Many people will have been saddened to read the news that a French court has banned the screening of a positive commercial about young people with Down’s syndrome. The children smile and look happy. Apparently seeing them might make women who have had abortions feel guilty. Their feelings must be protected.
I thought of this when reading Pia Matthews’s moving and revelatory book, God’s Wild Flowers: Saints with Disabilities (Gracewing). Dr Matthews, who lectures at Wonersh seminary, has compiled a large list of saints who suffered from physical or mental problems. I asked her what had prompted her to write her book.
Pia tells me that she wanted to show that disability is “simply one aspect of humanity. All human beings are made in the image of God and are wonderful creations. Above all, all human beings are in relationship with God so all have a spiritual life, even if it is not easily expressed or identifiable.”
“Sainthood”, she adds, “is often thought of in terms of perfection.” Yet Pope John Paul II, whose writings on disabled people inspired her book, “made it quite clear that we are all called to be saints – becoming the person God wants you to be.” She reasons, “If sainthood is for every human being, then it must also be for people with disabilities.”
Does she have a readership in mind? She tells me she is interested in “the theology around disability, about people who seem to be marginalised and who may think that the Church has neglected them”, adding: “We are, after all, a Church of saints and sinners (who are trying to be saints) and the different stories of the saints illustrate how discrimination, prejudice, misunderstanding or fear are always present – but can be overcome.”
I note that the range of saints in the book is enormous; how long did it take the author to research them? Pia relates that at first she thought she would only find a few saints but instead “I found more and more saints who would ‘qualify’.” Wanting to be accurate, she researched material from reliable sources like Vatican biographies. “It took a long time and I am still finding more.”
One question haunts me: why were none of the saints included ever cured of their disability? Pia explains that the point of her book is that “sainthood is for everyone. Disability is not a punishment from God; people with disabilities are loved by God for who they are, not for what they can achieve by themselves.” She reflects: “Jesus himself is resurrected with his wounds: our Saviour is disabled. Not being cured is not significant. What detracts from sainthood is not disability but spiritual sins like pride, avarice, greed, malice and so on. It is these that need healing.”
Finally I want to know: what is the “message” of her book? Pia believes that “we live in a time of a throw-away culture where anything deemed not working is discarded. We are fearful of losing control, of being thrown on the ‘care home’ scrap heap.” She emphasises that the message of her book is “hope, because the stories show that God can work with any person and that every person has been given a special vocation. No one is abandoned by God.” She adds: “People need a source of hope and community.” She reminds me that wild flowers, such as poppies, cornflowers, daisies and buttercups, “all add to the beauty of the garden. Like God’s garden, each of us is unique yet we are all deeply connected. Whatever our situation we are here to glorify God by our lives.”