St. Camillus de Lellis, Rash Vows and Sanctity’s Daily Grind

Life is largely composed not of high points, but of interludes and codas – a rich soil in which the seeds of sanctity can grow.

Leonardo Antonio Olivieri (1689–c.1750), "The Immaculate Virgin with Saint Anthony and Saint Camillo of Lellis"
Leonardo Antonio Olivieri (1689–c.1750), "The Immaculate Virgin with Saint Anthony and Saint Camillo of Lellis" (photo: Register Files)

“All vows are rash vows.”
—​G.K. Chesterton

One of the nicest things about listening to classic rock is also one of its drawbacks: the familiarity. “Not Led Zeppelin [or “The Stones,” or “The Who,” or fill in the blank] again,” my kids might say if I’m behind the wheel. “Can’t we listen to something new?”

“Sure,” I’ll concede (if I’m in a tolerant mood). “Why not?” Then I’ll immediately poke the preset button on the dash and switch to a station more to their liking. It doesn’t matter what oldie is already playing at that moment – Supertramp, Fleetwood Mac, even the Stones – because it’s all been heard before, and it’ll all come around again in the playlist soon enough. Any given interruption, in other words, hardly registers.

Unless it’s “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos. For that, I’ll hold off changing channels until the song – all seven minutes of it – is complete. I’ll even sit it out in the driveway.

Derek and the Dominos showcased the guitar talents of Eric Clapton, but they were together long enough to record only one studio album: Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (1970). The title hit comprises two movements literally spliced together: Clapton wrote the first half of the song – a straight-up rock anthem about frustrated romance; drummer Jim Gordon contributed the long, leisurely instrumental coda, a lilting melody that’s introduced by solo piano. There’s no smooth transition between the two sections – the buoyant cadenza is in contrast to the preceding jarring guitar riffs and despondent lyrics. What’s more, the ending is actually longer than the song it’s attached to.

Nevertheless, there’s a haunting beauty in that long ending, and it’s all the more beautiful because of the unrequited love described in the song’s more complex first part. The penultimate melodic phrase is repeated five times by my count – as if, musically, the songwriters were saying, “Don’t give up – keep going! Your story doesn’t only revolve around big events and big decisions – the noisy moments, the declarations of love. There’s music in the ordinary as well – keep going!”

The languid “Layla” coda tagged onto to its standard pop song precursor is totally unlike what happens in most movies – where 120 minutes of dramatic and romantic and comedic entanglements are generally followed by…well, the credits. Think of The Graduate (1967), for example: The movie ends with Dustin Hoffman’s character whisking away the frat boy’s bride from the altar, and they make a getaway in a city bus. The Simon and Garfunkel song builds, and then, just before the credits roll, the bride and her new companion take on apprehensive expressions. “What have we done,” their faces communicate, “and what are we in for?” Their escape, a rash act, will have enormous consequences going forward, but there’s no hint of what lies ahead. All you get are the credits – no buoyant coda, no hints of hope, but instead the Cast of Characters and the last couple lines from “The Sounds of Silence.”

It’s as if the rash act of Dustin Hoffman and his purloined sweetheart were the end of the story, whereas common sense would tell us it’s only the beginning.  

Such is the case in the life of St. Camillus de Lellis, whose feast we celebrate July 18. Camillus was a hearty soldier, the son of a soldier, and a man given to the same fiery temperament and temptations as his father. Both men were obstinate, indolent, and addicted to gambling – character weaknesses that were accommodated when the family fortunes were stable. Having lost his mother as a child, Camillus had no gentle influences in his life to balance out the belligerence he witnessed in his father. Thus, it’s no surprise that the lad took up arms on behalf of Venice and Naples when he was but 17, often fighting alongside his father.

Camillus acquitted himself well in battle, although he contracted a number of different ailments, including a persistent purulent leg wound that plagued him the rest of his life. Plus, his gambling habits drove him deep in debt, and when his father died, Camillus was left penniless, sick, and unprotected.

Desperate, the orphaned and destitute soldier made a rash vow to join the Franciscans. Maybe it was his way of bargaining with God – like the contemporary prayer of those buying lottery tickets: “If I win, I’ll give half to you, Lord!” – or perhaps it was a sincere intention to reform his life. In any case, Camillus was a man of honor, and he attempted to follow through on his promise.

The Franciscans balked at Camillus’s vocational aspirations, but they took him in nonetheless and put him to work – which didn’t come easy to the former swashbuckling man-at-arms. “He hated the drudgery,” wrote Fr. Alban Goodier. “Moreover there came upon him the consciousness that he was born for something better.” Still, despite his perpetual illnesses that resisted all cures, Camillus made an effort to serve – both at the bedside and, later, in the construction of a new monastery.

Unfortunately, these early attempts to turn his life around came to naught. Camillus would frequently fall back into his dissolute ways, including gambling and fighting, and he’d be dismissed. Sometimes he’d turn back to soldiery, other times to the life of a tramp, but somehow that vow he’d made so long ago stuck with him, and in 1575, he succumbed to a profound conversion. “It was a humble beginning, solitary, drab, without sensation of any kind,” Goodier noted. “It had not even the dramatic climax of a sudden great conversion like that of Augustine and others. Nevertheless it was the beginning of a saint.”

Once again, inspired by his interior transformation, Camillus applied to the Franciscans for admission, but was rebuffed, especially because of his continued poor health. Not to be deterred, Camillus took on an infirmarian’s post in a Roman hospital, and his assiduous, compassionate care came to the attention of his superiors as well as St. Philip Neri, who became the ex-soldier’s spiritual director. Camillus had ideas for reforming the nursing profession – to bring it more in line with Gospel values of self-sacrifice and charity – and he began to draw other like-minded men to his cause.

At Neri’s urging, Camillus became a priest, which facilitated the flourishing of his reform efforts into a religious order – the Servants of the Sick, now known more familiarly as the Camillians. “Camillian religious are called to strive with generous dedication,” St. John Paul II observed, “so that the sick in health-care institutions are always seen as ‘lords and masters’, according to St Camillus' apt expression.” Until his death, the soldier-saint embraced that maxim himself and lived it out to the hilt – refusing care for himself, and constantly attending to his beloved patients, even crawling to their bedsides when he could no longer walk. He died in 1614, was canonized in 1746, and declared a patron saint of nurses by Pius XI in 1930.

“The true saint never is content to fail,” wrote Hubert Van Zeller. Failures “do not even seriously discourage him – it is only if he were content to fail that his sanctity would be imperiled.” This was St. Camillus’s secret and it allowed him to make good on his rash vow to unreservedly serve the Lord, despite multiple detours and an interval of decades. Unlike the movies, that tend to highlight pivotal moments and dramatic commitments, we can see in the life of St. Camillus the true nature of sanctification. “A saint is not a saint only when he is performing saintly acts,” Van Zeller wrote. “He may be more saintly then than at other times, but the thing is a life, not a lot of acts strung together.”

And life is largely composed of interludes and codas – maybe not so dramatic as the high points in our stories, but certainly a rich soil in which the seeds of sanctity can grow.

This article originally appeared July 17, 2015, at the Register.