing Thomas Aquinas, put it as follows: Every particular act of the will is predicated upon some value, some concrete good. But that value nests in a higher value or set of values, which in turn nests in a still higher one. We come, he said, eventually, to some supreme good that determines and orders all of the subordinate goods that we seek. Though we articulated the theme in different ways and according to our various areas of expertise, all four of us said that the “wisdom tradition,” which classically presented and defended these truths, has been largely occluded in the culture today, and this occlusion has contributed mightily to the crisis of meaning. Much has contributed to this problem, but we put emphasis especially on two causes: scientism and the postmodern suspicion of the very language of value. Scientism, the reduction of all legitimate knowledge to the scientific form of knowledge, effectively renders claims of value unserious, merely subjective, expressive of feeling but not of objective truth. Combined with this reductionism is the conviction, baked into the brains of so many young people today, that claims truth and value are simply disguised attempts to prop up the power of those who are making them or to sustain a corrupt institutional superstructure. Accordingly, these assertions have to be demythologized, dismantled, and deconstructed. And along with this cultural assault on the realm of values, we have witnessed the failure of many of the great institutions of the culture, including and especially the religious institutions, to present this realm in a convincing and compelling manner. Far too often, contemporary religion has turned into superficial political advocacy or a pandering echo of the prejudices of the environing culture. So, what do we need for a meaningful life? From my perspective, I said, we need great Catholic scholars, who understand our intellectual tradition thoroughly and who believe in it, are not ashamed of it—and who are ready to enter into respectful but critical conversation with secularity. We need great Catholic artists, who reverence Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Mozart, Hopkins, and Chesterton, and who are also on point to produce fresh works of art, imbued with the Catholic sensibility. And we need, above all, great Catholic saints, who show concretely what it looks like to live one’s life in purposive relation to the summum bonum. We can and should blame the culture of modernity for producing the desert of meaninglessness in which so many today wander, but we keepers of the religious flame ought to take responsibility too, acknowledging our failures and resolving to pick up our game. For people today will not enter into relationship with values and with the supreme value unless they can find mentors and masters to show them how. --------------------------- © ARTICLE originally appeared at wordonfire.org. Reprinted with permission.
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