By Denise Trull
When it comes to the Doctors of the Church, I always make an unconscious assumption that they came to earth fully grown and wise, complete with robe and miter. It does not often occur to me to examine the back stories that led to their great holiness. And yet, there is always a back story to the present holiness. St. Augustine managed to write his down. And reading his story has led me to look more closely at the beginnings of the other doctors.
There was certainly no robe or miter at the beginning of St. Peter Damian's life. Far from it. He was born, the last of seven children, in abject poverty in the year 1007 and lost his mother and father when he was quite young.
One of his brothers grudgingly took him in and promptly put him to work at the most grueling tasks around his farm. He physically and emotionally abused Peter and half starved him. This went on for a few years at least until Peter’s older brother Damiano got wind of it and came to get him. Damiano, a parish priest in Ravenna, was also poor, but he brought Peter to his home and treated him like a son. We might tend to just move on from that one sentence without thinking too much about it, but for the thought that his brother, poor as he was, came to Peter's rescue to feed, clothe, and love him back into health again. That is no small feat.
I have seen some incredible foster parents in my time who do that day in and day out with children who were abused or abandoned - it is such hard, constant work to erase all the sorrows of abuse from their hearts. They literally save, one day at a time, the inner lives of countless children who learn to know what love is at last. They are beautiful, sacrificial people whose foster children blossom and come back later to thank them. Damiano must have been a beautiful soul like that.
He also went the extra mile because he saw that Peter was smart. So, he sacrificed again to be able to send him to school when hardly anyone went to school who was poor. Peter was worth it. He went on to become a great teacher in a University while only in his twenties. Damiano must have been so proud.
Then Peter heard a different call from God. It says in my saint book that "He wanted the Church to shine with the holiness of Jesus." You would think he would have started schools, fed the poor, taken care of the sick. But no. Peter was called to the Contemplative life of a Camaldolese monk. It might have been hard to explain to people that his vocation was just as needed in the world as the active orders. Damiano must have understood, because Peter took his brother's name in religious life and called himself Peter Damian.
He lived as a monk for many years, praying and fasting and making sacrifices so that the world would shine with the love of Jesus. I wonder if Damiano came to Mass sometimes and peeked through the grill at his brother. Who knows? He probably missed him very much. Peter became a great writer and thinker in the Monastery. He also wrote beautiful music and poetry in his shining solitude.
He eventually was called upon to help the Pope in his difficult affairs and reforms within the Church, and was then eventually made a bishop because he had been educated so well long ago. He was such a beautiful, humble, cheerful soul that brought kindness and help to many. His wisdom and learning were well known throughout the Church.
Dante mentions St. Peter Damian in his Paradiso as dwelling in the seventh heaven with those holy souls who shine with the knowledge of God in contemplation. He must have been quite the saint! Other bishops and princes did not fare so well under Dante's pen.
What happened to Damiano? I wonder. This good brother who gave Peter a chance to become the person he was to become. This brother who patiently loved Peter back to health of mind and body when he was crushed by abuse. Who helped to develop the gifts in him that would serve the Church so well. We owe Damiano much for giving us the shining brother who bears his name now for all eternity.