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“For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” Matthew 16:25.
The words that Jesus Christ speaks to the disciples in the Gospel of Matthew made so much sense to twenty-one-year-old Albert Schweitzer, that bright summer morning of 1896! He felt as though they were addressed to him! He had barely got out of bed when the thought that had been stirring his being since childhood ― a profound compassion for every living creature ― crystallised into a decision that was to shape the course of his life: up to the age of thirty, he would carry on his established career as a theologian, but after that he would devote himself body and soul to the direct service of mankind. He had no idea how, so he put his trust on Chance, or rather, Providence, to come up with a sign. “One can save one’s life along with one’s professional existence if one seizes every opportunity, however unassuming, to act humanly toward those in need. In this way we serve both the spiritual and the good”
Schweitzer was to write in his autobiography, Out of my Life and Thought.
The sign appeared on his desk in 1904, one year before his thirtieth birthday: a magazine of the Paris Missionary Society. As he leafed through it, an article on “The needs of the Congo Mission” caught his attention. In it the society’s president asked for people to carry on its work in Gabon, the northern province of the Congo. Men and women who respond to the Lord’s call are the people the Church needs, the article concluded. The reader’s reaction was as spontaneous and decisive as that of Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon. “I put the magazine aside and went quietly back to my work. My quest was over”.
A year later, on October 13, 1905, while in Paris, he posted letters to his parents and friends announcing the decision to become a doctor in Equatorial Africa, and in the same letterbox dropped his resignation as principal of the theological seminary in Strasbourg. The news shook all those who knew him. Some doubted his sanity, others said that he ought to leave work among Africans to people not endowed with such talent in the arts and letters, for he was already an accomplished organist as well as an authority on Johann Sebastian Bach. His teacher, the celebrated organist Charles-Marie Widor, who promoted Schweitzer’s talent, scolded him for acting like a general who wants to fight in the front line. A lady friend told him that he could do more by lecturing on behalf of Africa rather than going there, adding that propaganda is the mother of events.
But the theologian-turned-humanist was adamant in his resolution. “Only he who gives himself with a full sense of service has the right to choose an exceptional task. Only he who thinks not of heroism but of a duty undertaken with sober enthusiasm, is capable of becoming the spiritual pioneer the world needs. There are no heroes of action — only heroes of renunciation”.
And so, the “narrow gate” lay open to Doctor of Medicine Albert Schweitzer. The Paris Missionary Society agreed to send him to Lambaréné, a mission station on the river Ogowe, on condition that he finance himself the undertaking. “I began a round of soliciting visits. Most of my friends and acquaintances offered help for my adventurous plan. That the German professors at the University of Strasbourg gave so liberally to an enterprise destined for a French colony moved me deeply”. He raised funds by giving organ concerts, along with the sales from his monograph on Bach, which appeared in German, French, and English. “In this way the old Thomas Cantor of Leipzig, Johann Sebastian, helped me in the provision of a hospital for negroes in the virgin forest”.
Towards the end of his medical studies, Schweitzer specialised in tropical medicine in Paris. He was truly looking forward to his new vocation. “I wanted to be a doctor so that I might be able to work without having to talk. For years I had been giving myself in words and followed the calling of theological teacher and preacher with joy. This new form of activity would consist not in preaching the religion of love, but in practicing it”.
In February 1913, seventy crates of medical supplies were shipped to the Congo. A month later Schweitzer and his wife, a qualified nurse, embarked on the Europe at Bordeaux and a couple of weeks later reached the East African coast. Sighting these lands brought gloomy images in Schweitzer’s mind. “From Conakry onwards we were almost always within sight of the coast. The Pepper Coast, the Ivory Coast, the Gold Coast, the Slave Coast! If only that line of forest on the horizon could tell us the cruelty it had to witness!”
As soon as the doctor set foot on African soil, he was surrounded by sick people brought by relatives in boats along the Ogowe; natives suffering from malaria, leprosy, sleeping sickness, dysentery, urinary infections, hernia, and elephantiasis tumours. “During the first weeks I realized that physical misery among the Africans was much greater than I expected. How glad I was to have carried on with my plan of coming here as a doctor!”
In the first nine months he had examined close to two thousand patients. The natives surrendered to him in blind faith on the operating table. He was very moved by their boundless trust. In his own words (from his book On the Edge of the Primeval Forest):
“How can I describe my feelings when a poor fellow is brought to me in pain? I am the only person within hundreds of miles who can help him. I may not save his life, but I can save him from days of torturing pain ― this is my great privilege. So, when the poor, moaning creature comes, I lay my hand on his forehead and say: "Don't be afraid! Soon you’ll be put to sleep, and when you wake up you won't feel pain." My wife administers the anaesthetic and when the operation is over, I watch him cry as soon as he regains consciousness: "I feel no pain! I feel no pain!” holding my hand and not letting go. It is the Lord Jesus who said to the doctor and his wife to come to the Ogowe, I tell my patient and those around him, adding that white people in Europe pay for us to live here and cure the sick. They ask me who these people are and how they know that the natives suffer. And as the African sun is shining through the coffee bushes into the shed, we, black and white, sit together and experience the words in Matthew: "And all ye are brethren". If my friends in Europe could share this!”
It was in the heart of the African jungle that Schweitzer had an epiphany on fundamental questions that had been occupying him since his student days; questions that the brutality of the First World War had brought to the fore, such as Civilisation and what it truly means; questions that years of study in philosophy failed to answer.
The revelation took place in September 1915, as he was sailing upstream the Ogowe on a visit to a missionary’s ailing wife ― it flashed in his mind like a light from Above: “Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben! Reverence for Life!” A profoundly humane concept that was to win him many years later the Nobel Prize.
What Schweitzer means by Reverence for Life is the creative drive that guides the sentient human being every moment of his life: “I am life that wills to live in the midst of life that wills to live” ― the impassioned desire to protect, defend and perpetuate all life around him. “Man experiences his existence as something unfathomably mysterious. Reverence for life is the spiritual act by which he ceases to live thoughtlessly and devotes himself in order to affirm and exalt the will to live”.
Being a theologian, Schweitzer was convinced that civilization is founded on the ethical. He saw progress as the oecumenical will that upholds the ethical as the highest value. “Man is ethical only when life as such is sacred to him — the life of plants and animals as well as that of his fellowmen — and when he devotes himself to all life that needs help. The ethic of Reverence for Life encompasses everything that can be described as love, devotion, compassion in suffering, and sharing in joy and in effort”.
REVERENCE FOR LIFE ― a motto that serves as ground for pacifist action, humanitarian initiative, and the abolition of cruelty to any living creature.
In my view Reverence for Life is more than an ethic; it is a concept that sustains our world, from the macrocosm of ecosystems to the microcosm of the individual and the potential he harbours to do Good.
by Costas Nisiotis
Athens, Greece - firstname.lastname@example.org
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