Kissing the leper

Today is World Leprosy Day, and the walls of the Paris métro are plastered with harrowing images of sufferers from a disease which many of us associate with Biblical times but not with the present everyday reality of many people around the globe. I can myself attest to the shock of seeing lepers and many others struck by crippling illnesses (or anti-personnel mines) begging in the tourist sites of Cambodia, in 2009, where the vast majority of those afflicted go wholly untreated, not least because the Khmers Rouges ruthlessly exterminated the whole Cambodian medical profession in the 1970s. The sight of those beggars remains powerfully etched into my memory, and I find it difficult not to think of them every time I read the chilling words of Matthew 25:42-43 addressed to the ‘goats’ who find themselves on the wrong side at the Last Judgement:

‘I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

The unpalatable, but life-changing truth for anyone who takes those words seriously is that it is in these faces that we see the face of the Son of God.

Inevitably the question arises of how to live as an artist in the affluent West in the light of this realization. Is concerning oneself with matters of aesthetics at a time of huge and urgent global needs an insult to the lepers of this world, a culpable evasion of social responsibility, a luxury that we can ill afford and for which we will be held to ultimate account?

Albert Schweitzer

Albert Schweitzer

Perhaps there is no straightforward answer to this question. On one level it is undeniable that to allocate precious time and resources to art that might otherwise be devoted to ministries of compassion is difficult to justify with a clear conscience. As the life and work of the organist, theologian and doctor Albert Schweitzer eloquently demonstrate, there are certain situations where the call of conscience demands putting art (and academic theology) aside in order to address more pressing human concerns. In his memoirs, the great French organist Marcel Dupré relates how his and Schweitzer’s teacher Charles-Marie Widor attempted to persuade the future doctor of Lambarene not  to travel to Africa:

‘I was present the day when he announced to our teacher his decision to leave for Gabon to found a hospital […]. Widor attempted to dissuade him by saying that he would have to interrupt the great work he was doing, in particular on Bach and his times.

Full of deference, Schweitzer replied to each argument, his head lowered: “Yes, Maître, but God is calling me.” The next day, asking Widor whether whether or not he had been able to persuade him, he replied: “My poor Dupré, what can you do when a man answers you: “God is calling me”?'[1]

Marcel Dupré at the organ of Saint-Sulpice in Paris

Dupré goes on to describe his final meeting with Schweitzer in later life in a manner which speaks eloquently of the relativization of his own (considerable) musical achievement in the face of Schweitzer’s ethical stature. The two organists met for the last time at the Paris church of St-Sulpice where Dupré was the world-renowned titulaire; having gone down to the crypt to pay his respects at Widor’s tomb, Schweitzer made a request which took Dupré by surprise: “I am going to ask you something – I would like you to refer to me as ‘tu’ [the French familiar form of address, as opposed to the more formal ‘vous’]. Thunderstruck, I replied: “You to me – by all means, but me to you – that I could never do.”[2]

Dupré relented (at Schweitzer’s insistence), but the point of his story regarding the subordination of aesthetics to ethics in the hierarchy of values is clear. It should however also be said that Schweitzer did not wholly abandon music after leaving for Gabon, playing frequent recitals on his returns to Europe in between spells at Lambarene in order to raise funds for his medical work. If there is no contesting the primacy of relieving human suffering over musical pursuits, it is equally undeniable that a world without artistic expression would be a grim and inhospitable place indeed, and that the search for beauty and meaning embodied in art is a dimension of existence which is arguably as vital as provision for material needs.

An intriguing case exemplifying the tension between these two affirmations and perhaps a hint as to their reconciliation is the opera St François d’Assise by another organist, Olivier Messiaen, himself a pupil of Dupré. A full-blown treatment of this monumental work is of course beyond the scope of this present post; what interests me in the context of World Leprosy Day is the turning-point in Francis of Assisi’s spiritual growth represented by his kissing of a leper (depicted in the scene entitled Le Baiser au Lépreux in Messiaen’s opera). The Legend of Saint Francis by the Three Companions recounts the incident as follows:

‘One day while Francis was praying fervently to God, he received an answer: “O Francis, if you want to know my will, you must hate and despise all that which hitherto your body has loved and desired to possess. Once you begin to do this, all that formerly seemed sweet and pleasant to you will become bitter and unbearable, and instead, the things that formerly made you shudder will bring you great sweetness and content.” Francis was divinely comforted and greatly encouraged by these words.

Then one day, as he was riding near Assisi, he met a leper. He had always felt an overpowering horror of these sufferers, but making a great effort, he conquered his aversion, dismounted, and, in giving the leper a coin, kissed his hand. The leper then gave him the kiss of peace, after which Francis remounted his horse and rode on his way.’

