Sometimes you read a book that reminds you most forcibly that almost al our worries are trivial, small niggles that upset us temporarily, yet assume a disproportionate importance in our minds. Such a book came into my hands these last couple of weeks: It’s Good to Be Here by Christina Chase (Sophia Institute Press). The title might seem anodyne – but for the fact that Christina was born with spinal muscular atrophy Type II, cannot do anything for herself and was given a life expectancy of 13 years. That she is now nearly 40 is itself a miracle.
The book’s subtitle, “A Disabled Woman’s Reflections on God in the Flesh and the Sacred Wonder of Being Human” indicates that this is no ordinary autobiographical memoir, though Christina’s personal story is interwoven in her narrative. It is a work of true spirituality, mystical in places, in which passages from Scripture, particularly the Gospels, are combined with short excerpts from Christina’s blog posts, designed to make the reader see the creation of human life as nothing less than God’s supreme gift of love, personified in Christ.
Christina’s profound insight has been hard-won: severe scoliosis has left her a cripple (a word she is not afraid to use), permanently confined to a wheelchair. She has found her disabilities “hard to bear” – which is “an understatement. The difficulties, disappointments and deteriorations can be overwhelming…and sad. Terrifyingly sad.” As a young child, participating in a campaign to find a cure for her disease, she had believed it would happen; later, realising she would never “be employed, get married, be a mother or leave my house often”, she had to make painful readjustments.
She rediscovered her Faith as a young adult, describing herself as a “born-again Catholic.” This came about as she made the laborious effort to be physically present at Mass, rather than watch it on a screen at home, as an offering for her parish priest who was having a difficult time. At Communion, Christina experienced the presence of Christ Himself and was “overwhelmed”. Indeed, for almost a year afterwards she “silently cried after receiving Christ in Holy Communion.”
Much of what Christina writes is concerned with the importance of spiritual healing. People think they need to be “cured” when the deepest suffering God came to heal is “our lack of truly loving one another.” She relates that she has often felt patronised by others, who ask her to pray for them as if she had special powers, or comment on her smile. What she wants to help them understand is that “they are special, beloved children of God” and that “Here and now everybody is limited. Everybody is flawed.” And yet that “God didn’t make us to be flawed; God made us to be loved.”
One of Christina’s keenest insights, heightened by her physical limitations, is to recognise that every encounter with others matters: “We are not created to move about in vacuums of irrelevance to each other.” On one hospital visit she has a memorable, momentary meeting with a woman prisoner, brought to the hospital at the same time, in chains and wearing handcuffs. The two women looked at each other. “I was the other human being that stuck out oddly in the place. She was bound by the law, with heavy metal shackles on hand and foot; I was bound by disease, crumpled up in a mechanical wheelchair. We saw each other in a moment…”
She reflects that in this fleeting acknowledgement, an intentional smile on her own face and “something almost like a smile about her face”, “Perhaps we both saw Christ that day, Perhaps, we both were Christ in that brief, passing moment.” Certainly, this is a book that lifts the veil on what we mistakenly think of as “normal” existence. Perhaps only a person like Christina can properly proclaim gratitude at being alive and the experience of being “fearfully and wonderfully human.”