The leper priest who lost his marbles

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By Christian Nielsen

Father Damien’s dying wish of marbles for his children may seem odd, but this saint’s caring for lepers can teach us a lot about selfless sacrifice.

Father Damien, shortly before he too succumed to leprosy. Photo: Sydney B Swift

Father Damien, shortly before he too succumed to leprosy.
Photo: Sydney B Swift

Thursday 4 June 2015

There’s a dedicated ‘day’ for everything now. Pick any date in the calendar and something momentous happened. Take 4 June, for example. On that day in 1783, the Montgolfier brothers demonstrated their miraculous hot-air flying machine. The Battle of Midway kicked off in 1942 and dozens of other battles and bloody victories share the same date. The actors Russell Brand and Angelina Jolie were both born on 4 June, in 1975.

Or how about remembering something just as obscure but a bit more existential? Ten years ago this day, the ambitious son of a grain farmer from Belgium was beatified in Rome by Pope John Paul II for his sacrifice to the church and the Kalawao leper colony. There is more to this celebration than the neat passing of a decade. It is an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of altruism in a ‘selfie-obsessed’ era, where the decision to join a colony of outcast lepers would be derided by today’s me-generation as madness, a one-way ticket to crazy town.

Born Jozef De Veuster in the rural town of Tremelo in 1840, the practical and head-strong youth spurned the family business in favour of a missionary’s life dedicated to the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary (Picpus Fathers). At an age when most youth today are still living off their parents, young Father Damien, as he became known, was building chapels and perhaps a little too zealously converting the natives of the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii) to the Christian faith.

After a decade in the priesthood, his faith was put to the test as the islands struggled to contain a worsening outbreak of leprosy, or Hansen’s disease. Anyone showing signs of leprosy – skin discoloration, sores, wart-like lumps – was quickly isolated… cast out. A local newspaper report of one such “leper colony” in 1873 paints a grim picture: “It is a terrible place, where people lie rotting away, a place full of death and manslaughter, drunkenness, prostitution and rape. A place that could use a brave missionary.”

This gauntlet, as well as calls from church seniors for ‘volunteers’ to do shifts in the colony, were answered by Father Damien. He set out to alleviate the human suffering and indignity in Kalawao. He wanted the dead to be granted a Christian burial, not “eaten by wild pigs”, as described in the booklet Damien’s Way.* He wanted to provide better healthcare, contain the extortion, drinking and gambling, and stop the abuse of orphans in the colony.

But as the leprosy crisis spread, health officials in Honolulu tightened the quarantine, ordering all who entered the colony into effective exile. Father Damien had become one of the outcasts. He spent 16 years of his life taking care of the spiritual and physical needs of his leper family until he too ultimately succumbed to the disease in 1889.  The local press called him a “Christian hero… an apostle of the lepers.”

More than Christian zeal

In his dying days, when asked if there was anything he or his mission needed, the ‘leper priest’ simply replied: “Yes, marbles for my children.” These odd but moving words sum up the Picpus father’s selfless view.

Would we take that same one-way journey? Would we let our children volunteer to treat Ebola victims in West Africa? And what qualifies as a sacrifice – religious or non-religious in nature – nowadays? A week without a smartphone? A booze-free month after New Year’s over-indulging?

It is hard to reconcile his unflinching act of sacrifice with today’s norms. Sure, it was in the name of God, and the whole ‘converting the heathens’ European missionary ideal is less than savoury in a 21st-century setting. We might also be inclined to look cynically for ulterior motives in light of the Catholic priesthood’s more recent track record.

In fact, Damien’s early Christian fervour was put to the test by the Old Testament teachings that lepers were sinners and should be shunned. It’s been said that he preferred the pre-mission Hawaiian stance on the illness, which would never exclude the sick on such grounds.

So if you discount the original motives for being in Hawaii and look at Father Damien’s response when his humanity was directly challenged by the Old Book, on paper it looks like he made the ultimate selfless choice. “We lepers,” he is reported to have said, “stand together in solidarity, in simple acts or ordinary life with no superior detachment, reaching out to the sick and caring for them.”

Perhaps he hadn’t lost his marbles after all. Maybe he found them while the rest of us are still looking to win them on Mystic Marbles.

More info

Father Damien is the patron saint of the Diocese of Honolulu and Hawaii. He was canonised by Pope Benedict XVI on 11 October 2009. Several memorial days celebrate the Belgian priest’s contributions to the islands and humanity, including Father Damien Day on 15 April and a Feast Day on 10 May.

*Damien’s way is distributed in the Sint-Antoniuskapel on Pater Pater Damiaanplein in Leuven, which contains Damien’s crypt and tomb.

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Gay pride (and prejudice) through the ages

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By Khaled Diab

Historical examples of homosexuality being tolerated by Judaism, Christianity and Islam can help overcome homophobia and reinvent these faiths.

Thursday 28 February 2013

Were the Christian martyrs Saint Sergius and Saint Bacchus involved in a medieval "same-sex union"?

Were the Christian martyrs Saint Sergius and Saint Bacchus involved in a medieval “same-sex union”?

It is almost spring, and love, of the gay variety, seems truly to be in the air. The last few weeks have brought a constant stream of good news for LGBT communities in Europe, not to mention encouraging developments in the United States and even within the Catholic Church.

British and French MPs spread the love in the run up to Valentine’s Day by giving non-heterosexual marriage a resounding vote of confidence, while Germany’s Constitutional Court ruled in favour of so-called “successive adoption” by same-sex couples.

Across the Atlantic, where same-sex marriage has faced stiff opposition from religious and social conservatives, a pro-gay marriage ad campaign featuring prominent Democrats and Republicans, including Dick Cheney and Colin Powell, has just been released, while there is talk that Barack Obama is planning to utilise the Supreme Court to push for same-sex matrimony.

