By Denise Trull
Misfits. They dot the Church's liturgical calendar like so many odd little flowers. Sometimes when we read about them, we smile indulgently and say, "Oh, how oddly quaint he was." But in very truth, some of those misfits are the greatest of saints because of a real and heroic surrender to suffering. A long, grinding, sometimes excruciating surrender, and the overcoming of inner rebellion.
Such is one of my favorites: Camillus de Lellis. Even his name sounds oddly quaint.
His mother Camilla was nearly fifty years old when she gave birth to him in Bucchianico, Italy on May 25, 1550. His father was a soldier and was rarely home. Camillus had inherited his fathers fierce temper and was a difficult child to control. His mother, sickly and quite meek, despaired of ever taming him without a fatherly presence about the house. She died when he was twelve. From that time on Camillus was passed from relative to relative and was neglected by most of them. He soon became the equivalent of our modern day “latch key kid” and learned to fend for himself. Many times he would join his father as he went from one military camp to another. Being a six foot six galute of a guy, and powerfully strong, he managed to be accepted into their ranks at the age of sixteen. I wonder that maybe he became a soldier himself just to be like his dad and perhaps to get his attention.
His six foot six frame probably fit quite beautifully on a battlefield and among soldiers. He perhaps learned to feel at home there within that particular sort of camaraderie. He was taught to drink, cuss, and gamble with the best of them. It was a familiar and comfortable world and he thrived for years in this new home he had made for himself.
Eventually, his regiment disbanded, and Camillus was left unmoored from a life that had given him a purpose and a home. Not only that. This big, powerful soldier was done in by a large, painful ulcer caused by an old war wound on his leg that would not heal. He had to leave his familiar surroundings and go to a hospital for "incurables" in Rome to be taken care of. While there at this hospital he was asked to help out with the other patients to pay for his treatment.
Carrying pans and bandages, attending the sick, handling bottles, having to walk among crowded beds -- these are probably awkward and embarrassing things to do when you are very tall and imposing.
He probably sorely missed his friends, his barracks, and the open field. He probably felt so very out of place. These feelings blew up quite often and he was dismissed from the hospital for his violent quarrelsomeness.
He happily returned to being a soldier for three more years. At age 24, Camillus gambled away everything he owned. All his savings, his weapons, literally everything, “down to his shirt.” He had reached rock bottom.
He accepted work at a Capuchin friary as a laborer and began to feel at home there among the patient and kind monks. He converted and felt a longing within himself to serve Jesus as one of them. He entered the novitiate. Once again he thought he had found his place, but it was not to be. His leg crippled him so much that he had to be dismissed and was sent back to the same hospital he had so longed to leave the first time. He said an emphatic NO to being there and escaped. He tried to enter the friars again, but once more had to leave because of his leg. In the end, he finally got hold of his ferocious temper and surrendered. He stayed at the hospital. It was a well-fought fight over a rebellious spirit.
He did many wonderful things after that surrender. He became head of the hospital staff and discovered that he had a great talent for organization. He gathered many men around him and trained them to take care of the sick, starting his own religious order for that purpose. It was said that he was the most gentle and kind of his brothers when tending to the wounds of others. He eventually was ordained to the priesthood, and became a healer of souls as well. He sent some of his nursing staff into battle with his old friends, the soldiers, so their wounds could be tended to right away. This was the beginning of "field hospitals." He visited the poor men rowing in the galleys of many cities around Rome. He became an amazing saint.
This man, who for most of his life, felt like a square peg in a round hole figured it out. This neglected young boy, wild with a ferocious temper, ignored by his father, and plagued by chronic pain for most of his life, became a great saint. With the grace of God, Camillus shows us that no one is a victim of his or her circumstances. I love him so much for not giving up, and for saying yes to being in a place God asked him to be, and in which he did not in a million years want to be, never feeling like he belonged there. His simple yes to that place -- that is heroic virtue.