As the Roman Catholic Church recognizes Hawaii's hero as a saint, what should we think about his chief posthumous critic?
It has been a good year for my old home state of Hawaii: it started the year with one of its own becoming President, and on October 11 one of its most famous heroes will officially become a saint of the Roman Catholic Church.
Even among Hawaii’s most Protestant Protestants, Damien de Veuster is praised as a man who exemplified incarnational, sacrificial ministry. The Belgian priest did not first go to the islands to minister to the Hansen's disease victims of the Kalaupapa colony on Molokai, but in 1873 he eagerly volunteered to minister.
“My Lord, remembering that I was placed under the pall on the day of my religious profession, thereby to learn voluntary death is the beginning of new life,” he told his bishop, “here I am, ready to bury myself alive among these unfortunate people, several of whom are personally known to me.”
Damien was not he first to volunteer to help the settlement (whose residents were not there voluntarily: isolation of those who had contracted Hansen’s disease was enforced by law from 1866 to 1969). But he seems to have been the first to work with the assumption that he too would contract the illness. Where other workers had left medicine, supplies, and food at a distance for the patients to use, Damien’s work almost ensured infection. “The manual labor of the roughest kind which he did for the lepers, to make them more comfortable, could not fail to produce frequently cuts, punctures and abrasions, by which the danger of inoculation was greatly increased,” a 1904 item in the Journal of the American Medical Association explained.
“You know my disposition,” Damien wrote two days after arriving in Kalaupapa. “I want to sacrifice myself for the poor lepers. The harvest is ripe.”
A bit more than a decade after his arrival, Damien discovered an early sign of infection: he had blistered his feet in a scalding footbath, but did not feel any pain.
“From henceforth I am forbidden to come to Honolulu again, because I am attacked by leprosy,” he wrote his bishop. “Its marks are seen on my left cheek and ear, and my eyebrows begin to fall. I shall soon be completely disfigured. I have no doubt whatever of the nature of my illness, but. I am calm and resigned and very happy in the midst of my people. The good God knows what is best for my sanctification. I daily repeat from my heart, Thy will be done.”
From some of his earliest days in the community, Damien had identified directly with his parishioners and patients. “I make myself a leper with the lepers, to gain all to Jesus Christ. That is why, in preaching, I say we lepers, not my brethren, as in Europe.” He continued to serve among them as one of them until his death on April 15, 1889.
Damien’s life, ministry, and death are certainly inspiring. But as his canonization draws nearer, I’ve been thinking more about the role criticism has played in both his life and in his fame. Nearly every biographical sketch talks about some kind of between Damien and other religious leaders. Honestly, much of this seems to be mere boilerplate for modern depictions of heroic Christians--they must always be in conflict with other religious leaders. Still, the depictions are not wholly unwarranted. Damien apparently exasperated some church leaders and government workers with his repeated requests for help. And when word of his work began to be publicized (largely due to the publication of one of his letters in Belgium) and supporters began sending him money, some Catholic officials reportedly worried that he was becoming prideful.
But the bigger conflict came after his death, when a small letter appeared in the Sydney Presbyterian. Australian pastor H. B. Gage had written to a pastor in Honolulu, C.M. Hyde, to see if all of the celebration of Damien’s holiness and sacrifice was warranted. Hyde’s response was published:
Dear Brother,—In answer to your inquiries about Father Damien, I can only reply that we who knew the man are surprised at the extravagant newspaper laudations, as if he was a most saintly philanthropist. The simple truth is, he was a coarse, dirty man, headstrong and bigoted. He was not sent to Molokai, but went there without orders; did not stay at the leper settlement (before he became one himself), but circulated freely over the whole island (less than half the island is devoted to the lepers), and he came often to Honolulu. He had no hand in the reforms and improvements inaugurated, which were the work of our Board of Health, as occasion required and means were provided. He was not a pure man in his relations with women, and the leprosy of which he died should be attributed to his vices and carelessness. Others have done much for the lepers, our own ministers, the government physicians, and so forth, but never with the Catholic idea of meriting eternal life.—Yours, etc.,
The letter caught the eye of Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote a scathing response and published it around the world. In addition to circulating as its own booklet, it appeared in The New York Times and other prominent outlets. “I conceive you as a man quite beyond and below the reticences of civility,” he wrote.
With what measure you mete, with that shall it be measured you again; with you, at last, I rejoice to feel the button off the foil and to plunge home. … 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 as your unhappy irritation has suggested. It is a lost battle, and lost for ever. One thing remained to you in your defeat—some rags of common honour; and these you have made haste to cast away.
According to Damien biographer John Tayman (The Colony: The Harrowing True Story of the Exiles of Molokai), Hyde had believed his letter to be a private one. That it was published in the Sydney Presbyterian was a surprise, and that he had become a target was devastating. A granddaughter of one of Hyde’s colleagues write that after seeing Stevenson’s letter, Hyde “seemed to be an extinguished candle with the last remnants of life ebbing out of the light that had been. He was crushed, distracted, and … on the verge of tears.”
