Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Leprosy and Castles

I have noticed that since I posted about being a survivor of priest sexual abuse, the number of people who comment on my blog has fallen off. This is due, I suppose, to the stigma which attaches to those of us who have been molested as children, the ranks of which I now gladly join. Those who have not been so abused shy away from those of us who have, as if we suffer from some unspeakable disease which they dread to contract. It is a perfectly understandable reaction, and since my postings I have witnessed it first-hand. People with whom I have daily contact now tend to shy away from me, and others, whom I have known for many years, are also falling off. It is as if they are frightened of being contaminated by me, and so they distance themselves for the sake of their own comfort.

This is nothing but guilt and insecurity, of course. Guilt in that many of them, being Catholic, they feel a kind of corporate shame, since they continue to adhere to an institution which has dedicated itself (and continues to dedicate itself) to the violation of the innocence of children. And insecurity, since they cannot help but wonder whether they share in some part the collective blame for the sins of their spiritual mentors.

As I have mentioned heretofore, I worked in a leper colony in the Congo when I was in my early twenties. Among those poor people I felt, at first, an instinctual revulsion, a dread of contact, a loathing of contamination. But this I eventually I managed to overcome. Each morning I went out to the gates of the Trappist monastery in the desert where I lived and met the people - blacks who were almost gray with their disease - and I tended to them as best I could, bringing them food and medicines, and treats from the monastery's kitchen. As I spent more time among them I felt a kind of kinship with them, realizing that they bore on their bodies the same sorts of scars that I bore on my soul. Alienated and stigmatized as they, eventually I came to embrace them, hugged them, laughed with them, taught them, and gave them challenges to perform, set by my own example. For I knew instinctively that I was a leper every bit as much as they.

I still have a photograph of a sand castle which I built with the children of that leper colony. I rarely look at it any more, but I suppose it is one of my most cherished possessions. One morning I went out beyond the monastery gates, where the Trappist monks were not permitted to go, and found a score or more lepers waiting for me. I was in the middle of the desert of southern Congo, surrounded by desperately sick people, many of whom were children, and I felt utterly helpless. Then I asked myself: What do you do in the desert? And so I knelt down and began to do what I had done as a child in New Jersey - at the very same Jersey shore where I was molested: I began building a sand castle.

I worked alone at first, palming up the ramparts and the battlements as I had done as a child. But it was not long before the Congolese children joined in, scooping up sand with their twisted fingers, chattering and working busily around me. Within minutes I found myself surrounded by a dozen of them, all of whom were intent on constructing the biggest, grandest sand castle ever.

Soon the adults, too, were joining in, shouting suggestions in Kikongo (which I had learned), and offering directions, and arguing with one another about how this or that should look, even though none of them had ever seen such a thing in their lives. The energy which the project had generated was as infectious as the disease, and within a matter of an hour or two we had made a sand castle to rival anything on Sea Isle City beach, where the monster, Father Rogers, took the altar boys to molest them.

But the real coup was yet to follow. When the Trappist monks (most of whom were Congolese) saw what I was doing, they came crowding to the gate. Caught up in the sheer childlike creativity of the thing, they began calling ideas from inside the wall, which they were not allowed to cross. Then finally the abbot arrived, a formidable shave-headed monk from Belgium. He watched us for a moment, listened to his monks calling their encouragement, and for the first time, ordered the gates of the monastery to be opened, and allowed the monks to file out to help with the construction. Indeed, he led the way himself, as I shall never forget, plucking a desert grass and "planting" it near the castle keep, declaring, "There is the forest of the seigneur."

At that all the monks joined in at once, and together with the adults and the scab-skinned children, we all set to work at the castle. It was an act of spontaneous creation - a flight of imagination such as I, in my decades since in the arts, have never seen duplicated.

Until tonight and this writing I had never understood the importance of that moment - of that photograph. Though then, at the age of twenty-three, I was deeply set in denial of my molestation, nonetheless I understood on some primal level that I needed to share my grief, to bask, if only for a while, in the innocence of creation with other children who were as poxed as I. And I did. And in their poor, transcendent spontaneity, those leper children in the Congo gave me the strength to carry on for years. Though whether to life or death I still do not know.

But let me tell you this: I learned that day in the Congo that it is no danger to embrace those who are stigmatized - in fact, such an embrace can be liberating. To take in your arms people whom the world rejects, to offer them the simple kindness of human contact, to clasp them to your body just because they are human, may be the greatest saving grace you can offer in your life.

The Catholic Church talks a great deal in its hypocrisy about salvation, but salvation is not a matter of rituals or sacraments - it is a simple gesture of compassion: a saying to those who have been made to feel ugly or exiled that you are like me, that you are wanted, that you are welcomed: that the disease you suffer from has nothing to do with the humanity which we all share. That you are treasured. That you are loved. This is all that we survivors of childhood sexual abuse are asking: Accept us in our common humanity, for we, like you, were innocent once, and we did nothing wrong.

Then perhaps you, too, may be released from the sanctimonious walls which enclose you, to go out and build a castle among lepers.