Suffering - why me?
Suffering - why me?
God’s Wild Flowers, Saints with Disabilities, by Pia Matthews, Gracewing, 266pp £12.99, reviewed by Clare Anderson.
Despite the advances in modern medicine, as we live longer, so we are more likely to encounter pain and disability in one form or another. Chronic illness has always been with us, but in today’s world, where physical perfection is less an ideal than a goal, there is a pervading sense of uselessness among the chronically sick. Pia Matthews’ book presents a Christian understanding of suffering that does not seek to sanitise or to make light of it. Previous generations had seen illness as a result of sin. Christ’s ministry showed this to be untrue - God’s glory was and is revealed through healing of the sick.
But what of those who aren’t healed? Pia Matthews takes the lives of over a hundred saints and blesseds of the Church to show
how illness and disability can provide a doorway to sanctity. In nine chapters she covers different forms of disability, with examples from the saints.
The preface details the author’s own experience of caring for a severely disabled child. This book is surely the result of frequent meditation about the nature of disability and our response to it which goes beyond the ‘why me?’ that others perhaps expect:
“Each child is special, whether disabled or abled. ‘Specialness’ does not reduce children to the same. And in Catholic thinking, not only is every human being unique, every human being is also a gift. So for me, the ‘God, why me?’ question raises a much more interesting issue: not why did God pick on me to be the parent of a disabled child, but rather, from the perspective of the person with disabilities, why me, me as this gift. Then, unpicking the question further, not why was I born this way, but what is it that you, God, have in mind for me?” (p xv)
Disability doesn’t define a person
It is in precisely the understanding and accepting of God’s will, even when it involves suffering, which helps to make saints.
In the introduction we see how the Church determines sanctity in individuals and the long process involved. Holiness is the vocation of all of us, although the path to it is often not self-chosen. Most people would never choose to be sick or disabled and find their situation a cause of anguish and doubt. People do not become saints in spite of a disability or even because of it. Rather, the disability becomes an aspect of a life of heroic virtue. Disability cannot define a person, “the object is to demonstrate that all human beings, whatever their situation, need God’s grace to grow in holiness and the saints and blessed are witnesses to this activity of grace.” (p xxxv).
Although the author declares that she does not intend to present a saint with a disability as the answer to another person with a similar disability, this book will provide comfort and a sense of solidarity for many who live with chronic suffering.
The following chapters each begin with a short reflection on the nature of a particular disability or illness, with examples from numerous saints. All aspects of suffering are covered, whether tuberculosis, cancer, amputation or paralysis, as well as intermittent but various ailments (such as Padre Pio suffered), and also those with mental suffering, whether from depression, instability, or intellectual retardation in some way or other.
All the saints one would expect are there, St Therese, St Pio, St Benedict Labre - though who knew that St Thomas Aquinas suffered from the effects of a possible stroke? St Andre Besette and Bl Solanus Casey are predictably among the ‘simple and pure in heart’, but so also is the wonderful St Anna Pak Agi, a Korean martyr who had learning difficulties which made it a struggle to learn about the Christian faith. “She used to say that if she could not learn about God as she wished a least she could try and love him with all her heart.” She liked to meditate on pictures of Christ. Refusing to deny her faith, she was martyred in 1839.
One of the most difficult aspects to a Christian understanding of suffering is the issue of ‘victim souls’, the subject of Chapter Four. The complete and selfless embrace of suffering as a gift from God for the benefit of others is the most radical way of accepting the Cross and sharing in Christ’s sufferings. This is not a spiritual athleticism but a means of sanctification of oneself and others, and is a specific gift of God, seen as a special mission. Bl Alexandrina da Costa, Catherine Emmerich and St Pio are the most well-known examples.
In restricting herself to saints or those on the path of canonisation, Dr Matthews is confined to discussing the more traditionally known illnesses, like arthritis, eczema, bronchitis, which still pose a problem for modern medicine. More recently diagnosed conditions (perhaps the result of the modern world) such as autism and allergies, are not so easy to match with appropriate saints. Maybe a future volume might include St Therese’s sister Leonie, who struggled heroically with what looks like autism?
St. John Paul II and suffering
Dr Matthews is a lecturer in theology, philosophy and bioethics and brings to the subject much study and reflection. She is saturated in the teaching of St John Paul II, who is perhaps the most important recent thinker in the field of suffering. No study of the theology of the body would be complete without his teachings on suffering, whether his document Salvifici Doloris or his letter to the elderly, and much besides. Pia Matthews is a born teacher and communicator who can present the thought of this great Pope in accessible terms yet never over-simplifies or talks down to the reader.
This is both a devotional book as well as a meditation on suffering for the modern world. In the face of the ‘culture of death’ it is important to offer a positive alternative and this is found here. It is not a scholarly book, but a comforting and stimulating resource for anyone interested in a contemporary Catholic understanding of suffering.
“The stories of saints and the blessed are relevant to all of us, abled and disabled, because in their many different ways their situation helps us and inspires us in our own journey” (p xliii). This is a thoughtful and at times moving book on the subject of an inescapable reality of modern life.
Clare Anderson is a Catholic writer and broadcaster and mother of four.