Day 30--Doctor or Priest--"Purposeful Solitude" Lev 11-14
January 30, 2021, 9:33 AM

Day 30 Leviticus 11 – 14

These verses are always hard for me to read. I understand them. I can create all kinds of reasons for them—certain animals might have brought disease to the people, like the pig was the bearer of trichinosis. Skin diseases were contagious and, much like our current pandemic, keeping people apart helped prevent the spread of the various afflictions. Our need to know the reasons sometimes gets in the way of the scriptures speaking to us—and I am always guilty of this! I know that I can never get to the root of all the stories I will read in the bible, and so I need to simply read and mark the phrases that stand out as I move through these Old Testament verses. I have some trepidation because I know that there are greater difficulties ahead than simply skin diseases. Writers have recorded the wars and judgments that no longer fit with our modern sensibilities, and I know there will be some soul-wrestling ahead for all of us.

But today, reading about these skin diseases, I thought of Father Damien, now Saint Damien, who was born in 1840 and died in 1889 of leprosy, or Hansen’s Disease. Father Damien was a young Catholic priest who volunteered to go to the island of Molokai where a colony of lepers lived in isolation. The lepers were brought there by boat, and dumped into the sea on arrival to wade their way to shore, and to make a life for themselves separate from family, friends or home. Children as young as 7 or 8 were put into cattle cages on boats, and sent to the colony, never to see their families again.

When Damien arrived in 1873—just 33 years old—he energetically began his ministry amongst the people who lived there. And he did so without rubber gloves or medications or surgical masks. In fact, he completely immersed himself into the life of this small community that had existed with little guidance or help from anyone, a community that was hopeless, isolated and was referred to as ‘lawless’—a particularly strange term that indicates there was no organized way of life amongst the people who lived there, as if they did not deserve the same protections as those who lived on the mainland or as anyone who lived free of the disease.

“He brought hope to this hell of despair. He became a source of consolation and encouragement for his flock by becoming the doctor of their souls and of their bodies without distinction of race or religion. He gave a voice to the voiceless and built a community where they discovered new reasons for living. That once lawless place had now become a place where the law of love prevailed,” wrote one biographer.

Another said this: "His cassock was worn and faded, his hair tumbled like a school-boy’s, his hands stained and hardened by toil; but the glow of health was in his face, the buoyancy of youth in his manner; while his ringing laugh, his ready sympathy, and his inspiring magnetism told of one who in any sphere might do a noble work, and who in that which he has chosen is doing the noblest of all works. This was Father Damien."

Father Damien did not separate himself from the lepers he immediately claimed as his flock and his family. He ate with them, shared his pipe with them and bandaged their open sores and wounds with love, but without the protective measures and medical supplies we consider basic in our society today. He was not just their priest; he was the doctor of their bodies and souls.

Consequently, Father Damien died of leprosy in 1889, sixteen years after he had arrived, and on his deathbed he wrote these words to his brother Pamphile, who was also a priest: "I am gently going to my grave. It is the will of God, and I thank Him very much for letting me die of the same disease and in the same way as my lepers. I am very satisfied and very happy."

I am always inspired by his story, although I absolutely understand that God does not decree that we must be with those who are suffering to the point of personal infection and death.

In fact Leviticus teaches us that when God calls us to serve, we are to be in communion with others and yet to protect ourselves from contracting skin diseases, illnesses or other contagious conditions which were, at the time, entirely mysterious afflictions. Leprosy was one of those diseases, and we see the word used in our bibles to refer to a variety of skin problems. We will see this throughout the New Testament as well, but it will be in the context of Jesus reaching out, touching, healing and being completely present to those who are marginalized, those who are shunned.

We are fortunate today to know how to arrest and even cure Hansen’s Disease, and we should all be blessed to know that we no longer need to isolate or shun those who are suffering from this and a whole bunch (wow—there’s a scientific term—'a whole bunch!’) of other diseases or  chronic medical problems.

But in our reading today from Leviticus, we see the meticulous attention paid to a variety of skin conditions because God is helping to preserve his chosen people at a time when such illnesses were not well understood. The priests were still called at that time to be both doctors and preservers of the faith. Clean and unclean are not references to good and bad, or to dirtiness vs. well-washed, but to holiness and an ability to live freely in community.

I still carry Fr. Damien’s story with me because he refused to make those kind of distinctions when he chose to live on Molokai even though he was told that once he went there, he would never be able to leave.

Community comes to us in different ways. The ancient Israelites were beginning a community that God commanded them to establish, that God preserved. Restrictions were important and were also part of what it meant to be obedient to God. This is not unfamiliar to us where St. Paul writes “We are allowed to do anything, but not everything is good for us to do. We are allowed to do anything, but not all things help us grow strong as Christians.” (1 Cor 10:23) In order to grow stronger, to walk the path of sanctification (moving towards holiness) restrictions and laws help us establish important boundaries that can give us strength.

For those on Molokai, God provided Fr. Damien and other missionaries from Christian denominations to preserve and dignify the life of hopeless and isolated children of God. This is what it means to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, and to be obedient to God in our time.

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To learn more about the colony on Molokai, where six surviving members of the original community remain and which has been made into a national park that is very, very difficult to visit and which is also stunningly beautiful, go to https://wanderlustcrew.com/molokai-leper-colony-kalaupapa-hawaii/

Be blessed and be a blessing to others,

ML

 

 

 

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