Shafts of Light, VII: Albert Schweitzer

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June 13, 2021

Shafts of Light, VII: Albert Schweitzer

Passage: Psalm 103

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless God’s holy name.
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and
abounding in steadfast love.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love
toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far he removes our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
Bless the Lord, all his works,
in all places of his dominion.
Bless the Lord, O my soul.

“Bless the Lord, O my soul,” says Psalm 103, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name.” It’s such a familiar, beloved, and well-worn poetic line that we fail to notice how wise and large that advice proves to be.

Praise the Lord with all that is within you—with your whole life and with all your being, all that is within you. Praise the Lord in your work and in your leisure. Praise the Lord through your laughter and your tears. Praise the Lord in celebration and lament. Praise the Lord in triumph and in defeat. Praise the Lord in your office and on the tennis court. Praise the Lord when you’re in church and when you’re in the tavern. Praise the Lord with every song you sing and every book you read and every entertainment you enjoy and every skill you have mastered and every hobby you have learned and every errand you run. Make your very life a canticle of praise to the Almighty, a hymn of doxology to the One who fires the burning stars and spins the flying planets.

Do you think Albert Schweitzer praised the Lord with all that was within him, with every fiber and sinew and neuron of his body? When he turned 90, Life magazine called him the greatest man alive. They must have offered that extravagant hypothesis because he was a polymath who had mastered life in so many different arenas.

Pastor. Professor. Theologian. Philosopher. Physician. Missionary. Hospital Builder. Not only an accomplished organist, but one of the ablest interpreters of Johann Sebastian Bach in the twentieth century. Todd, did you know that Albert Schweitzer once said that the organ has in it an element of the eternal? The organ acquaints us with eternity. He said that because of the continuity of its tone. You press the key and it won’t quit till you un-press it. Pianos can’t do that. Even in a secular room, the organ can never be a secular instrument.[1]  Friends, behold, the Master of the Eternal!

I love preacher’s kids, for obvious reasons. Albert Schweitzer was born to the Manse in Kaysersberg, Alsace. Alsace sometimes belongs to France and other times to Germany; it was German when Albert was born. He was the son and grandson of preachers on his father’s side and the grandson of an organist on his mother’s. He started playing the organ when he was eight years old; his legs were too short to reach the pedals. He led his first church service at the age of nine. At 19, he began organ studies with Charles Marie Widor in Paris.

So before the age of 30, this preacher’s son becomes a wunderkind in organ, theology, homiletics, and philosophy; he masters German, French, English, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and later many African dialects. He lives the happy, pampered, rewarding life of the scholar, but he’s surrounded by all these impoverished beggars in Paris and Strasbourg and learns about the wretched rapacity and covetous cruelty Germany and France and Belgium have inflicted on their African colonies, and at the age of 21, he makes a deal with himself.  He says, “I will study music and theology until I reach the age of 30, and then surely God will want me to devote the rest of my life to the service of humanity.”

And that’s just what he does. From the age of 21 till he turns 30, he continues to deliver killer lectures and preach brilliant sermons and write pivotal books, and at 30 he stops being a professor and becomes a student instead—in the medical school. He says, “I’m going to Africa to practice medicine where there are no doctors.”

His family and friends are stunned and furious. They thought he was throwing all his God-given talent in the trash can. His organ teacher Charles Marie Widor, who loved him like a son, says, “Albert, you’re like a five-star general who takes his rifle and starts firing with his grunts in the trenches instead of commanding the troops from a safe perch behind the lines. You’ll do a lot more good if you stay where you are.”[2]  But he persists.

With all his other theological and musical obligations, it takes him eight years to get through medical school, then at the age of 38 he sets sail for an abandoned medical mission called Lambaréné on the Ogooué River in what is now Gabon in west central Africa. The ocean voyage takes three weeks, and when he gets to the Gabon coast, it’s still 150 miles and two more weeks upstream by river canoe to get to the “hospital” at Lambaréné.

