|FR. DAMIEN (1840-1889), CANONIZED 2009|
DAMIAN HELPED THE LEPERS ON THE HAWAIIAN ISLAND OF MOLOKAI
THEN CONTRACTED, AND DIED OF, LEPROSY HIMSELF
Feel free to check out my new book--SHIRT OF FLAME-- wherein I "walk" with St. Therese for a year and discover all kinds of unsavory, I mean profoundly interesting things, about myself, the world, and you.
Just as in the Gospels, in “real life” the Resurrection is patchy, ephemeral, incapable of being held onto. Just as in the Gospel of Luke—when on the road to Emmaus the disciples recognized Christ in the breaking of bread, and he immediately vanished from their sight—an authentic story, such as Thérèse’s, describes our moments of joy and our epiphanies on earth as fleeting. An authentic story imparts the sense that—just as Christ is described post-Resurrection in the Gospels—sometimes we “see” him, sometimes we don’t; sometimes we recognize him in the flesh; sometimes we experience him more as spirit. That’s another reason Christ instituted a church: so that the whole broken lot of us could gather around the table, throw our talents, gifts, stories, wounds—healed and unhealed—into the pot, and together create something unexpected, strange, and new.
If the Church was revealing to me my poverty, increasingly, the Church was also revealing to me the hidden, mysterious dimension in people and things. One night, walking from 24-Hour Fitness to the Pio-Pico Library, a familiar figure arose from the shadows: Gene, the homeless guy who hung around St. Basil’s; Gene, who smoked a pipe and thought the CIA had tapped into his brain; Gene, who wore a heavy down parka even on the hottest summer days, standing in the light of a street lamp.
“We’ve been friends for a long time,” he began.
“Yes we have, Gene,” I agreed.
“I was wondering if you might have a dollar and a quarter for the bus.”
My wallet was in my gym bag, so I set my books and purse on the ground and started rummaging through.
“I don’t want to put you out now,” Gene added gently. “I know you may be on a budget.”
“No, that’s okay, I have it.” I dug out a couple of bucks, handed them over, and bent to gather up my things.
“Take your time,” he offered gallantly. “I’m gonna stand right here and protect you.” I straightened and we stood for a moment: two fragile, weary human beings, face to face, in the shadowy light. I suddenly realized that Gene—teeth stained brown with nicotine, reeking of B.O.—was the first person I’d talked to all day. Gene—a beggar concerned about my budget—had shown me more tenderness than any male had in a long time.
“Oh Gene, that is so nice,” I said and, turning to leave, instinctively blew him a kiss. I kissed a leper, I thought wonderingly all the way home. That was like the conversion of St. Francis of Assisi when he kissed the leper.
To see the leper in someone else is of course to get deeply in touch with the leper in yourself. Will anyone see my writing? I sometimes thought. Is this the way to spend my life? Then I’d realize that Thérèse’s dryness must have made her, too, sometimes wonder whether she should have traveled about the world spreading the word of God; whether she should have been a doctor, a missionary, a social reformer; whether she’d made a mistake by cloistering herself in an undistinguished, obscure convent.
“Failure, then failure! so the world stamps us at every turn,” observed William James. “A process so ubiquitous and everlasting is evidently an integral part of life.” “There is indeed one element in human destiny that not blindness itself can controvert,” added Robert Louis Stevenson. “Whatever else we are intended to do, we are not intended to succeed; failure is the fate allotted.”
So take heart: All ye losers of the world, unite! To fail is to participate in the richness and fullness of life; to fail in the short run is the way of Christ. We don’t want to fail; we don’t strive to fail. But to succeed all the time would lead to a different kind of hell. To feel constant consolation would derogate the need to seek God.
When a person dies whose existence has been all comfort and ease, we might be envious of the comfort, but we also sense that he or she has missed some essential point. When someone dies who has suffered, on the other hand, we might feel compassion, or pity, or even that the person brought the suffering upon him or herself. But we also think: Ah—that person lived.
Help me to refrain from lashing out at others when I’m feeling that everything I’ve worked for has come to naught.
Help me to remember that Christ himself died the most ignominious of deaths, his life’s work an apparent failure.
Help me to rejoice in the prosperity and success of those around me.
Help me not to be afraid of the leper in myself and others.
Help me to see that the only success lies in seeking Christ.
THE CRUCIFIXION, 1437-46