This post is adapted from a reflection delivered during an ecumenical vespers service at Pepperdine University, Malibu, California, on May 10, 2013, the commemoration of Saint Damien de Veuster.
At the beginning of the second act of the musical, Rent, a question is asked: “How do you measure a year?”
For those of you who know the show, you’ll recall that a number of answers are given: “In diapers, report cards, in spoked wheels, and speeding tickets; in contracts, dollars; in funeral, in births.” For those of us who might be a bit more pragmatic and practical: “525,600 minutes.”
All of these are good answers—true answers. The best answer, however, was saved for last: “measure in love—measure your life in love.”
Tonight, we remember that for us, as disciples of Jesus, love is the only measure for our lives—not doctrines or devotions, customs or conventions—only love.
The theologian Karl Rahner, S.J., once observed that the Church as the duty to proclaim the holiness of its members because, before anything else, we have the duty of proclaiming the power of God’s love and what that love has wrought in the hearts of believers and in the world.
And so, we talk about great Christian philanthropists and humanitarians, benefactors of hospitals and universities, artists, poets, and composers, servants of the poor, and prophets with clarion voices crying out for justice.
Even within this noble company, this “great cloud of witnesses” (cf. Hebrews 12:1), a figure like Damien de Veuster (Father Damien “the Leper”) stands out as a remarkable “servant of love.”
|Saint Damien de Veuster|
shortly before his death from Hansen's Disease
on April 15, 1889.
In 1863, Damien left his home, family, and religious community in Belgium to serve as a missionary in Hawaii, sharing pastoral care for an area covering nearly 2,000 miles. Ten years later, on May 10, 1873, (one hundred and forty years ago today,) he arrived at the leper colony of Kalaupapa on the island of Moloka’I and he found he had arrived in a “suburb of hell.”
The priest prayed with the sick and dying, offered Mass, taught hymns and the Bible, witnessed marriages, cared for and educated orphans, dug graves and buried the dead. He brought faith and compassion into a place ravaged by drunkenness, abuse, rape, neglect, and a despair that destroyed the spirits of even the strongest women and men exiled to that God-forsaken place… women, men, and even children, who had been abandoned by family, government, and even the churches.
Father Damien, however, wasn’t just some sort of social worker or human rights activist. He was, before anything, a Christian. Damien… Father Damien… Saint Damien, lived a life given over to countless acts of kindness, solicitude, and compassion—acts that were most often small in themselves, but which were nonetheless heroic because of the isolation, poverty, suffering, disease, and death he and his people faced day-in and day-out. These countless good works were not the sum, the measure of his life and ministry: the measure was love.
This morning, as I was thinking about Father Damien’s life and our time here, I found myself caught up in the wondrous view of the Pacific Ocean this campus enjoys. As I looked at the ocean, the same ocean whose waters confined Father Damien and his people in their island-prison, I thought of the hills of East Tennessee where I grew up and the valley in southern Indiana that I now call home. I realized that I have always lived in places where I could walk to the horizon. But here, this morning, I was struck by the expanse of the ocean and the miles and miles spreading out before me and I thought: This is what love is like.
Love is expansive and boundless. Father Damien understood this—he more than understood it, he lived it. His love, the expression of his faith (cf. James 2:18), was boundless and all-encompassing, like the depth and breadth of this ocean… like God’s love for the whole of creation. For you. For me.
Tonight, here in this chapel by the ocean—Father Damien’s ocean—we offer up a song of thanks and praise for life (both his and ours) and for the love that is the measure of life.
We remember that our call is to live and love with a love that knows no bound, no limit, no horizon—a love that is as expansive as the ocean.