By the way, before he leaves for Africa, his friends give him a “piano” which is outfitted with organ pedals. Todd, I don’t even know how such a contraption works, but Albert’s friends wanted him to keep up with his organ playing while he is in Africa. They build a zinc casket for this piano-organ to protect it during the ocean voyage by ship and the river journey by canoe. He played that piano-organ at lunchtime and during the evenings and Sunday afternoons for the next 50 years, till he was 88.

When they finally get there, the “hospital” turns out to be not a hospital at all but a few ruined shacks. Their first surgical suite is a converted chicken coop. He’s the only doctor for 200 miles; sick and injured patients emerge from the jungle after walking for days or weeks, with their entourage of family members.

For the next 50 years, Dr. Schweitzer will treat thousands upon thousands of patients with no other hope. He returns to Lambaréné 14 separate times. By the time he dies at his beloved hospital at the age of 90 in 1965, there are 70 buildings, 350 beds, and a leper colony for 200.[3] His grave is marked by a simple wooden cross he fashioned himself.

In 1952, Dr. Schweitzer was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the philosophy he always called “reverence for life,” and when Dr. Schweitzer talked about “reverence for life,” he didn’t just mean human life, but all life—human life, animal life, plant life, even insect life, which is strange coming from a doctor whose caseload would have been overflowing with malaria patients. The truly ethical human being, he always said, will treat all life as sacred.

He seems to have been born with this notion of “reverence for life.” When he was eight years old, a friend asked him to go hunting for birds with slingshots. He didn’t want to go, but he also didn’t want to be a sissy, so he took his slingshot resolving to miss his shots deliberately. Just when he was about to take his first errant shot, the church bells chimed, so eight-year-old Albert dropped his slingshot and ran ahead into the fields shouting and waving his arms to scare the birds away. No avian life perished that day in that meadow.

The actual phrase “reverence for life” occurred to him years later in Africa when he was traveling up the Ogooué River on a river steamer to treat a patient. The steamer passed a family of four hippos—mom, dad, two juveniles—and the phrase flew into his head; 40 years later, the Nobel Peace Prize.

At Lambaréné it wasn’t just sick and crippled people who sought refuge at the hospital; sick and injured animals would also emerge from the jungle. After they were healed, many of them chose to stay, because, it seemed, they knew they would be safe with Dr. Schweitzer. He had a particular fondness for pelicans, including Parsifal the pet pelican.

Dr. Schweitzer blessed the Lord with all that was within him, with every fiber of his being and sinew of his limbs and neuron of his brain—in music and medicine, in art and in science, in Europe and in Africa, with the learned and the unlettered, rich and poor alike. His life was a canticle of praise to the Creator.

During the First World War Dr. Schweitzer was living on the Gabonese Coast at the mouth of Ogooué River. He was working on a massive two-volume book with the imposing title Philosophy of Civilization. Albert Schweitzer never thought small thoughts.

Timber was an important industry where the river met the Atlantic Ocean. During normal times, they would harvest these huge logs from the jungle and float them down the river, where they would rope them together into rafts until it was time to ship them to Europe, but there was no shipping during the war, so laborers had to unrope these huge timbers and roll them onto the beach so that they wouldn’t get eaten by worms during the shipping moratorium. Some of these logs weighed two or three tons apiece. It might take two hours to roll just one onto the beach. The work could only be done at high tide.

Dr. Schweitzer was on the porch working on his book. The laborers asked him to help. He said yes. He says, “When the tide was high, I rolled logs. When the tide was low, I worked on my Philosophy of Civilization.”[4]

Dr. Schweitzer might be a Shaft of Light in your life. He might be a good hero to include in your packed pantheon of personal paragons. When the tide is high, roll logs. When the tide is low, think your brilliant thoughts. Always and everywhere, practice reverence for life. Bless the Lord with all that is within you.

[1]Albert Schweitzer, Out of My Life and Thought: An Autobiography, trans. Rhena Schweitzer Miller and A.B. Lemke (New York: Henry Holt, 1990, first published in English, 1931), p. 80.

[2]Ibid., p. 86.

[3]Howard Markel, “Dr. Albert Schweitzer, a Renowned Medical Missionary with a Complicated History,” PBS Newshour, January 14, 2016.

[4]Schweitzer, op. cit., pp. 160–161.

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