Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 67(2) May 2017

Book review

God's Wild Flowers. Saints with Disabilities

by Pia Matthews,
Published Gracewing (7 June 2016)
ISBN: 978-0852448816

Book CoverThis splendid and deeply moving work brings together theological reflections on disability with the stories of 141 saints and blessed with disabilities in the broadest sense of the word disability. These saints and blessed thus vary from those with physical disabilities and cancer to those with depression or learning difficulties.

The author notes that there are various models of disability including medical and social ones. The tragic model casts the disabled as victims to be pitied and the infantile model sees them as childish. I am reminded of letters from professionals which begin: "I saw this unfortunate young man who suffers from learning disability..."

Whichever model is used, the disabled person often faces discrimination and so many restrictions. The person may have to choose a particular path in life as a result of the disability. I think here of Blessed Alexandrina da Costa who became bed ridden after jumping from her room to avoid being raped.She became one of the greatest mystics of the twentieth century. The author notes that "in walking through a different door, they have shown that they are doing God's work that has been uniquely entrusted to them."

Why have the disabled not been specifically mentioned in the social teaching of the Church? The author notes that this is because they are like other human persons who are subject to the Church's care. The principles are the same, for able as well as disabled: they include the option for the poor and the pursuit of the common good. While we are all disabled in some sense, the option for the poor and marginalized applies in a particular way to the disabled. Those who are the least in the world's eyes are those who are especially loved by God. The early Christians were well known in the pagan world for their care of the poor and the abandoned. They saw God in the hungry, the thirsty, the poor and those in need. It is easy to forget how radical their b_ehaviour was in pagan eyes.

The author observes that people with disabilities are not mere recipients of the Church's care. Many have been great co-workers in the Lord's vineyards and some have been saints.

Over the years, I have seen the disabled being dismissed as being a burden on society and as having little in the way of utility. I have also witnessed an amazing degree of care, when it was clear that the carer was receiving as much as giving. I recall a great pro-life speaker who introduced herself as " having the gift of cerebral palsy." It is often enough our own attitudes to the impairment that is impairing.

While there is always the danger of developing a martyr complex, the saints who developed disabilities united their sufferings to those of Christ. True, they regarded themselves as victim souls but they did so with joy. This is difficult to understand in today's world where the chronically sick are seen as useless or as potential subjects of euthanasia. However, says the author, embracing "the reality of suffering and seeing in it the possibility of redemption can be seen as the opposite to a giving into despair, despair that the saints and blessed have often themselves experienced and yet overcome."

The theological reflections found throughout the work are thought provoking. I found the stories of the disabled saints and blessed, God's wild flowers, inspiring. Here is a work that is suffused with hope.

Reviewed by Dr Pravin Thevasathan