Disabilities and Heroic Virtue
In The Story of a Soul, St. Thérèse of Lisieux wrote that God “set before me a book of nature; I understood that all the flowers He has created are beautiful, how the splendour of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not take away the perfume of the little violet or the delightful simplicity of the daisy. I understood that if all flowers wanted to be roses, nature would lose her springtime beauty, and the fields would no longer be decked out with little wild flowers. And so it is in the world of souls, Jesus’ garden.”
This passage was an inspiration for Dr. Pia Matthews recent book, God’s Wild Flowers: Saints with Disabilities (Gracewing, 2016), about the rich “harvest” of saints who lived with physical, intellectual or emotional afflictions. There are many “saints” books, she writes, but a book about these saints is needed. In a world “that knows only the secular story, a story that sees only function, usefulness, speed and efficiency as the markers of human beings, the Church reminds the world of a different story,” one in which “grace blows where God chooses.” For readers who “inhabit a world that has lost a sense of the mystery of being, and forgotten that every human being has a part to play in history, it can be eye-opening to discover that the most unlikely of people, the disabled, are also, in the words of Pope Saint John Paul II, ‘workers in God’s vineyard.’”
Dr. Matthews is greatly inspired by St. John Paul II, who is well known as the pope who canonized and beatified more people than all his predecessors put together. He “astutely realized the significance of not only role models, but also of personal stories.” In the preface, she shares her own personal story about her daughter Paula, who is profoundly disabled—physically and intellectually— due to Rett syndrome. A lecturer in Theology, Philosophy and Bioethics at St. John’s Seminary Wonersh and St. Mary University, Twickenham, London, Dr. Matthews writes with intellectual, moral, and spiritual depth; and, when writing about Paula, emotion—but not sentimentality. There is a graceful sensibility and balance in her descriptions of the many difficulties her daughter faces. “For us, for Paula’s family, is it hard? Yes. For Paula, it is hard? I suspect yes. But so are expectations, disappointments, complex relationships, exams, job prospects, paying bills, work-life balances. Paula does not worry about any of these because what is truly important—relationships with God and with other people—are actually rather simple.” Paula is in the world to remind people, says her mother, of “the great things that God has done, you remind people to stop and look, listen, touch and taste.” And she gives people the opportunity to help her, which is a gift to the giver. As a matter of fact, writes Matthews, “While many people think it is hard to help people with profound disabilities, in fact it is much, much more difficult the other way round, to help people who think they are totally self-sufficient, autonomous, proud of themselves and their achievements, people who do not need anyone or anything, the inwardly unperceptive, the spiritually stunted, people with such a deep and profound lack.”
Matthews points out that there are no known saints with profound intellectual disabilities, but there are saints and blesseds who had learning disabilities or were considered simple-minded. These she profiles in Chapter 5: “Slow Learners, Fools for God, the Simple and Pure in Heart.” St. John Vianney, for example, was a slow learner, who couldn’t pass the studies necessary for ordination—but his own parish priest convinced the “vicar general that what John lacked in education he surpassed in piety.” He became known for his “patience and wisdom” in the confessional and pilgrims came from far and wide to listen to him. St. Joseph of Cupertino’s mother “regarded her son as a burden since he was profoundly absent-minded, clumsy, unable to hold a proper conversation or take care of himself . . . He would wander with his mouth open all the time, so he was given the nickname ‘the Gaper.’” Later, when he was a servant in a Franciscan monastery, his fellow monks called him “Brother Ass.” Nonetheless, for his piety, he too was ordained as a priest, and became known as a healer and confessor—and also someone who could levitate during prayers!
The 141 saints presented here include those well known to Catholics and non-Catholics alike, such as St. John Paul II, who became a worldwide witness to disability in his public struggle with Parkinson’s; St. Thomas Aquinas, who was never the same after he suffered what was most likely a stroke in the last year of his life, and Mother Teresa, who was born with a club foot, and also had heart and lung problems. There are many popular saints: Teresa of Avila, Maximillian Kolbe, Charles Borromeo, for example, as well as many lesser-known ones—so even lovers of saints can make new acquaintances. Matthews groups them by the kind of affliction they suffered; however, she writes, in “highlighting the person’s disability the intention is not to define the person by a disability. Rather, it indicates the possibility of demonstrating that this aspect of a person’s life is a tangible aspect of a life of heroic virtue.” She also makes clear throughout the book that disabilities do not give sufferers a “pass”—as if they are not responsible for their actions. “After all, what is a barrier to holiness is not a missing limb, nor a chronic condition, nor an apparently slow intellect, nor a mental issue. What is crippling is sin, especially the sin of pride in my own abilities, the sin of malice, the sins of carelessness. And people with disabilities are no less immune than any other human beings from these spiritual sins.” They may, however, because of their weakness, have a greater understanding of how dependent we all are on God.
