Wednesday, May 10, 2006

All I need to do is to love

Damian of Molokai died of leprosy on April 15th 1889, having spent sixteen years working on the island of Molokai, off the coast of Hawaii, four of those years watching the disease spread in his own body. In those days, leprosy was incurable and virtually untreatable, a terrible disease that was so dreaded that even the Church could only perform a requiem for someone who was still living, before sending the patient to live in solitude and isolation for the rest of his or her life.

Francis of Assisi claimed that his own conversion dated back to the time when he found the courage to dismount from his horse as he rode towards Assisi and to kiss the sores of the beggar at the roadside. The man covered his mouth and rang a bell, calling out “Unclean! Unclean!” Had he not done so, he could have been stoned to death for violating the very strict law of the time. For all his stomach-churning fear, Francis approached the man and kissed his sores. As he continued his journey, Francis glanced backwards and found that the man had disappeared.

To the end of his days, Francis spoke of having met Christ on that road to Assisi. He wrote in his Testament,
“This is how the Lord gave me, brother Francis, the power to do penance. When I was in sin the sight of lepers was too bitter for me. And the Lord himself led me among them, and I pitied and helped them. And when I left them I discovered that what had seemed bitter to m e was changed into sweetness in my soul and body. And shortly afterward I rose and left the world.”

It is difficult to spend a long period of time in Africa without seeing people with leprosy. The first ones I met were in Nigeria in 1978. Treatment was not readily available and, in those days, few could avail themselves of the opportunity, especially if they were poor and lived in remote areas. Nowadays, thanks to medical advances, the disease is readily diagnosed and the drugs are free of charge. There is no need for isolation. Leprosy patients can live at home, in the local community, carrying out their normal occupations.

Yet leprosy still carries a stigma. Much of the world associates the disease with horrendous disfigurement and, indeed, the hard, dry skin, missing fingers, toes, nose, lips and eyelids are still seen in those who are described as ‘burnt out’, in whom the disease is no longer infectious. Yet there are fewer and fewer who have had their lives so changed.

To be honest, my memories of people with leprosy are of great courage, ready smiles and some anxiety lest their outreached hands are scorned, not shaken in greeting. There is huge ingenuity as crippled hands and feet manage daily tasks the rest of the world takes for granted.

I often wonder what it was like in days gone by, for a leprosy patient to tell people to keep at a distance when, probably, in their loneliness and isolation, those same individuals must have longed for some human touch and comfort.

Yet, if I’m honest, although there is nobody in my immediate vicinity who has leprosy, nowadays known as Hansen’s Disease, it is all too easy to treat someone as though he or she were to be held at a distance. I can bar someone from love and communication, make them unable to share my joys and sorrows. I can be unwilling to bear some of that person’s burdens, to give comfort and hope instead of isolation and despair.

Could I become a Francis of Assisi or a Damian of Molokai? All I need to do is to become a loving person.

God bless,
Sr. Janet