Sunday, October 07, 2012

The Priest and Leprosy in MId-1800s

The ten-square-mile Makanalua Peninsula juts into the Pacific below the world's highest sea cliffs. An internet site about the island says, “It's been blessed by nature's grandeur and cursed by humanity's ignorance and fear.” To this day, it remains home to forty elderly patients sent there many years ago because they contracted Hansen’s disease, the proper term for leprosy. At least one humble priest learned contentment there as he served those less fortunate.  

     This week, we look at rule number fourteen from Jeremy Taylor’s (1613-1667) nineteen ways to live humbly. He encouraged all to rejoice when others rise to higher positions or achievements:  Be content that he should be employed, and thou laid by as unprofitable; his sentence approved, thine rejected; he be preferred, and thou fixed in a low employment.” Key words in this rule about humility are “be content.” The longer I live, the more I realize that life goes downhill and uphill again. This pattern repeats throughout life, challenging us to remain contented even if others receive seemingly better assignments from God or man.

     If we can focus on helping others instead of our misfortunes, it’s easier to be content. I recommend renting or buying the movie “Molokai: the Story of Father Damien” (available on Amazon) or reading the book.  

     In 1865, leprosy plagued those living in Honolulu, and officials shipped the ill to the desolate Makanalua Peninsula. There, they dwelt in makeshift shelters and caves, living with the bare necessities of life. Seven years later, Father Damien volunteered to go and help knowing that he might contract the disease. Instructed not to touch the diseased, he purposefully touched them as he fed and cared for them.

     For fifteen years, he labored almost single handedly to alleviate suffering. He pled for supplies and extra help, but few had the heart to face the constant sorrows and weary work. King Kamehameha V brought into law the “Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy.” About 8,000, between the years of 1865 and 1969, went to live as exiles on Molokai. Today, about forty aging people, who have the disease (no longer contagious, but some disfigured), have chosen to remain on the island, although they are isolated from most of the world.

     Hansen’s disease is the most misunderstood disease in the world. Myths and ignorance about the disease were rampant in the mid-to-late 1800s when Father Damien volunteered to help. Today, medical science knows that about 95 per cent of the population cannot contract the disease. With proper diagnosis and treatment, it is no longer debilitating. The diseased person remains noninfectious after only a couple of doses of medicine and may remain with family even though treatments last for several years.

     The United States documented only 213 new cases in 2009. The social stigma still exists in most of the world and may be more difficult to deal with than the physical illness.  

     What if the clock turned back to the year of 1876, and a call for volunteers went out to serve the colony of ill. If we had no physical obstacles, would we have the inclination to serve others, supposing that we could contract the disease?

            Jesus gave an upside-down message to those who sought greatness in God’s kingdom. They were to serve. He taught his disciples that they were to approach any with this question on their minds, “How may I serve this person?” We can consistently seek the higher good of others, even though we live within a culture of self-indulgence. Be inspired by Father Damien’s story, who allowed others to ascend to hierarchy as he became lowly in spirit and content to dwell among the lonely and hurting.

     Hunger for Humility (week 40): “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.” (Matthew 20:26)

     Cathy Messecar welcomes comments at

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