Saint Francis gives his coat to a poor rider (by Giotto di Bondone)

Francis’s natural aversion to the leper is common to us all; in the face of human disfigurement we react like Job’s friends who ‘see something dreadful and are afraid’ (Job 6:21). Yet Francis’s example teaches us that this need not be an insurmountable obstacle, even if it may seem that way from a human point of view.

The author of the Canticle of the Sun is as powerful an example of the union of meditative spirituality (epitomized by his mystical contemplation of  nature and his encounter with the Ange Musicien who plays him the ‘music of the invisible’) and action as the Christian tradition can offer; the message of Francis’s encounter with the leper as told both in the Legend of the Three Companions and in Messiaen’s opera, is that any contemplative aesthetic which turns away from the suffering of the world cannot attain to any genuine beauty. Here we can detect an autobiographical note in Messiaen’s reading of the life of St Francis; in 1972, a few years before beginning work on Saint François, he had found himself criticized by the young Dutch theologian Johan Vos during a panel discussion prior to the European première of his Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité for concentrating exclusively on a ‘theology of glory’ in his music, as the German organist Almut Rössler relates:

‘Mr. Vos, a young theologian from Holland, asks a lengthy question which above all concerns Messiaen’s relationship to contemporary reality and suffering; and in the course of it, the glimmer of a reproach becomes apparent: that Messiaen in his music, caught up in medieval thinking, too abstractly and esoterically pursues a kind of theologia gloriae which scarcely has anything to do with the actual situation of today’s human being and his need for redemption.

Messiaen’s reply at the time was disarmingly frank:

‘You said that I express only joy and glory in my music. Well, I’m afraid I’ve no aptitude for their opposites […] it isn’t my nature to bury myself in suffering.’ [3]

There is a cruel irony in Vos’s accusation, in that Messiaen’s life was actually deeply marked by personal suffering (it should be remembered that he had not only undergone incarceration during the Second World War, but that his life had also been deeply impacted by the mental disintegration of his first wife Claire Delbos over a period of two decades). There is a good deal of evidence to suggest that it was the very depth of this experience which made Messiaen look to music as its antidote.

Olivier Messiaen and Claire Delbos, 1939. Photo: private collection of Nigel Simeone

Nevertheless, the composer’s subsequent libretto for Saint François d’Assise seems to indicate that Messiaen probably conceded that Vos had a point, and that any Christian art which emphasizes transfiguration and final glory (of which there is no shortage in the opera’s concluding scene) has to balance this with a this-worldly Theology of the Cross if it is to carry conviction. In Messiaen’s opera some of the most powerful music is to be found not only in the scene with the leper, but also in the terrifying seventh tableau – a passage of rare dramatic power – in which Francis receives the stigmata at La Verna (one of Europe’s great sacred sites where I have had the enormous privilege of playing recitals on two occasions) as a mark of his solidarity with the Crucified Christ.

It is hard not to have some sympathy with those critics who see the vast orchestral and scenic resources required to perform Saint François as being strangely at odds with the radical simplicity of the saint himself. I would contend, however, that the work still remains a inspiringly counter-cultural witness for our times, particularly when it is recalled that it was written as a commission for the all-too-secular venue of the Paris Opera. Messiaen may not have tended for the leper as literally as Albert Schweitzer (who in 1954 constructed a ‘Village of Light’ for leprosy victims), but that is not to devalue his contribution to the advancement of God’s Kingdom. A work of art can never be a substitute for practical works of compassion, yet it can both raise awareness of their necessity, and make its own unique contribution to the healing of the human person seen as a holistic unity of body and spirit (as the strange attraction of the music of Arvo Pärt and Henryk Gorecki for hospital patients reminds us). Messiaen’s message in Saint François is in the last analysis not dissimilar to that of Schweitzer; artistic beauty and the search for justice are not opposites but belong together as marks of God’s coming reign. How to ensure the coherence of these two elements in practice is a task which all of us involved with the arts would do well to ponder. Not without a measure of fear and trembling if we bear in mind that the face of the leper, from which we would rather look away, is that of the One who, to quote from the seventh tableau of Messiaen’s opera libretto, ‘comes from the reverse side of time, goes from the future to the past and advances to judge the world’.

Information about World Leprosy Day can be found at


[1] Marcel Dupré raconte … (Paris: Bornemann, 1972), 71.
[2] “Je vais te demander une chose, je voudrais que tu me tutoies”. Abasourdi, je lui répondis: “De vous à moi, avec joie, mais de moi à vous, je ne pourrai jamais”. Ibid., 74.
[3] Almut Rössler, Contributions to the Spiritual World of Olivier Messiaen, with original texts by the composer, translation Barbara Dagg and Nancy Poland (Duisburg: Gilles und Francke, 1986), 52-53.


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