While away on holiday I read some books on St Damien of Moloka'i; books I had been meaning to read for some time, together with a biography of St Marianne Cope I had just bought. The more I read about Damien the more I admire him, what an extraordinary man and priest. He lived in the heart of the Church and in his ministry to the lepers of Moloka'i, cast out from the world, he brought them right into the heart of the Church with him.
During his lifetime few really understood Damien, even his superior and the bishop in Honolulu failed to appreciate him. While the world admired him (safely from a distance) his superiors thought it had all gone to his head as he continued to plead for resources for his "poor lepers". They thought he was heroic, but proud and committing these opinions to writing they held up his Cause for decades. The Church finally cleared Damien of pride when she discovered it was his superiors who failed to see the wonder of holiness that was unfolding in front of their eyes. Damien was the epitome of the poor in spirit, and one episode from his life gives us a glimpse of it: I would like to share it with you today.
The episode is recounted in the official biography of St Marianne Cope by Sr Mary Laurence Hanley OSF and O.A. Bushnell. It is taken from the account of Mother Marianne's life by one of her sisters, Sr Leopoldina who accompanied her to Moloka'i to run the Bishop Home for Girls. Sr Leopoldina's memoirs are a great first hand account of the sisters's first years on Moloka'i, though her spelling and punctuation are quite unorthodox this rawness actually adds to the vivacity of her story. She relates that one evening she went out into the backyard of the convent to hang out some clothes on the line when she had an encounter with Damien. She writes:
I was startled by a silent black figure kneeling in the bed of fresh dug ground with the face close to the wall...that is the back of the chapel. Poor Father Damien was on his sore swollen knees...adoring our Blessed Lord in the Sacrament of His Love, there was only a thin board wall between him and the alter [sic] and as there was no entrance to the chapel [except] through the house, and he would not do that...It seemed to me there was something so sad and pitiful about it I could not keep the tears back.
The image of poor Damien kneeling like a beggar outside the chapel adoring his Lord through the wall, unable, thanks to his leprosy, to enter the building, is heartbreaking. Leopoldina goes on to tell us that Damien saw the tears in her eyes and asked if she was alright, she couldn't answer, she said to herself he would not have understood. He did not see himself as pitiful, but rather as a poor disciple of Christ adoring his Lord. What love for Jesus, what respect for the Blessed Sacrament: what holiness!
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.