I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.
—Damien of Molokai to his brother in Belgium, six months after his arrival.
Anyone living with a chronic illness knows the frustration of disclosing your condition, only to be met a recitation of the Litany of the Have-You’s.
“Oh! have you tried X?” Have you tried yoga? Have you tried veganism? Vitamins? Prayer? Meditation? Less stress? More drugs? Fewer drugs? Shaving your head? A daily routine of concentrated staring at a photo of the late, lamented Jimi Hendrix for no less than 42 minutes? (It worked wonders for my third cousin.)
This litany springs from the kindest impulses of the heart of the one who recites it. All this good-hearted soul wants is for you not to be suffering. Please, don’t be sick! Please just be well and whole and happy! Please, just be fixed!
It makes sense, I know, in the brain of the speaker.
But this goodness is not what you hear, when you’re sick. What you hear is a message of further isolation. Because, more than likely, if you’ve lived with a chronic disease, of course you’ve tried this suggestion, whatever it is. If you live with a serious illness, then you’ve tried everything. This condition is yours, and no one knows the uniqueness of your God-created material nature better than you.
What you hear, when you’re sick from this best-intended Litany is another healthy person stepping away from you, chanting as they retreat. “See, here is the magic reason I’m healthy and you’re not! I’m different from you! You could be like me, and be healthy too, if you just try harder. But see how I’m different than you….I’m different than you…..”
When Damien was ordained a priest in the Roman church and sent to Hawai’i, he wrote the quote above to his brother in Belgium about his work on Molokai. He had volunteered for this assignment, to be chaplain and priest to the lepers’ colony, even when the bishop of Hawaii refused to send someone because of the danger. Damien went and lived as one of them: saying prayers, building houses, tending crops and when necessary, building coffins.
Damien didn’t invoke any litany; he broke through the spiritual isolation the people were suffering, and he brought God’s love and care in when they felt abandoned. He was a physical sign of Christ’s light abiding with them, even as the rest of the world seemed darkened.
Think of a time someone helped you feel less isolated in your pain. When have you done the same for someone else?