I’ve loved St. Damien for as long as I can remember. A Belgian priest, he was a missionary to the people of Hawaii when he volunteered to go to Molokai and minister to the lepers who had been left there to await death. When he arrived, the colony was in chaos. The patients were ripped from their families on the other islands and taken by boat to the peninsula of Kalaupapa, a small area of land bordered on three sides by the Pacific Ocean and on the fourth by sheer cliffs, including the tallest sea cliff in the world. As their ship approached the island, they were thrown into the water to swim to shore where hunger, lawlessness, and despair awaited them.
Father Damien instilled order, erected dormitories, and cared for the sick; more than that, he offered hope and salvation. Ordered to keep the lepers at arm’s length to protect himself, he chose instead to live among them as a brother and eventually found himself their brother leper. He was rejected and slandered, forced to live without benefit of confession except when he shouted it to a priest on a passing ship. He died slowly and painfully, rejoicing to die like Christ as he had lived like Christ.
Because I lead a charmed life, this week I got to go to Kalaupapa. I boarded the tiniest plane I’ve ever seen (9 passengers) and headed to the island where St. Damien and St. Marianne Cope gave their lives to love the poorest of the poor.
Coming from the mainland, when you land in Kalaupapa, it’s hard (for a minute) to feel sorry for the lepers. This is paradise, after all. How can you complain when you’re surrounded by such beauty? Sure, you’re imprisoned, but it’s not exactly Siberia.
After I got over rejoicing in how far I am from the polar vortex I escaped, though, I began to think. It’s beautiful, yes. Stunningly so. But all there was to do was wait for death. These exiles knew they would never see their families again; palm trees and bright blue waves don’t make up for the anguish of separation. On clear days, they could see their home island of Oahu in the distance: close enough to see but impossibly far. In all the good things they experienced, there was a poverty, even after St. Damien brought order and hope. No matter how good things got, there was an unfulfilled ache underlying every moment. They wanted to go home.
I’ve been feeling this exile more strongly lately. I’ve been longing for home. As beautiful as these islands are, as delicious as the fresh pineapple and kalua pork are, as kind and loving as the people I’ve met are, I want to go home. Not to my legal address, but Home. This life of ours is an exile, a season far from the one we love with only hints of the land we were made for. This world may be magnificent, but the foretaste of joy often strikes me as insipid, the glimpses of beauty washed out. We were made for so much more and when I stand on the shores of Molokai, I feel the yearning of the mothers, the children, the friends who would have traded paradise in an instant for a lifetime at home.
A sweet priest who is kinder to me than I deserve recently introduced me to his congregation as a hobo, but specified that “hobo” really stands for “homeward bound.” I guess that means we’re all hobos, all of us pilgrims working our way through a beautiful land of exile. It’s easy to mistake the way stations for the destination, easy to fill our hearts with promise and lose our hunger for the Promised. When our prison is paradise, we sometimes stop yearning to be free. We settle for what this world has to offer and forget that this world is not our home.
Don’t let satisfaction lull you into complacency, nor difficulty drag you into despair. When all is well, remember that you were made for so much more than the small pleasures and even the deep joys of this life. When life is hard, remember that this is your exile; your homeland awaits. Memento mori, my friends, and rejoice.
P.S. If you want to boost my ego (not that I need it), you can head over to Bonnie’s and vote for me for the Sheenazing Blogger Awards! And when you’re not voting for me, be sure to vote for my sister: A Blog for My Mom. If you don’t read her blog yet, start. It is literally my favorite thing on the internet.