Holiness Gone Wild

Detail of stained glass of St. Thérèse of Lisieux (Photo: Zatletic/Dreamstime)
Spiritual flourishing in diversity and disability

Why me? It’s a question we likely 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 of her own daughter with complicated disabilities. Matthews relays stories of men and women of sanctity who show us the resplendent dignity of life, even when the world may see it as a burden. She talks about the book, as well as ways to flourish in love and sanctity in the midst of severe challenges.

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

Pia 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 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 experience of 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. Saint 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 are the here and now, and they are also paradise.

One way of looking at wildflowers is to see them as flowers that are 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. Wildflowers are fragile, since they bloom quickly and fade quickly — like the lives of people with disabilities often do. Or they appear to be knotted and difficult. Mostly we find wildflowers on the margins of the fields, in the hedgerows, outside the borders, and there is something of a resonance with people who are marginalized because of their disabilities. However, we’ve seen a resurgence of popularity in wildflowers, at least in the U.K. We think we are being friendly to the planet if we encourage wildflowers 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 wildflowers). 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.

Lopez: What do you mean when you write, “God creates and rejoices in diversity”?

Matthews: 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 sake.

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

Matthews: 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 if 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 II believed 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 birth in the U.K.), euthanasia, and assisted dying are all justified on the grounds of compassion and freeing someone from a life of suffering.

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 the pope did).

Suffering is an inevitable part of human life, but it is not the endpoint of life. The endpoint is redemption. Although the main question appears to be ‘God, why me?’ or ‘God, why my daughter?’, the question can be reframed. The questions for any person with disabilities are not “Why have I been born like this? why me?” but “Why me? What does God 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.

Lopez: How has your daughter changed your life?

Matthews: 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 learned 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.

Lopez: How scary has it been?

Matthews: 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.

Lopez: Could your approach to the question of “Why me?” be a game changer?

Matthews: I hope so. And it should give hope.


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— 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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