A thought exercise regarding Óscar Romero and St. Damien of Molokai.
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|Photo credit: TripAdvisor.com, user Alienpilot, May 2012.|
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Staring intently at the sun setting behind Molokai, from Maui, where I was on vacation with my family this summer, was, for me, a religious experience (the two Hawaiian islands are only 7.5 miles apart). The sunset has since time immemorial been a spiritual hour for Christians: the Vespers have been recited at this time since at least the 4th century; the glorious refraction of the sun’s light across the sky creates a natural stained glass window, and the fall of darkness recalls the hour of the death on the Cross. Going on vacation can take us out of our normal schedule, threatening to disrupt our prayer life. But powerful moments such as the sunset—which happens every day, and being on vacation may leave us more at liberty to observe—can provide an opportunity to keep up our prayer life and indeed enrich it.
One way to seize upon such unplanned and unexpected moments is meditation—that “freestyle” form of conversation with God, which differs from regular prayer in that prayer attempts to articulate in words our needs and praise, while meditation “engages thought, imagination, emotion, and desire.” [Catechism of the Catholic Church, §2708.] It is often said that meditation in the Christian sense involves an active process—engaging the mind through thought, imagery, reflection, etc.—whereas “eastern” forms of meditation often involve “emptying” oneself of these. Catholics may turn to these other techniques for “a path to interior peace and psychic balance,” but they are not effective substitutes for prayer. [Letter to the Bishops on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, J. Ratzinger, Prefect, 1989.] “Christian prayer should go further: to the knowledge of the love of the Lord Jesus, to union with Him.” [Catechism, supra.]
In my meditation as I marveled at the miraculous sunset over Molokai, my thoughts turned of course to St. Damien, the Belgian priest who ministered to the leper colony that was once established there, and his unconditional commitment to Christ through the lepers. So great was his submission that he was known as “the Martyr of Molokai,” in no small measure because of the fact that Father Damien ended up contracting leprosy himself and dying. According to the modern Salvadoran martyr Óscar Romero, Father Damien’s commitment can only be understood through the prism of the Eucharist: “The bread of eternal life gave Father Damien strength, gives strength to every missionary, to all sisters, to all priests, gives life to the ecclesial base communities, and becomes the center of parish life,” Romero said.
The resulting thesis from my meditation staring at the sun set over Molokai became: (1) how similar Romero and St. Damien were in their commitment to Christ through contemporary outcasts; (2) how similar the medical apartheid of Molokai was to the injustice that Romero confronted; and (3) how both St. Damien and Romero were motivated by a missionary impetus that is vital to the Church’s mission (read: our mission) today.
The similarities between Óscar Romero and St. Damien of Molokai are quite remarkable and become clear if we consider a few choice snippets from the words of the two men. “My greatest pleasure is to serve the Lord in his poor children rejected by other people,” said St. Damien. “One day as he raised up the consecrated host,” Romero said of Damien, “he saw on his hand the signs of leprosy and from that time on when he spoke with the lepers he said: we, lepers.”
St. Damien described his internal attitude this way: “Having no doubts about the true nature of the disease, I am calm, resigned, and very happy in the midst of my people.” The same serenity comes through from Óscar Romero a month before his assassination: “Believe me, sisters and brothers, anyone committed to the poor must suffer the same fate as the poor. And in El Salvador we know the fate of the poor: to be ‘disappeared,’ to be tortured, to be jailed, to be found dead.” Again, St. Damien: “God certainly knows what is best for my sanctification and I gladly repeat: Thy Will Be Done.” And Óscar Romero: “Thus do I place under His loving providence all my life, and I accept with faith in Him my death, however hard it be. I do not want to express an intention to him, such as that my death be for my country’s peace or our Church’s flourishing. Christ’s heart will know how to direct it to the purpose He wishes.”
If the attitudes of the two men were similar, the environmental conditions that produced them were also alike. In nineteenth century Molokai, legislation made it a crime to be a leper and consigned those poor wretches suspected of having the disease to banishment upon a thin strip of land nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the tallest sea cliffs in the world—which Robert Louis Stevenson called “a prison fortified by nature.” Those confined there lost all legal rights and were considered legally dead to the world. It was the 1800s version of apartheid. In 1970s El Salvador, a modern military state was set up to enforce a society with the socioeconomic distribution of a medieval fiefdom. The military repression there was worse than that in Pinochet’s Chile or Argentina during the ‘Dirty War.’
Facing both situations, St. Damien and Óscar Romero made what would be called in modern theological parlance a “preferential option for the poor.” In our hyper-politicized times, such terms immediately invoke suspicions. Speaking about St. Damien, Archbishop Romero remarked that “Some people cannot conceive of women and men willing to die unless it is for some subversive or revolutionary motive.” He went on: “But there is a power greater than any revolution: the love that individuals and communities have discovered in the treasure that is revealed to us in Jesus Christ—his lively and life-giving presence in the Eucharist.” St. Damien said the same thing in fewer words: “I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.”
These last words reflect an evangelizing, missionary thrust behind St. Damien, which was also found in Archbishop Romero. Father Damien went to the lepers because he wanted to win their souls for the Kingdom: “The harvest appears to be ripe here.” Similarly, Archbishop Romero targeted social reformers and those seeking to establish earthly justice as potential targets the Church might win over to what he considered to be the greatest liberationist project of all—Christ’s deliverance found through the Church’s ministry of salvation. In this way, both men were trying to do what Pope Francis would call going to the existential peripheries of modern life to bring the gospel message to groups that have not heard it. Accordingly, both men are exemplars of how we need to take the gospel to groups that have heretofore evaded targeting, boldly going where no evangelist has gone before.
My actual meditation as I beheld the magnificent sunset over Molokai was, of course, more modest than this effort to corroborate the underpinnings of my reflection. Nevertheless, the bones of the foregoing rumination were all there, and I was able to contemplate in relation to the celestial spectacle how two different men, living in different times and circumstances, were able to, like rays of the same sun, converge upon a singular focus: Christ Jesus. As all Christian meditation does.
Meditation, a method of encountering God that is more flexible and adaptable because it engages the imagination rather than the deliberate word, can be an important way of keeping our channels of communication with God open while we are on vacation. In fact, the opportunities presented during these moments of leisure can provide unexpected little epiphanies and revelations that may flourish from the everyday picture cards of nature—for the aides to Christian meditation include “the great book of creation, and that of history the page on which the ‘today’ of God is written.” [Catechism, supra, §2705.]