Each chapter has an engaging introduction which reflects on the different dilemmas raised by disabilities. In the introduction to Chapter 8 (“Disciples of Jesus: the Deformed, the Stunted, the Crippled, Amputees, the Paralyzed, the Blind, the Deaf and Stammerers”), Matthews grapples with the “perplexity and mystery of suffering” and the role of collective or personal guilt. She recalls the scene in St. John’s Gospel when the disciples ask Jesus about the man blind from birth: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should have been born blind?” It was a common Jewish proverb, writes Matthews, that when “the fathers have eaten unripe grapes; the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Yet Jesus answers His disciples’ question with “Neither he nor his parents sinned, it is so that the words of God might be made visible through him.”
Of course all people sin, but perhaps what Jesus was teaching is that one should never depersonalize a human being made in the image and likeness of God. We live in a culture so caught up with achievement, beauty, success, and health that even good Christians can look at disabilities, physical or mental, as more of a curse than a cross. And this comes dangerously close to considering the afflicted as “less than.” Certainly, we live in a culture of death which promotes abortion and euthanasia for those whose lives others deem less worthy. One shudders to think how many of the saints profiled here—whose holiness graced the world—would have been exterminated for the very gifts they had to offer.
God’s Wild Flowers reminds us to rest in the truth that “God creates and rejoices in diversity. He calls us all, whatever our condition or situation, to grow in perfection, to cooperate with Him, and become what He wills us to be.”
Great review, I have been looking for a book like this to inspire me as I care for my 15 year old daughter with Down syndrome and autism. Sometimes she surprises me with her devotion to Jesus particularly in the Blessed Sacrament, and its wonderful to know how many saints have similar challenges in this world but had great spiritual abilities.
What a gift to learn about this important book, that you insightfully reviewed. As the Mom of an almost 20 year old with Prader Willi Syndrome, it gives me comfort and continued hope to learn of the spiritual blessings and extraordinary gifts these saints shared while facing individual challenges. A welcomed acceptance is timeless.
COMMENT FROM: Carole Fay Esk’ridge:
Thank you for the review of this lovely book on dear Saints who share in having a disability as I do. I’m a daisy but have always wanted to be a yellow rose with the end of my petals blushed with edges of red. I always thought I was normal till I found out I have a mental illness. I thought my life had ended when I found myself in a mental health hospital. I was terrified. Maybe everybody else was crazy but I was certain, I was not. My dear family placed me there. I was so mad at them and the mock trial I went through to be sentenced to take medicine under supervision. I didn’t think I needed it. I was so upset that I couldn’t even pray.
This event lead to God creating a real life for me. He opened doors to gaining: a BS degree in Art with magna cum laude, showing art in museums, founding and working in administration for over 20 years of a 501(c)3 nonprofit, “The Visionary Guild for Mentally Ill Artists”. We exhibited works throughout Alabama and in D.C.. God is an awesome God! He turn my pain into joy and allowed me to share that joy with other who were mentally ill Artists to advocate for all mentally ill persons. It changed me from a daisy into a yellow rose. It taught me to rejoice in life. I am amaze that even Jesus could love me so much and filled my lonely life with meaning. Deeper faith grew in my soul than I had ever dreamed the Holy Spirit could do. Thank Jesus for turning me into a yellow rose even though I had to suffer to gain my red tipped petals.
If you are an Artist please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org God willing I hope we can be a blessing to others through the “American Academy of Sacred Arts” foundress, Sr. M. Paula Beierschmitt, I.H.M. a saintly Nun who is very sane. I believe she is in Heaven praising God in very creative ways. I’m a Grandmother on July 3, 2017 I will be 70 year old.