We Lepers

When after years of ministering to the bodies and souls of the wretched lepers on the island of Molokai, Father Damien in a sermon used the memorable phrase, “ We lepers,” his listeners knew that the membrane of health that had hitherto divided him from them was gone, and that he was now one of them indeed. With Robert Louis Stevenson and thousands of others since, we are awestruck by such devotion. A not quite comparable event might be an oncologist addressing his staff and saying, “Those of us with cancer.”

Leprosy has been brought under medical control; over recent years cures of cancer, hitherto unimaginable, have been effected. Like tuberculosis and small pox, cancer seems to be conquerable.

I used to be bemused by students who thought that death itself, death as such, would one day be cured, sapping the lapidary phrase, “All men are mortal,” of its pith and point. “All men used to be mortal?” But perhaps there is more to this sunny point of view than is at first visible.

The Gospel miracles usually bear on illness, sickness, some handicap, and when Jesus cures the petitioner we are given to understand that his physical illness is a metaphor for something far more serious. The healed is often sent away with the admonition that he sin no more. In the case of Lazarus and the son of the widow of Naim, one who has been dead is brought back to life. Jesus has a cure for death as well as for illness and debility.

Illness, indeed leprosy, continues to provide the great metaphor for sin. In A Burnt Out Case, Graham Greene, at a time when he seemed unsure as to what or even whether he himself believed, found that the stark fact of the hideous contortions of leprosy made illness at least indubitable. The cure that haunts the novel suggests something far more than being restored to the condition of most of us. It was possible to think of lepers as victims, selected without rhyme or reason for their tragic fate, but it is not some evil that merely happens to us, that befalls us, that haunts Graham Greene.

Man may have been metaphysically mortal in the state of innocence, but until he sinned he was not under sentence of death. That came as a result of sin, as its punishment. Death is pretty literal and may not seem to lend itself to metaphorical use, but it does, as in the phrase “the second death,” that death beyond mere physical dissolution which separates us from the whole point of our existence, God.

It is easy to forget that the drama of human existence arising from Original Sin is aimed at curing death.

Among the humbling satisfactions of aging is that one realizes truths he has been uttering all along. The words are there, and the meaning, but the connection between has been dulled by repetition and habit. And then, surprisingly, the penny drops, as Greene might say. This is a fundamental theme of Cardinal Newman, expressed in the distinction between the notional and the real. We can know things without, for all that, realizing them: the transition from notional to real knowledge is in many senses the essence of the intellectual life. Getting to know what we already know, so to speak.

First principles are good examples. The tongue twister, a thing cannot be and not be at the same time and in the same respect, comes as news to no one. But the realization of the difference between being and its opposite can be an acquisition.

Imagine Father Damien saying, “We mortals.” Where would be the drama in that, the sense of a new companionship? Notionally, mortality is a pretty dull fact. But it is a feature of life that certain limit situations bring home to us its reality. It is no longer notional. What then?

Like Damien, we go on doing what we were doing. Yet everything is different.

Ralph McInerny (1929-2010) was a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who taught at Notre Dame from 1955 until his death in 2010. He was among the founding contributors to The Catholic Thing.