"It was unreasonable to me--this was even before I had gone to school--that
in my evening devotions I should pray only for people. So when my mother had prayed with
me and kissed me goodnight, I used secretly to add another prayer which I had myself
composed for all living creatures: Dear God, guard and bless everything that breathes;
keep them from all evil and let them sleep in peace."
Unlike so many children who begin their lives with a caring heart, Albert
Schweitzer did not lose his capacity for love and concern when he became an adult. His
empathy was all-encompassing, and led to a lifetime of service to all forms of life.
Born in 1875 in Alsace at a time when it was under German rule, Albert was the son
of a Lutheran minister. He was a musical prodigy and by the age of nine had been invited
to play as guest organist in the church at Gunsbach. A love for the organ and for the
music of Bach, remained passionate interests for the rest of his life.
But he did not choose music as a career. Instead, he followed in his father's
footsteps and studied theology and philosophy. He earned his Doctorate and was assigned to
St. Nicolas Church in Strasbourg. But he was there for only three years.
Because Schweitzer was intellectually as well as musically gifted, by the time he
was twenty eight he had been appointed principal of the Theological College at Strasbourg
University. But although music and scholarship were bringing him a great deal of
satisfaction and renown, he knew that this self-serving lifestyle was not the path he
would follow for the rest of his life.
In his autobiography, Schweitzer wrote that when he was twenty-one he woke one
morning with the thought that because he had been so blessed in a world of so much
suffering and sorrow, he must give something in return. "So with calm deliberation,
while the birds were singing outside the window, I decided that I could justify living my
life for scholarship and art until I was thirty." But he promised himself that after
thirty, he would devote his life to the service of others.
Albert Schweitzer kept that vow but when the time came, his friends and colleagues
strongly opposed his plan. They insisted that he was throwing away his life. They brought
great pressure to bear, trying to convince him that he could make a much greater
contribution to the world by continuing on the path that was bringing him so much
attention and success.
But in spite of the continued pressure, at the age of thirty Schweitzer began the
medical studies that would allow him to become a doctor--a medical missionary. At the end
of his training he planned to go to Gabon in West Africa and establish a clinic, deep in
the jungle, at Lambarene.
He almost didn't go. The French Missionary Society, which was supposed to sponsor
his African Mission, got involved in a heated debate. Dr. Schweitzer had a reputation for
holding unorthodox views, and many doctrinally-correct Christian leaders distrusted him.
He had to convince them that his only purpose in going to Africa was to bring healing to
those in need. And when he had done that, he had to solemnly swear that he would never try
to convert either the missionaries or the natives to his theological beliefs. But the
Missionary Society could not keep Schweitzer from thinking, and it was during his African
years that he developed his ethic of Reverence For Life.
As his work with the sick became known in Europe and America, numbers of willing
workers came to join Dr. Schweitzer, and he was able to make extended trips out of Africa.
During those times, as he went about gaining financial support for his medical work, he
was increasingly asked to lecture on the spiritual/ethical relationship to the world that
he called "Reverence for Life."
His message was: "Reverence for Life gives us something more profound and
mightier than the idea of humanism. It includes all living beings (his emphasis). We
reject the idea that man is 'Master' of other creatures, 'Lord' above all others. We must
realize that all life is valuable and that we are united to all life. By ethical conduct
toward all creatures, we enter into a spiritual relationship with the Universe."
Schweitzer's own "spiritual relationship with the Universe" was based on
his understanding that Christianity--or any religion--had value only insofar as it
balanced the inward turning of the mystic with the kind of substantive, ethical activity
which Jesus called for in the Sermon on the Mount.
He faulted Christianity for not putting into action Christ's "great
commandment of love and mercy." Christians had treated this command as a treasured
platitude instead of using it as a basis "for opposing slavery, witch burning,
torture, and all the other ancient and medieval forms of inhumanity. "
He also faulted Christians for ignoring the reality of the Lord's Prayer:
"Only a Christianity which is animated and ruled by the idea and the intent of the
Kingdom of God, is genuine. Only such a Christianity is genuine. Only such a Christianity
can give to the world what it so desperately needs. It is only through the idea of the
Kingdom of God that religion enters into relationship with civilization."
This Kingdom of God on earth was the goal towards which Christ taught his
followers to work and pray. A world in which God's will would be "done on earth, as
it is in heaven" was a world in which compassion, kindness and love were the rule. It
was a world in which Reverence for Life, meant reverence for all living things.
Schweitzer said that the Christ who called men and women of his own time, is the
same Christ who calls us to do the works of mercy and love today. "He speaks to us
the same words, 'Follow thou me' and then sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for
Dr. Schweitzer believed that whatever path of service is chosen, compassion and
concern for all creatures must be incorporated into that service. Reverence for Life
leaves no breeding ground for cruelty. It is a "boundless ethic" which includes
all beings regardless of race, religion, or species.
He lived out this belief. During his lifetime he ministered to "all
beings" with compassionate care. It is a matter of record that in the hospital at
Lambarene he gave his services to countless thousands of native Africans. And although his
care of nonhuman beings is of no interest to those who record a great man's deeds, in his
autobiography Schweitzer wrote movingly of his care for the many kinds of creatures who
came across his path in the jungle at Lambarene.
In his own time, Albert Schweitzer was as widely known for the extensive network
of medical help he established in West Africa as Mother Teresa is known for her ministry
to the sick and dying in India. And like Mother Teresa, Dr. Schweitzer was awarded the
Nobel Peace Prize (in 1952).
The Albert Schweitzer Society is still an active force that continues his work in
25 countries and ministers to "the poor, sick, lepers, and all those suffering from
injustice due to race, sex, color..." But Schweitzer's legacy goes far beyond this
ministry to suffering humanity. His "boundless ethic" of Reverence for Life,
continues to grow in its influence, helping to bring about the kind of world in which all
beings can know freedom from the violence and brutality which makes life on earth a misery
for so many.
He understood that this freedom is inextricably bound to the way we treat all
creatures--human and nonhuman. And his prophetic understanding is both a warning and a
guideline for our own time: "Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all
living things, man will not himself find peace." #
Copyright 2000 by Viatoris Ministries.