Father Damien arrived at the Kalawao leper settlement on the Kalaupapa peninsula of the island of Molokai 140 years ago this past Friday, where he spent the remaining 16 years of life. He arrived in Hawaii 9 years earlier after a 5-month voyage at sea from his beloved home and family.
As you read through the letters he wrote to his family back in Belgium, you soon become aware of how isolated from them he felt. Naturally, in those days communication was not as swift as it is in our day of telephones, airplanes, e-mail, Facebook, Skype, and Face Time. Not only did you have to wait for the length of the voyage for a letter to reach the one to whom you wrote, but you first had to find a carrier heading at least in the general direction of where your letter needed to go. You can imagine how this was not always timely, particularly if someone moved after you sent the letter.
As I look now to the beginning of my new assignment in the Eternal City - among a culture that is not my own and among a people whose language I do not yet know well, and a quarter of the world away from home, family, and friends - I find myself turning to Father Damien to learn from his example. I think particularly of one letter he wrote to his sister who was a nun in Holland:
Three years now, and not a line from you. Where are you then, my dear sister? Are you off to Heaven already? Not so fast, if you please. A little more time is needed to win that crown. Take pity then on your poor brother, who, by dint of being so long forgotten, will soon become a regular savage among savages. Well, I certainly love my savages, who soon will be more civilized than Europeans. They are learning to read and write.Another time he answered a letter from his parents, saying that "for a long time I have been distressed and in suspense about you, not knowing what might have happened. I learn to my great joy that you are in good health."
I can only imagine the pain that he must have felt at such a lack of correspondence from home, especially when some of his letters went left unanswered Certainly his love for his family did not diminish with the passage of years, as we learn from others of his letters, but how did he endure this isolation from his family and friends whom he left behind in service of the Gospel?
The answer, really, is quite simple. Just after he left Belgium he wrote a letter home before embarking on the journey to what were then known as the Sandwich Islands, in which he reminded his parents:
Henceforward we shall not have the happiness of seeing one another, but we shall always be united by that tender love which we bear to one another.He knew that this love has its origin in the love of God. So it is that I find my thoughts turning once again to the most profound words he ever put to paper:
I find my consolation in the one and only companion who will never leave me, that is, our Divine Saviour in the Holy Eucharist. . . .It is at the foot of the altar that we find the strength necessary in this isolation of ours. Without the Blessed Sacrament a position like mine would be unbearable. But, having Our Lord at my side, I continue always to be happy and content. . . . Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is the most tender of friends with souls who seek to please Him. His goodness knows how to proportion itself to the smallest of His creatures as to the greatest of them. Be not afraid then in your solitary conversations, to tell Him of your miseries, your fears, your worries, of those who are dear to you, of your projects, and of your hopes. Do so with confidence and with an open heart.He endured the separation from his loved ones back home through his closeness to Jesus Christ present in the Blessed Sacrament.
Even with the greater ease and the swiftness of modern communications, and with the ability to return home once or twice a year, this is a lesson I will continually ask him to teach me.
Please don't think that I am dreading my new assignment; I am looking forward to it, though I do know that there will be some particular hardships that come with it, the separation from family and friends for a great length of time being perhaps the greatest of them.
Concerning the arrival of letters that did come from home, Father Damien once commented:
It is a great happiness to me whenever I have an opportunity of sending news of myself, of reminding you, my dear parents, that on an island in the midst of the great Pacific, you have a son who loves you and a priest who prays for you.I will soon echo these sentiments not from an island in the Pacific, but from an ancient city on the Italian peninsula.
In the past, I haven't used Skype very much; now I will have to make frequent use of it.
On my desk in my office is a statue of Father Damien that I touched to his relic in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace. As I begin considering what I will bring with me to Rome, this statue will certainly be among the first things packed.