Jesus said: ‘Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me’- the example of Saint Damien

As I was meditating on our gospel reading, the words of the great old hymn by Charles Everest kept going through my mind:

Take up thy cross the Saviour said, if thou wouldst my disciple be

Deny thyself, the world forsake, and humbly follow after me.

The words ‘take up thy cross’ come just after Peter has tried to impose his own plans, his own ideas on Jesus and was thoroughly rebuked…..get behind me Satan… are setting your mind not on divine things but human things…..Headstrong Peter and the other disciples were sure they knew best and needed to learn to humbly follow and trust God in all circumstances, even if it seems totally counter-intuitive. You’re not in control, or, as Eugene Peterson in the Message paraphrase puts it: Jesus says: You’re not in the driver’s seat, I am- Jesus is! Jesus was calling them, and us too, to a life of self-sacrifice humbly following after him.

Or as Paul wrote to the Romans: ‘present your bodies as a living sacrifice’; a living sacrifice, following humbly, until the very end of our lives, however long we live.

As I pondered this further, I began to think about the saints, some famous but others only known to God himself who lived humbly following Jesus example all the days of their life- serving, suffering, bearing other people’s burdens, getting their hands dirty, living under the same conditions as the people they are serving, touching the untouchable and caring for the dying. I immediately thought of Mother Theresa but then I remembered the Belgian missionary Fr Damien, and wanted to find out more.

The words ‘we lepers’ had come to mind. I think I was a child when I first heard those words and had them explained to me. They were the words spoken by Fr Damien (now St Damien) to those he was ministering to with leprosy.  They had been exiled- quarantined to the leper colony on Molokai within the Hawaiian archipelago following the diagnosis of leprosy. In reality they were abandoned, left there to suffer, to rot and to die in great distress in the days before a cure and remedial surgery were available. Although he went to the island age 33, in 1873, fit and healthy, as a volunteer Catholic priest and missionary, after 10 years of caring for his suffering brothers and sisters, adults and children he was diagnosed with the disease himself. The story goes that he informed his congregation who all had leprosy that he too had succumbed to the disease by using the words, ‘we lepers’ during a sermon. He was one of them now- he truly belonged and would suffer the loneliness and isolation of the disease with them and remain with them until he died, carrying his cross until the end.

Some of you may have seen the film made in 1999 about him, starring David Wenham I watched it this week for the first time and, of course, the film emphasised that when he arrived on the island he ordered not to touch anyone. We all know how hard social distancing is now and how tough it is not to be able to shake hands or hug one another, but leprosy has had that stigma for centuries. In Jesus day lepers were outcast from the community. I understand They wore a bell to warn of their presence, and cried out ‘unclean, unclean’ so people could keep away. But not Jesus. In Luke chapter 5 he touched the leper and he became clean again and Fr Damien followed the Lord’s example over and over again, to share God’s love with them, bandaging their wounds and even making them coffins to bury them with respect.

Touching those with leprosy was one of the ways Fr Damien followed in the footsteps of Jesus. But we can go further. How else did Damien deny himself, take up his cross and follow Jesus. Jesus didn’t just turn up for a few moments to preach and die and rise again, he spent the first 30 years of his life just living a normal life as a peasant carpenter- getting his hands dirty and working very hard. An ordinary human life, with no privileges and certainly not living a life of luxury. He spent 30 years totally immersed in life, choosing the very tough life of a peasant in a land under Roman occupation. Before he died to save us he had experienced life with all its hardships. This was also the example Fr Damien followed. He could have gone to the suffering people, preached and left them provisions at a distance, and caught the next boat back, but he stayed and lived and died as one of them, a truly incarnational ministry

One other example of how Fr Damien’s life modelled that of Jesus, was the battles he had to fight against the religious authorities and the criticism he had to put up with. As we know, the more popular Jesus got with the crowds, the more the religious authorities hated it; they became more and more jealous. Fr Damien’s work became known around the world, people were amazed at his sacrifice. But, against his superiors, he had to fight for the rights of his parishioners to even be able to meet their basic needs. He longed for his parishioners to live, to live ordinary lives whilst they could- that meant being able to marry, have parties, enjoy good food and a change of clothes, but for this he was criticised. Eventually donations started flooding in from around the world. £1000 from Great Britain with which he very naughtily elected to buy every single resident whether Christian or not, a new set of clothes…his superiors were furious.

 A Presbyterian priest The Rev Dr Hyde lived in Hawaii too– in the capital Honolulu, but he lived in far greater luxury than the local people. However, he published a very critical letter about Fr Damien shortly after Fr Damien’s death. This letter was read by a travel writer who had visited both Rev Hyde and the leprosy colony during his travels- sadly reaching Molokai shortly after Fr Damien’s death. But he talked to those who knew him. The writer’s name- Robert Louis Stevenson. He was horrified by the state of the place, spending 7 nights there and that was definitely enough, ‘harrowing’, is the word he used, but he realised it was a far better place, than it had been when Fr Damien first arrived, with the addition of a hospital, a village with houses, nursing sisters, a doctor, and several other missionaries,. RLS put pen to paper and angrily chastised Dr Hyde for criticising a man when he had never even set foot on the island but was living a life of luxury close by. Hyde had described Fr Damien as ‘coarse’ and ‘dirty’ – well so were his parishioners, after all they didn’t have bathrooms. He was coarse, dirty, headstrong and bigoted and Hyde even questioned how much he had achieved.

 RLS was furious, he considered Hyde had achieved little in his ministry and could see he was full of envy.  Stevenson wrote:

sir, when we have failed, and another has succeeded; when we have stood by, and another has stepped in; when we sit and grow bulky in our charming mansions, and a plain, uncouth peasant steps into the battle, under the eyes of God, and succours the afflicted, and consoles the dying, and is himself afflicted in his turn, and dies upon the field of honour—the battle cannot be retrieved ……… It is a lost battle, and lost for ever

RLS recognised the Christ-like qualities of Fr Damien’s life of sacrifice. Fr Damien responded to a calling that, I think most of us would have run away from, but, a recent Biography says of him ‘the truth is that all the testimonies of people who knew him well emphasise his joy. They speak of his sense of humour, his positive attitude.’ (Eynikel)

 His life was full of laughter. He discovered the joy that comes from following God’s call and the abundant life that Jesus promises his followers- as we put him in the driver’s seat. We are not all called to make such a huge sacrifice but if we speak out about an unpopular cause we may be mocked or criticised and in these uncertain times there are many who through caring for patients with COVID 19 have either paid the ultimate price or are still living with long-term disability from their own harrowing experiences.

Sources: By Hilde Eynikel, translated by Nancy Forest-Flier Robert Louis Stevenson open letter.

Links to YouTube clips of St Andrew’s Turi Prep School choir

In Christ Alone:

Still my Soul be still.

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