Remembering Dr Albert Schweitzer – by Rev. Feargus O’Connor

It has been fifty years since the death of Dr Albert Schweitzer.  The Animal Interfaith Alliance is commemorating his life and his inspiring ethic of service and reverence for life by launching the ‘Albert Schweitzer Universal Kinship Fund for Humane Research’

There cannot be any nobler way to express our love of God than through deeds of practical compassion. In these small and not so small acts of service we perform for the benefit of our fellow creatures we reach out and speak the language of humanity. We give of ourselves in the hope of making a better world.

In today’s society we hear less than we once did about the importance of service to others.  But is this not the rock on which our religious faith and a humane community must rest?   Such was the rock on which Albert Schweitzer’s life work and liberal religious faith rested. In celebration of our reverence for God, our fellowship with humanity and all our fellow living creatures, let us reflect on Schweitzer’s example and how he can inspire us in our own lives.

Albert Schweitzer’s Early Life

Albert Schweitzer was born in Alsace in 1875 and grew up in the village of Gunsbach, where his father was a Protestant pastor.  From an early age he was drawn to respond to others’ needs.  In his adult life, as a gifted musician known in concert halls throughout Europe and a renowned theologian, he could have made either of these fields his life’s work. He chose to enter the church and later combined his ministry with a university teaching post. He used his gifts in the service of his congregation and students. As a teacher, Schweitzer would sacrifice many an evening to coach his pupils for examinations.

We know that to give of ourselves so that others will reap the benefit is not always easy, especially if what we do seems to go unrecognised.  This is why we can feel for Schweitzer as the small boy, so troubled at the realisation that he was brought up in privileged circumstances. He would not wear the overcoat his mother had made for him and insisted on fingerless gloves similar to those worn by other village boys.  Though his father boxed his ears for his stubbornness, the boys themselves never knew what Schweitzer was going through on their account. They still sometimes taunted him as a ‘sprig of the gentry’. Yet he never wore the overcoat willingly.

Schweitzer himself felt that sacrifice was a noble duty, even if it was not immediately appreciated by those he was trying to help at the time. Some of us will have had similar experiences. In serving without regard for reward we, like Schweitzer, show genuine altruism. We show that we care.   

By the time he was 28, Schweitzer, doctor of philosophy, author, teacher and musician, was the youngest ever principal of St Thomas’s College at the University of Strasbourg. He had a promising career before him. His decision to give all this up and spend five years training to be a doctor of medicine before setting off for Africa speaks to us of sincere personal sacrifice. 

A Life of Self-Sacrifice

We can empathise with Schweitzer as he paid his way through medical college from the work he got as an organist. Playing in concerts in various German cities, he would arrive just in time for the final rehearsal and travel back to Strasbourg on the night train. He would often work through the night in order to prepare for his sermon at St Nicholas’s church, where he continued to preach each Sunday. If he was not planning the next sermon he was preparing the philosophy lectures which he continued to give at the university.

Schweitzer might have gone to Africa as a pastor. But he had read about the sufferings of poor Africans in the Congo Basin and he knew that it was a doctor they most needed.

At Easter 1913 he set sail for Africa with his wife. Later that year he had turned a chicken hut at Lambarene into a hospital. With his wife acting as nurse, medicines were dispensed, wounds dressed and operations performed.  In nine months Schweitzer reported that he had treated more than 2,000 people.  They came with skin diseases, sleeping-sickness, malaria, tropical dysentery and diseased bones. Strangulated hernias were a particularly common problem. Operating in sweltering heat, Schweitzer offered these men and women the chance of recovery where before a painful death was their only realistic expectation.     

Although the French colonial authorities forced Schweitzer to leave the hospital during the First World War, the vocation to minister to the sick of Africa brought him back to Lambarene in 1924. He went alone and would not see his wife and young daughter again for three years. 

He struggled to treat sleeping sickness and leprosy in the morning and to rebuild the neglected hospital building in the afternoon. He travelled miles upstream to collect bamboos from the swamps for rafters. He would collect gangs of reluctant workmen and keep them on the job all day and patiently helped the local carpenter, who could neither read nor write. He marked off distances for him on a foot-rule. 

In time, Schweitzer leased 172 acres from the French Government to build a new hospital and establish plantations. He now divided his time between Africa and Europe. He ministered to the sick in Lambarene and wrote his books and went on lecture and recital tours in Europe to raise funds for the hospital. 

As the years passed it became the sanctuary of many orphan babies. Schweitzer would ask villagers to bring children whose mothers had died to the hospital, where he would rear them on bottled milk.  At three years of age they could be given bananas and manioc and allowed to go home to their families in their mothers’ villages.  

Strange as it may seem to us, the hospital was also home to countless animal orphans.  One visitor counted 7 dogs, 40 cats, 2 chimpanzees, 4 small monkeys, 150 goats and sheep, innumerable chickens and ducks!

Let us picture Schweitzer at the age of 79. With the enthusiasm of a young man, he is digging the foundations of the first three permanent huts for lepers. These are in a separate village he is building for them and here they can stay while he treats them with new drugs specially imported from America.

Few of us may undergo personal sacrifice in quite such a dramatic way.  But as we reflect on the tremendous lengths to which Schweitzer went so that he might be of use to others, let us be inspired to do what we can in our own lives.  Let us take to heart the words of Albert Schweitzer on the true spirit of self-sacrifice.

‘An uncomfortable doctrine prompts me in whispered words. You are happy, it says.  Therefore you are called to give up much.  Whatever you have received more than others in health, in talents and ability, in success, in a pleasant childhood, in harmonious conditions of home life, all this you must not take to yourself as a matter of course.  You must pay a price for it. You must render in return an unusually great sacrifice of your life for another life.’ 

   Let us always remember the value of service in our everyday lives.  We can’t all be Schweitzers but, in our own way, we can each serve humanity and all God’s creatures who share this planet with us. 

Schweitzer’s example of self-sacrifice teaches us about the importance of giving something back.  In him we observe the lesson that service to others is one way of expressing our gratitude for the talents and good fortune that we enjoy. At a time when so many in our modern world seem to know, in Oscar Wilde’s words, ‘the cost of everything and the value of nothing’, we should take to heart that, what Schweitzer has taught us, is really precious. We should do this not only for the self-fulfilment it will bring to us as individuals but for the welfare of all.

May Schweitzer’s example inspire each of us to use whatever gifts and abilities we possess to help enrich the lives of those, human and fellow animals alike, we love and aspire to serve.