St. Damien and the Kingdom of God

Fr. Kevin Grove, C.S.C.

Doctoral Student, Theology

University of Cambridge

 

Even if you and I never make it there to visit, there is a place in Hawaii that all of us should know about.  It’s called Molokai and it was there that lepers were sent by the government and their communities to live with their contagious disease so that no one would be near them (it was on an isolated peninsula with big cliffs); no one would catch the sickness and most of all and the lepers wouldn’t have to be seen.  You have to understand that leprosy rots human skin so that neither does it smell nice nor does it look nice.  And what’s worse, the lepers lived in what seemed to be a Godless place.  It’s not just that they were isolated, but there were no rules and there was no authority; people took advantage of each other.  Accounts indicate that they cheated, lied, stole, lived in squalid conditions, and no one looked out for anyone else, like a real-world Lord of the Flies.

So when a young priest named Damien went there to minister to the lepers, he knew that he was in for tough work.  His superiors told him that his assignment was for as long has he would be able to take it.  And when he got there he set up his makeshift rectory by living under a tree.

And he did something so amazing that it can help us understand the sometimes elusive meaning of Jesus’ parables, we hear in Scripture today.  Damien first ministered to the lepers in Molokai not by trying to give them comfort or food, or even false hope.  At the outset of his work among those people who were going to die because of their illness, Damien showed them the value of their lives, first and foremost by showing them the value in their deaths.  Yes, counter-intuitive, isn’t it?  He taught them the value of their lives, by showing them the value of their deaths.  The first thing that he did was to fence in the cemetery to protect it from animals and scavengers.  He organized a Christian burial association to provide every person a funeral, made sure that Masses were arranged for and that people had music at their funerals.  His first move as a missionary priest to lepers was to assure his people that their afflicted bodies were not worthless, but worthy of reverence, because they are something that would last.  They would be raised from the dust, healed on the last day.  By earthly standards this is crazy; but by heavenly thinking…Fr. Damien was right on target.

And it was only from that point that Fr. Damien started his work converting the lepers to the faith.  He took them Sacraments, started what was apparently a really successful church choir, and began to build a leper community with a chapel, houses, a rectory, farmland, and even at last, a small boat dock.  A man from England, Edward Clifford visited Damien and later said: “I had gone to Molokai expecting to find it scarcely less dreadful than hell itself and the cheerful people, the lovely landscapes, and comparatively painless life were all surprises. These poor people seemed singularly happy.”  In short, he saw people who knew what they were living for.

The point of this story is not what Fr. Damien, now St. Damien, accomplished by building things.  No, that a leper colony existed with good buildings, good farms, and even good food was a remarkable accomplishment, and maybe unique in human history, but there is more.  The point isn’t even that Fr. Damien brought good order to the leper colony, teaching that even when everything is taken away and they were rejected by society that there were still right and wrong actions.  Those things are great and part of his saintliness.  But, more than anything, Fr. Damien gave the lepers the one true hope that they were part of something that lasted, something eternal.  This is why he started his missionary work with the cemetery.  This is why his first work was a statement of resurrection.  He gave witness to the kingdom of heaven…as an eternal thing.

You and I struggle with Jesus’ analogies or parables for the kingdom because they don’t easily fit our terms.  The grain planted in the field, the mustard seed that grows into a bush, the yeast that leavens the loaf.  All of these are plain enough images, but somehow they never seem to satisfy us.  We can’t decide whether we are good grain today or weeds; a mustard bush really doesn’t get that big; and sometimes bread doesn’t rise well.  But in our trying to take in all of these parables, we forget one of the most important parts.  Jesus is trying to train you and me, through parables, for eternity.  The marvelous part about the kingdom of heaven is that you and I become part of something that never ends.  Our lives, our fortunes, our faults, and fears are only temporary.  But our God has marked us out so that we might learn to “shine like the sun,” as the Gospel says, “in the kingdom of our Father.”  Yes, friends, you and I are meant to last forever.  It is something worth our just appreciating for a moment.

Most people would say that Fr. Damien became immortal when his bronze statue was placed in the U.S. Capitol building in Washington,D.C.  The kingdom of heaven reveals to us how false that is.  He learned and taught the lesson of the kingdom of heaven to you and to me when at the end of his life, before leprosy killed him, too, he wrote, “I am a leper. Blessed be the good God.”  The leprosy wasn’t the lasting part; his place in the kingdom was.

If you and I would live with zeal for just a few moments the truth that God has invited us to something that lasts—in the midst of all of the uncertainty and fleetingness of things and structures around us—people would stop us in the streets to ask us where we found lasting freshness and newness, the sort that only God’s kingdom can sustain.  So let us eat the bread of angels and drink the cup of eternal life, because this day God gives to you and me His never-ending, eternal lasting, without failing, kingdom.  And He wants us to live it.

 

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