Homosexuals, not to mention feminists, have toasted the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, who “made homophobia one of his battle cries”, according to one activist. This has left many in the LGBT community hopeful that the next and future popes will be more relaxed towards questions of sexuality, while activists have been urging the Vatican to wake up to reality.

“There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family,”  wrote Cardinal Ratzinger, the Holy Father’s previous incarnation, in an opinion he wrote for his predecessor Pope John Paul II in 2003 on the issue of same-sex marriage.

Why? Apparently, because “marriage is holy, while homosexual acts go against the natural moral law”.

Although the argument that homosexuality is unnatural is contrary to the available scientific evidence and undoubtedly angers gay communities and their supporters, this idea is common not only in the Catholic Church, but in other branches of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

However, despite Ratzinger’s protestations, deep, deep inside Christianity’s historic closet, there was greater tolerance of homosexuality than appears at first sight. Although the medieval and pre-modern church, especially during the various inquisitions, was well-known for persecuting and killing homosexuals, it may, at least at times, have been rather gay-friendly.

For example, though the modern clergy, with the exception of some reformist churches, tends to reject the idea of gay marriage, it appears that two men – but not women – could sometimes be joined in holy union in the Middle Ages.

In a practice known as Adelphopoiesis, two men would be joined in what American history professor John Boswell has controversially described as “same-sex unions”, although his contention has been challenged by the clergy and other scholars who insist that, though the practice walked and talked rather like a church wedding, the union in question was actually a spiritual and celibate one and closer to the concept of “blood brotherhood”.

Although the practice of Adelphopoiesis may strike the modern reader as surprising, once it is placed in the context of Greco-Roman culture, which had a profound impact on early Christian and Muslim ideals, it is not. In the male-centric classical view, men’s affection for each other was the most sublime form of love, while women didn’t really count for much, as attested to by the absence or belittling of lesbianism in classical, Judaic, Christian and Islamic traditions.

This idea of the superiority of male love, and the tolerance thereof, can be seen in the odes to homoerotic passion of the camp and irreverent Abu Nuwas, the Abbasid court laureate who was believed to be the greatest poet in Islam, and whose work was not censored, strangely enough, until the early 20th century.

Moreover, medieval Islamic scholars tended to hold that male homosexual acts did not merit worldly punishment, rather like how ancient Jewish legal practices upheld such strict rules of evidence in cases of “sodomy” that it was near impossible to prove and secure a death sentence. This is a far cry from the contemporary puritanical attitude towards homosexuality in much of the Muslim world, where gay people often potentially face the death penalty

The sublimation of mutual male affection has been (re-)interpreted by modern scholars, commentators and even clergy as a sign of homosexuality in the most unexpected quarters. Not only have many interpreted Jalal al-Din Rumi’s love poetry, or ghazal, dedicated to his older spiritual master Shams-e-Tabrizi, as a sign that the legendary Sufi poet had homosexual tendencies, there have even been suggestions that none other than Jesus Christ was gay.

That a man in his 30s apparently had no wife or girlfriend, even though Jewish law would have allowed him to marry, but was friends with a prostitute, hung out with a dozen other blokes, including one “Beloved Disciple”, in the words of the Gospel of John, could be interpreted as repressed homosexuality by the modern secular ear. Needless to say, the very suggestion is rejected as outrageous and insulting by the church and the majority of Christians.

Although early Christianity and medieval Islam seemed to have adopted some elements of the classical tolerance of certain aspects of homosexuality, at least the male variety of it, all the Abrahamic faiths have inherited the Old Testament tradition which condemns as sinful homosexual acts (the idea of homosexuality or sexual orientation did not really exist until modern times, or was at the very least more fluid).

For instance, both Christianity and Judaism draw on the Book of Leviticus (18:22) which commands the believer: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.”

One reason why homosexuality elicits such a disproportionate reaction in all three religions is because of its powerful potential to subvert the traditional patriarchal order. Traditional models of marriage, after all, are more about procreation than recreation, and about prescribing and cementing a strict gender hierarchy, in which man sits on the throne and woman washes his royal feet. “Same-sex marriage fundamentally challenges the basic sexual premises of marriage as a contract,” writes Kecia Ali, a professor of religion, in her taboo-shaking book Sexual Ethics and Islam.

The most common justification for the prohibition on homosexual behaviour in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition is, of course, the allegorical tale of Sodom and Gomorrah, two Biblical cities which were destroyed by fire and brimstone for their sinfulness. Although none of the scriptures spell out homosexuality as the nature of the sins committed by the Sodomites, who wanted to rape God’s angels, sodomy, or liwat (i.e. pertaining to Lot’s people) to Muslims, has for centuries been assumed to relate to anal sex, or more broadly, homosexual male intercourse.

This is not a valid connection to make, many contemporary activists claim. “Reading the story of Sodom as being about homosexuality is like reading the story of an axe murderer as being about an axe,” writes Jay Michaelson, the American-Jewish academic and activist.

But is such revisionism honest? I believe that, in the balance of things, the Abrahamic tradition is homophobic, as was the Greco-Roman tradition, though to a lesser degree. Nevertheless, though such revisionism may not be honest, it is useful and perhaps even necessary, to bring religion into the 21st century.

While I personally reject religion because of its intrinsic contradictions and inherent unfairness, I accept that faith can give a structure to the world for believers, and a perceived higher purpose to their lives.

That is why religion has been invented and reinvented endlessly over the centuries. What we call Judaism, Christianity and Islam today, for instance, bears little resemblance to their original counterparts. And just as no modern believer seriously accepts their religions’ ancient attitudes towards, for example, slavery and warfare, people will one day hopefully look back on the current debate over homosexuality and faith as archaic.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 26 February 2013.

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