By Stroma McDermott
This year’s Hook lecture at Leeds Minster by Professor Frances Young provided a moving but theologically rich glimpse of Young’s journey of faith in the face of her eldest son’s severe learning difficulty. Young reflected on the deeper truths she had learnt about the Christian faith and especially on her on-going exploration of both her own and Arthur’s vocations, reflected in her latest book ‘Arthur’s Call’.
Young’s journey with Arthur from ‘buggy to wheelchair’ deals honestly with the emotional, physical and spiritual reality that she, her family and Arthur faced; from the questions of why and her sense of bereavement, to the recognition things won’t be normal, through to acceptance and then onto rejoicing at the wonder and gift of Arthur’s life. It is certainly worth listening to again through the LCI website. In particular I was struck by what she describes as a ‘momentary but breakthrough moment’ where after wrestling with how she could continue to believe in a good creator God when children are being born who will have ‘limited’ development the flash of a thought came to her “but it doesn’t make any difference to me whether you believe in my reality or not”. Young described this as ‘God is God and God just is’ and reflects what both Scripture and the Catholic traditions note, that we do not discover God, he comes and finds us, confronts us even, and we are brought face to face with his reality; the mystery and complexity of prevenient grace.
Strangely I found myself being drawn into such an encounter. Throughout the evening Young illustrated her talk with photos, primarily of Arthur and her, and nearly always of their faces; and it was the face of Arthur that called to me. The idea of encountering God through the Face has a long history within the Judeo-Christian tradition. From the Spirit of God brooding over the face of the Deep to the place where Jacob wrestled with God being called Penuel, ‘Face of God’ (Genesis 32:22-32), to the Psalmist seeking God’s face as blessing;
“As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake I shall be satisfied beholding your likeness” (Ps.17: 15). “May God be gracious to us and bless us, and make his face to shine upon us” (Ps.67: 1).
Perhaps the fullest expression of all comes in the Incarnation of Christ as humanity could literally look God in the face and the use of icons has for millennia continued to allow many to come before the face of Jesus in a way that is both mysterious and holy. Yet the tradition of the face has also understood that the face of man has its own sacramental quality, a re-working of the Augustinian formulation suggests the face ” is an outward and visible sign of an inner spiritual grace.” Emmanuel Levinas, the great philosopher suggested transcendence breaks into our lives when we take responsibility for our fellow human beings,
“responsibility as a response to the imperative of gratuitous love which comes to me in the face of another“.
In her book, The Female Face of God in Auschwitz, Professor Melissa Raphael countered a prevailing view of God’s absence in such a place by arguing that in the day to day accounts and memoires of women encamped there the face and presence of God was revealed as women slowly turned their faces to one another and allowed the dignity of humanity to be retained in their recognition and acts of kindness to one another. Nicholas of Cusa wrote of the mystery of such encounter “in all faces is seen the face of faces, veiled and in a riddle”. As I watched the slideshow backdrop God’s presence was reflected as Arthur’s face mirrored God’s love to us. Arthur as icon, sign and riddle.
That disability is a prophetic sign and riddle for society is something Young encourages us to note as we re-read and re-imagine the gospels. In the story of Lazarus (John 11), Lazarus lives with his sisters but Scripture notes it is Martha and Mary’s house, an unusual anomaly since the usual economic rights would belong to the brother. Young posed a question, could Lazarus be someone with a learning disability? It would certainly create extra special resonance about his relationship with Jesus but would it change the miracle? Young believes it would especially since it would suggest Jesus values Lazarus enough to bring him back into his existing bodily form. Many have argued when God chose to incarnate Himself in the person of Jesus his attitude towards disabled people was quite revolutionary in His day, and if we’re honest, in our day too. Joni Eareckson Tada, herself a quadriplegic, once observed:
“Our Saviour chose to flash His credentials as Messiah through ministry to disabled people.… A disability magnifies God’s grace…. We in our wheelchairs get to prove how great and how trustworthy God is.”
Amos Yong who has written quite challengingly on the theology of disability argues people with intellectual disability are often seen to represent the foolishness of the world but what hinders them as embodying the wisdom of God? Yet the reality is that society’s relationship with disability remains complex. In their recent survey, Scope found that 67% of people felt unomfortable talking to disabled people and recent scientific developments have led to the introduction of a new blood screening test for Down’s Syndrome and many campaigners warn of the risk of ‘extinction’ of children with Down’s, that they will become ‘faceless’ on the Earth.
In the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York there is a painting called The Adoration of the Christ Child, by a 16th C Flemish artist. What stands out in this Nativity scene are two figures around the crib, an angel and a shepherd who appear to have Down’s Syndrome, the implication being that the artist sees those with Down’s as both beautiful and witness. Young also introduced us to an iconography she had commissioned about Lazarus. Within the icon there is an implicit circle into which the figures are framed, reminding us we are all held within God. Lazarus is depicted as a man with learning disabilities, small and in swaddling bands and in a wheelchair, which is based on Elijah’s chariot; as a prophetic figure. Young identifies with the women in the picture who are weeping since she was grieving at losing Arthur to residential care, but she reminded us there was hope. Whilst the women in the picture weep they cannot see what Jesus is doing behind their backs, nor could Young who released Arthur into the lives of his carers and into the extension of his call.
Perhaps our call in this age is to take the vocation of all Arthurs seriously. I like the words of John Swinton,
“inclusion is simply not enough. To include people in society is just to have them there. There is a big difference between inclusion and belonging. To belong, you have to be missed. People need to long for you, to want you to be there. When you’re not there, they should go looking for you.”
Let us go looking, and let us see face to face our disabled brothers and sisters in all their prophetic glory; that is the gospel.