“Oh, what have I done?” Hyde said to the girl. “I have just suffered the greatest undoing of my entire life. I am now being crucified by the most widely read author of our day and on the charges of telling the truth about that sanctimonious bigot on Molokai.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Stevenson didn’t disagree with many of Hyde’s assessments. In one of his own private letters that was later published, Stevenson wrote that Damien “was a European peasant; dirty, bigoted, untruthful, unwise, tricky, but superb with generosity, residual candour, and fundamental good humour; convince him he had done wrong (it might take hours of insult) and he would undo what he had done, and like his corrector better. A man with all the grime and paltriness of mankind, but a saint and hero all the more for that.”
What struck Stevenson was perhaps not the pointing out of Damien’s faults but the lack acknowledgment of Damien’s work. He recounted the story of the first time he’d heard that Damien had not been chaste. A man from Honolulu had suggested it in a public house on the beach in Samoa. Suddenly,
a man sprang to his feet …. “You miserable little ______” (here is a word I dare not print, it would so shock your ears). “You miserable little ______,” he cried, “if the story were a thousand times true, can't you see you are a million times a lower for daring to repeat it?”
Later in life, Stevenson reconsidered his booklet. “It is always harshness that one regrets,” he said.
I regret also my letter to Dr. Hyde. Yes, I do; I think it was barbarously harsh; if I did it now, I would defend Damien no less well, and give less pain to those who are alive. These promptings of good-humour are not all sound; the three times three, cheer boys, cheer, and general amiability business rests on a sneaking love of popularity, the most insidious enemy of virtue. On the whole, it was virtuous to defend Damien; but it was harsh to strike so hard at Dr. Hyde. When I wrote the letter, I believed he would bring an action, in which case I knew I could be beggared. And as yet there has come no action; the injured Doctor has contented himself up to now with the (truly innocuous) vengeance of calling me a "Bohemian Crank," and I have deeply wounded one of his colleagues whom I esteemed and liked.
Well, such is life.
Indeed, Stevenson had proved right when he wrote in his open letter to Hyde: “If that world at all remember you, on the day when Damien of Molokai shall be named a Saint, it will be in virtue of one work: your letter to the Reverend H. B. Gage.” The world recalls Damien as among the saintliest people of the last few centuries—and he is rarely recalled as a human with faults, temptations, and challenges. Gage (when he is remembered at all) is a one-dimensional foil, a paper villain called in to represent the damning and critical tendencies of envious religious leaders.
To me, both as the managing editor for news at Christianity Today and as a Christian history enthusiast, the public correspondence of Hyde and Stevenson raises all kinds of questions. Over the last four or five decades we’ve gone through a time of tremendous iconoclasm – “warts and all” biographies have often highlighted the “warts” above the “all.” And that’s probably a healthy response to the hagiography and inspirational biographical sketches that bent (or wholly invented) the facts to fit a pietistic lesson. Thankfully, the gleeful search for faults seems to be disappearing from the history shelves (I fear it will always be with us in political reporting). But as we seek to understand those who are affecting or who have affected the church and the world, what should we do with the critics? Can we be content to portray them as mere foils? Bit characters whose main job in the story is to throw stones and raise questions? Must we show them, too, as fully fleshed humans with their own accomplishments, joys, hopes, triumphs, foibles, and failures?
Where I suppose I generally land is that it is okay for a critic in the context of a larger story to be portrayed as merely a critic, so long as those of us who tell the stories never lose sight of their humanity. I have known critics who have cast stones purely out of jealousy, envy, and arrogance and who have deserved every last drop of Stevenson’s harsh critique. (Okay, I’ve more than known them. I’ve been them!) At the same time I’ve known critics who have acted out of love and Christ-like concern, who have spoken truth about popular saints knowing full well that they’re likely to become known more for that act of criticism than for anything else they have done to try to live a faithful life. It’s often hard to tell one type of critic from the other.
I suppose that as someone who is sometimes a critic, it may be helpful to ask myself whether I’m prepared to submit to caricature as a result of the criticism. If this is all history remembers me as, is that okay? I don’t have many moments when I am “ready to bury myself alive” as Damien was. But am I willing to be even face his trials metaphorically? If I speak the truth in love, am I willing to be “disfigured” by those who disagree with me? Or am I “calm and resigned and very happy in the midst of my people”? How often do I confess, “The good God knows what is best for my sanctification.” How often do I “repeat from my heart, Thy will be done”?
(Yes, I know professional historian types don’t like posts that end with a personal, pietistic reflection. If you’re one of these, feel free to pretend my post ended with our professional questions about the duty of historians to those critics who are not central to the narrative.)