It was the summer after my freshman year of college when I met him. I had just broken up with the young man I’d be dating for the past year (or rather, he had broken up with me) and I was feeling confused about who I was, and who I belonged with. That’s when I met John (name changed, for the sake of his privacy). He was probably in his early to mid 40s, and he seemed a bit gruff around the edges, but within the span of about a week, we became fast friends. My life changed forever when I danced with him and saw the joy that radiated from his face. He reminded me what joy was, and I felt joy then more deeply than I’d ever felt before.
John used a wheelchair, was non-ambulatory, wasn’t very verbal (perhaps could say a few words), had poor eyesight, plenty of seizures, and also had a mental disability. I met him at a camp for individuals with special needs, run by a diocesan priest in Indiana, where I was a camp counselor for a summer. I don’t know that John ever said more than a word or two to me, and I haven’t seen him since that week we spent together. But his friendship with me changed my life. John is a big part of the reason why I spent the next two summers of my life working with individuals with disabilities, why I pursued a graduate degree in theology, wrote a book about ministry with people with disabilities, and why I continue to try and stay involved in this ministry however I can.
Christ worked through John, not because John was strong. He worked through John because John was himself – weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and all.
The greatest puzzle of the Gospel is that its message turns the world’s philosophy on its head, “…but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.” (1 Corinthians 1:27). The world tells us that to be great, we must be strong. The Scriptures tell us that, “…when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10). Yet still, we insist on relying on our own strength, even if that strength has massive limitations.
The saints aren’t those who think they are strong. The saints are those who know that they are weak, and who rely fully on God’s strength.
In my own life, the times of greatest spiritual growth have coincided with the times that I was weakest. In the lives of the saints, too, we see that the moments in which they grew the most in holiness were the moments in which they were weakest. St. Therese of Lisieux, a young Carmelite nun, was well aware of her weaknesses when she entered Carmel as a teenager. Yet, the time when she grew the most in sanctity was when she was dying of tuberculosis and going through extreme spiritual dryness. It was then that she needed to fully rely on God. There are numerous examples of saints with similar stories, saints the world had forgotten or rejected, who set the world on fire for the Gospel.
Yet, the world tells us something very different. It tells us that life that is weak or imperfect is not worth living. It tells us to abort babies who are “imperfect,” to euthanize the elderly or the dying, and to all often forget and exclude those with disabilities. Yet, within each of these groups of individuals are people who are called to sainthood. Those who are weak in the eyes of the world are not automatically saints. Those with special needs are not all “angels” – they are normal people, just like you and I. Those suffering terminal illness are not all “saints” – they are normal people facing a terrible trial. But within these groups of people, there are many who are holy and who are desiring to be holy. Yet, they are forgotten by the world, and their wisdom often goes unheard. In a world clamoring for perfection and efficiency, these individuals don’t fit in to the equation.
One of my most treasured friends is a young woman with fairly severe cerebral palsy and a mild intellectual disability. She is one of the most compassionate people I know, and she has a gift for keeping in mind the needs of many and holding them in her prayers. She has a true desire to know about God, and to know God. We spent a summer together growing in a sort of spiritual friendship, and I continue to be encouraged by her love for me and my family. Yet, she lives in a residential facility for individuals with disabilities, and I’m willing to bet that most people would look at her and never guess the profound ways that God has worked through her. Much of the world would look at her and fail to see the profound value of her life, simply because she appears “weak.”
What are we, the Church, about? We are all on a journey to heaven. We are all intended, God willing, for sainthood. But a big part of our growth in holiness is needing to learn that we cannot rely on our own strength. We need God’s strength, God’s grace.
We, as the Church, also need to support each other in times of need. We need to stop and listen to the wisdom of those the world refuses to listen to. That may mean realizing that all the baptized are called to sainthood, and changing the way we do things, to support all the members of the Church in their call to holiness. Even those who appear the weakest may indeed have great strengths to offer to the body of Christ.
I’m reminded of the story of St. Lawrence, who, when asked to present the treasures of the Church, brought the poor and the sick. Those who are “weak” are the treasures of the Church. And the recognition of ourselves as numbered among the weak, too, is part of the treasure of our faith. We are all weak. There is no difference between our brothers and sister in Christ with a physical disability, or mental disability and ourselves. There is no difference between the unborn child and ourselves. There is no difference between those who are aging and elderly and ourselves. We all possess an inherent dignity. We are all weak. We are all vulnerable. We are all desperately in need of the strength that only Christ gives.
Those of us who think we are strong, try desperately to hide our weakness. We hide our insecurities. We may hide mental illness. We may hide deep grief over sufferings like infertility or loneliness. Yet we are, all of us, weak. Those members of the Church whose sufferings are most apparent are those who remind us that there is no “us and them.” There is just “us,” all of us trying to grow in holiness. We need each other, and we need the weaknesses of each other, to remind us that we all need Christ.