Holiness gone wild: Spiritual flourishing in diversity and disability

Holiness gone wild: Spiritual flourishing in diversity and disability

Holiness gone wild: Spiritual flourishing in diversity and disability

Pope Francis greets a boy while meeting the disabled people during his general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican November 30, 2016. (Credit: Paul Haring/CNS.)

Redemptive suffering becomes a witness in the world – and that is one reason why we need the stories of saints who had disabilities. Theologian Pia Matthews has written a new book where she looks at life with her own daughter who has complicated disabilities, as well as how her family has learned to appreciate that the great gifts they have received are not the only gifts on offer.

Why me? It’s a question we’ve been known to ask in the face of suffering and unexpected challenges. In God’s Wild Flowers: Saints with Disabilities, Pia Matthews, a university lecturer in theology, philosophy, and bioethics in England, writes about the blessing that her own daughter with complicated disabilities is in her life, while relaying stories of men and women of sanctity who show us the resplendent dignity of life, even as the world may see it as a burden. Matthews spoke with Kathryn Jean Lopez about the book and flourishing in love and sanctity in the midst of severe challenges.

Lopez: What is this garden of which you speak? Why are people with disabilities wildflowers?

Matthews: When St. Thérèse of Lisieux speaks of God’s garden she means this world’s garden of “souls” as she puts it, but I think of it in terms of the whole person: a garden of blooming and flourishing human beings.

The idea of a garden is very biblical and spiritual, and it immediately evokes the idea of creation and flourishing.

In Genesis God walks in His garden, He delights in his creation and in turn creation glorifies its Creator. He wants to be with us and He wants us to respond to him.

The desert fathers speak of a spiritual meadow where stories of holiness and growth in holiness serve to encourage an even greater harvest of holiness. Then the word harvest immediately reminds us that gardens produce and deliver like the mission that every person has here and now to glorify God by their life.

But the garden is also the Garden of Gethsemane where there is an intense being alone with God in suffering, but where the being alone with God is truly me in my fragility and need being with my God and savior, person to persons.  

St. John the Evangelist tells us that next to the place of crucifixion there was a garden with a new tomb. That garden was the place of resurrection and the place of our hope. Gardens: they are here and now, yet they are also paradise.

One way of looking at wild flowers is to see them as flowers in the wrong place. After all, many wildflowers are particularly beautiful but they tend to come up unexpectedly and are not planned for much like disability.

Wild flowers are fragile since they bloom quickly and fade quickly – often like the lives of people with disabilities. Or they appear to be knotted and difficult.

Mostly we find wild flowers on the margins of the fields, in the hedgerows, outside the borders and there is something of a resonance here with people who are often marginalized because of their disabilities.

However, there is a resurgence of popularity in wildflowers, at least in the U.K. We think we are being friendly to the planet if we encourage wild flowers and meadows.

But when it comes to people with disabilities there is no such thing as “being in the wrong place.” Moreover “encourage” is not the right word: We cannot merely be “friendly” with people with disabilities. This sounds too much like us (the cultivated flowers) and them (the encroaching wild flowers).

An “us” and “them” mentality does not do justice to the fact that we are one human race and we all live in our garden. It is to forget that in God’s garden there are many different flowers and each has a specific contribution to make.

What do you mean when you say “God creates and rejoices in diversity”?

God does not create out of necessity. He creates out of love and love is boundless, it accepts risks and surprises. Love takes everything as a gift.

Diversity also says something about uniqueness – no two people, not even identical twins, are totally alike. To celebrate the uniqueness and diversity of each one of his creations is a very personal act: as the Church fathers say in Gaudium et spes, human beings are the only creatures on earth that God wants for their own sakes.

How can you be certain of this? Not to be crass, but how do we know that there aren’t simply mistakes made? Isn’t God cruel to allow your daughter to suffer so?

There is a difference, recognized by the early church fathers, between the Creator who is perfect and eternal (necessary), and his creation (contingent). Human beings, as God’s creation, are limited and fragile. That is the nature of all human beings.

However as Genesis explains, creation is also good, and human beings very good. If fragility is part of God’s good creation, and God created human beings to be fragile so that they could reach their perfect end with him in vulnerability and dependence, then human beings who appear to be especially dependent are not mistakes. They simply show a more profound aspect of the dependence and vulnerability of all human beings.

Human beings who think they are totally independent and autonomous are perhaps unaware of the deeper human trait of dependence. Hence the tendency to try and ‘go it alone’ without God.

The question of suffering is a very human question – after all, look at the Book of Job – and, along with Thomas Aquinas, Pope John Paul thinks that suffering is one of the greatest challenges to belief in God and it seems to nurture the culture of death.

Abortion for disability (legally allowed up to term in the U.K.), euthanasia, and assisted dying are all justified on the grounds of compassion and freeing someone from a life of suffering. However, attempting to find meaning in suffering is not easy, and it is not useful to measure suffering against the goodness of God.

After all, why should we seek to justify God:  this would make God merely a moral agent just like us and not the Creator Redeemer whose ways are not our ways. It may be more fruitful to refocus the personal experience of disability (I argue in my book Pope John Paul II and the Apparently ‘Non-Acting’ Person that this is precisely what Pope John Paul does).

Suffering is an inevitable part of human life, but it is not the end point of life. The end point is redemption. Although the main question appears to be ‘God, why me?’ or ‘God, why my daughter?’ the question can be re-framed.

The question for any person with disabilities is not ‘why have I been born like this, why me?’ but ‘why me, what God do you want me to do that no one else can do, and therefore why me?’

Redemptive suffering becomes a witness in the world – and that is one reason why we need the stories of the saint who had disabilities.

How has your daughter changed your life?

We have eight children and each one has changed our lives and changed the lives of those around them. All of our children are more than above average in abilities and intelligence.

However we and they have learnt to appreciate that the great gifts they have received are not the only gifts on offer. As a family we have learned to see and empathize with others perhaps more so because we have someone who requires others to see and empathize.

Many people do not see or hear others (and I do not mean physical disability). It is not that people are particularly malicious or neglectful or forgetful: they just do not see and they do not hear.

Anyone who knows a person with disabilities can tell you that a genuine encounter with that person opens up a whole new world of seeing and understanding and thinking. It is a privilege to be allowed to enter someone else’s world in that way.

How scary has it been?

Seeing the fragility of life in a truly obvious and concrete way is scary but it is reality. It is also the reality that many “strong” and self-reliant people avoid.

Could your approach to the question of “Why Me” be a game changer?

I hope so. And it should give hope.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review. Sign up for her weekly NRI newsletter here.

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