How Great Thou Art

Message from Father O’Donnell

The Mercy Sisters who run the orphanage in Guyana, St. John Bosco, also volunteer at a run down leper colony (they built it but the government took it from them), and asked if I wanted to visit their patients.  It was a rainy, depressing day and the condition of the buildings made it more depressing –no windows, gaping holes in the roofs, mildew covering the stairs, walls and floors.

Slipping up the dark steps we came to the residence floor and there sat Christopher – a beard covered some of the marks of leprosy on his face, both legs were amputated, his fingers were stubs AND he was beaming and welcoming me. “Wow, Father, it is wonderful to have you visit us, isn’t this a great place?  Doesn’t my new leg look great?  We are so blessed to be here.”

Guyana is an English speaking country, but I could not understand what he was saying.  No, Christopher this is not a great place, your prosthesis does not look good, and you are not blessed, you are a leper – you should be cursing God, not praising Him.  You should be resentful of me, not welcoming me with open arms.

I do not have enough space to speak of the different “lepers” I met that day, but every one of them had the same attitude.  One, Mr. Phoulihan, who was blind, crippled and holes for a face said to me, “Father, I cannot contain myself, if you do not mind I have to sing about how great God is,” and then in a wonderful baritone voice sang the entire hymn, “How Great Thou Art” (I always keep a small tape recorder with me for notes and pulled it out as he was singing).

As we drove away the Sisters turned to me in the back of the car and smiled when they saw my confused, somber, bewildered expression and said, “It happens to everyone who comes here.” The world is flipped upside down – those who should be sad are joyful, those who have nothing have everything, those who should be bitter, angry, resentful are grateful, caring and loving.

In this upside down world I think of Immaculee Ilibagiza from Rwanda forgiving the killers of her entire family, and the Amish forgiving the murderer of their children.  And then I think of the children who at the most vulnerable age are used, abused, rejected, abandoned, precisely by those who were supposed to love and protect them.  How can they still smile, hug, play, pray, laugh and at the end of each day say: “muchas gracias Dios”?  I do not think I will ever understand this “upside down world” but I do want to become more a part of it.  I want to experience what the lepers have, what the Amish have, and what the children have.