Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Love in the Time of AIDS, Sexual Abuse, TB

Saint Ignatius’ Autobiography, part 47

In the meantime, while they were talking, a friar approached Doctor Fragus to ask him to be good enough to help him find a house, because in that in which he lodged there had been many deaths which it was thought had been caused by the plague, because at that time the plague had begun to spread to Paris. Doctor Fragus and the pilgrim wanted to visit that house under the guidance of a woman who was very skilled in diagnosing the disease. She went into the house and said that it was plague-stricken. The pilgrim also entered, found a sick man there, comforted him, laying his hand on the man’s sore. After a few words of comfort and encouragement, he left by himself. His hand began to pain, and he thought he had caught the plague. So strong did this fancy become that he could not control it, and he ended by thrusting his hand into his mouth, moving his fingers about, and telling himself: “If you have the plague in your hand, you’ll also have it in your mouth.” This done his imagination quieted down and the pain in his hand left him.

But when he returned to the College of Sainte-Barbe where he had lodgings and where he attended lectures, the inmates would not allow him to enter when they learned that he had gone into the plague-ridden house, and fled from him. He was thus obliged to spend several days outside.

They have a custom at Paris for those who are studying philosophy in the third year for a baccalaureate. It involves the expenditure of a gold crown, and consequently many poor students are not able to meet the expense. The pilgrim began to doubt whether it would be proper for him to take it. As he could come to no conclusion about his doubt, he decided to put the matter into the hands of his teacher. He advised him to take it, and so he did. Even so there were not lacking critics, in particular a Spaniard who made some remark about it.

I am struck in this passage at how little Ignatius thinks of himself, at least initially. When entering the house, he goes to comfort the man, apparently without a thought to the fact that he might catch the plague. It’s only later, when he’s had time to think about it, that he starts to worry that he might have the plague. Fear takes over, and he’s convinced that since having touched the man he now has a pain in his hand. But I love his response. He refuses to let fear about himself rob him of the grace of his selfless act of charity. It’s almost comical to think of him sticking his hand in his mouth as if to say to himself “If I have the plague, so be it, it must be God’s will, so quit being so foolish!”

Now we are not living in a time of plague, yet Ignatius’ experience is not just one of the past. In my years of ministry, I have many times been faced with the question of whether to think first of my health and safety, or to consider the need of the other. In the early years of our awareness of AIDS there was the question of whether you should touch or even get near someone with the disease. I remember on a couple of occasions just taking my chances. These days there’s a lot of emphasis on protecting yourself from the possibility of accusations. We are advised not to be alone with children or adolescents. Most times, I find, I’m able to be prudent in such ways. However, every once and a while I’m faced with a young person whose in immediate need, and there’s no time or opportunity to take such precautions. That’s when I have to put my self and my fears aside and trust in God, and do what I can to help. And trust also that should I be falsely accused of something as a result, that God will be with me through that as well.

This “danger” of ministry to God’s people was brought home to me most strikingly a few years ago when I tested positive for Tuberculosis. Some people give false positives, but I’d never tested positive before. I was sent for a chest x-ray which discover a tubercular “granuloma” on one of my lungs. Evidently, somewhere in the course of my visits to people in hospitals or perhaps in my encounters with the poor in Latin America, I’d been exposed to the disease. I did so without fear, because I’d never even considered the possibility was there. If only I could always offer myself in charity to others without worrying about such dangers. If only I could trust God that much (without being reckless, of course)! Luckily, the prognosis was not serious. My chances of contracting the disease were slim, and I was put on a brief regimen of medication that made the chances even slimmer. But every once in a while, like Ignatius, I remember that there’s this tiny bit of the disease that was there, and what if I did get it? It can cause some momentary anxiety. But it’s also a good reminder to trust in God and try to keep a clear focus on the needs of others. Putting my own fears before the needs of others would be the worst contagion.

Side-note: Saint Ignatius’ story also reminds me of some of the experiences of the subject of my master’s thesis, Harold Frederic. Frederic was a novelist and London correspondent for the New York Times in the late nineteenth-century. As London correspondent, he covered the Cholera epidemic in France. One of the things he was most moved by in his coverage of the epidemic was the dedication of the priests and religious who risked their lives to minister to the victims of the epidemic. He wrote a short story called “Brother Angelan” which reflected his experience. It’s a little known gem, and worth a look.


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