Monday, November 19, 2007

It is only a foot

It is only a foot, but it is my foot. It is not painful, but it should be. The fact that there is no pain sends a shudder of terror down my spine. It is my foot and all too easy to see that it is red and blistered. There is a terrible scald down my ankle and the length of my upper foot, but there is no pain and it is not as if I have taken a painkiller, because I have taken nothing.

The frightening thing is that I know what this absence means: I have leprosy. I have truly become identified with those for whom I care here on Molokai. That thought gives me sheer joy, but the realisation that this identification is so complete that I, too, have leprosy is, at this moment, almost more than I can bear.

Although there are scientists searching for the cause of this deadly disease and perhaps they will, one day, discover a treatment, at the moment, there is nothing. It is a death sentence. That is why they, we, are here on Molokai.

My beloved lepers were sent here, away from their families and friends, abandoning their homes and all that they loved, so that they could be isolated and that the spread of their contagion to another person. It is the only thing that society knows at this point in time: condemnation to a life of loneliness and increasing isolation, cut off from the world and damned to a life of increasing sickness for which there is no cure. Yes, they help each other, but they are limited.

At one time the Church prescribed a funeral Mass for someone with leprosy. That person had truly become dead to the world. How can I forget the image of the ship setting sail from the harbour with its tragic cargo of lepers? How can I forget the misery on the faces of the patient and also on the faces of those who stood on the quayside, bidding farewell to someone they would never see again? Occasionally one of the inhabitants of Molokai would escape back to the mainland, unable to bear the loneliness and sadness of the colony, longing to see a beloved person one last time, for the escapee knew the penalty: to be shot on sight. It was an attempt to safeguard the general population, but one misery compounded another. What guilt was there in loving so much that life became worthless by comparison?

It was because of the sadness that I saw in the faces of people who were good and innocent of any wrongdoing that I volunteered to come to Molokai. I could help them, bring them the comfort of the Sacraments and of a daily Mass which all could attend as equals, regardless of their disfigurement and former life. Surely our loving Father would have removed the sins from the souls of our beloved lepers…I use the word ‘our’ because if I love them, how much more does God have a special place for them in his heart.

I knew that, when I came to Molokai, sooner or later, if I behaved as a priest towards the inhabitants of the island, I would, one day, become one of them. I knew what I was doing. I just had not expected the dread that fills me now that I can see that I have caught the disease. Of course, others might have suspected it earlier. I can never forget my anguish when I wanted to obtain absolution from a priest who was travelling with the ship that brings us supplies and was forbidden to board. Instead, he stood at the side of the ship whilst I remained in my boat, confessing my sins aloud to the world’s hearing. He was as embarrassed as I to pronounce the words of absolution at high volume. We both wept when it was over, but we could offer each other no quick hug of understanding and comfort. The Captain merely weighed anchor and started to head back to the mainland.

Well, now is the beginning of the end for me, too. I have seen the sores that often cover the entire skin surface of my beloved lepers whilst inside they are as pure and innocent as a newborn. Now I am one of them. I know the course of the illness and I am afraid, yet, at the same time, I am filled with a deep joy that God has granted me the grace to be one with them in suffering. Perhaps my own suffering will help and encourage them. Who knows?

“It is the memory of having lain under the funeral pall twenty-five years ago--the day of my vows--that led me to brave the danger of contracting this terrible disease in doing my duty here and trying to die more and more to myself… the more the disease advances, I find myself content and happy. The work of the lepers is in good hands and I am no longer necessary, so I shall go up yonder.”

God bless,
Sr. Janet