A Practical Theology of Disability
When I first started putting together the book project, Of Such is the Kingdom: A Practical Theology of Disability, I talked with lots of other Orthodox parents of children with disabilities. In particular, I came to know and admire my friend Charlotte Riggle, whose blog had some of the only resources for Orthodox children with disabilities that I had found at the time. We had both had lots of Orthodox parents reach out to us, desperate for resources and understanding of their lives with disabled family members. We realized that the call to welcome families with disabilities in the Orthodox Church was part of the welcome of the little ones that Jesus commanded. Thus, we began to research the issues surrounding disability in the Church and how it affected families. Though we eventually decided that Charlotte’s work lies elsewhere and that I would be the sole author of the book, we both felt that this introduction clarifies the needs we face. I share this article with Charlotte’s permission.
Introduction: The Empty Feast
The Lord said this parable:
“A man once gave a great banquet, and invited many; and at the time of the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for all is now ready.’
But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it; I pray you, have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I must go to examine them; I pray you, have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’
So the servant came and reported this to his master.
Then the householder in anger said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and maimed and blind and lame.’ And the servant said, ‘Sir, what you commanded has been done, and there is still room.’
And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges, and compel people to come in,
that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet. For many are called, but few are chosen.’”
Our story begins with God. Before we speak of welcome or disability or our response, we must look first to God who has prepared the feast and called many to the banquet. Already the table is groaning with abundant gifts, and yet the feast is empty at the beginning of the parable. Welcome-making is first of all about God who has already prepared the feast. Next, it is imitation of God who chooses to welcome the poor and maimed and blind and lame and to compel those on the fringes to come to His banquet.
We find a correspondence between the falling off of church attendance and the rise in special needs and disabilities such as autism in our current age. With only 53% of Orthodox Christians retaining their faith into adulthood and 46% of families with autism avoiding church services for fear that their autistic member will not be welcomed, we have a modern analogy for those in the parable who made excuses for coming and those who had to be brought in purposefully or compelled.
Yet it is not the fear of empty churches that has inspired the writing of this book, but the love of God who has invited all people to His feast. We have sought to take this love as medicine for the wound of unwelcome. By applying the wisdom of the ancient faith to the modern need to welcome families with disabilities, we hope to imitate and illustrate God’s welcome.
Go back and read the parable again.
The master invited many to come to his feast. But when they were too busy, he had his servant bring in more people, people who were impoverished and disabled. In our Lord’s time, as in ours, poverty and disability so often go together. And the servant went out and gathered up those people and brought them to the feast.
When the poor and disabled were all there, there was still room for more. So the master had his servant go out and find people who were living in the highways and hedges. Homeless people. Like the ones I see from the window of the train and the bus on my way to work every day, who sleep under tarps by the railroad right of way, or in sleeping bags in doorways. People who are probably mentally ill, who might be unstable, who certainly won’t know how to act at a banquet. People who might be suspicious of the invitation.
When the master’s original invitations went out, he allowed those who received the invitation to accept it or decline as they saw fit. But this last group – the schizophrenics and the drug addicts and those with PTSD who can’t stand to be in a room with a closed door – he told his servant not to take no for an answer. To compel them to come in.
Think about that.
Then think about the autistic child in your parish. Or the man with dementia. Think about the young adult with schizophrenia. The old woman with one leg and a loud voice. The person with a bad attitude and body odor.
If we’re guests in the parable of the great feast, we have to accept that those who were invited in the third round have a better claim to be there than we do. We may have been called to the Table. But the Master has compelled them to come. We have to be willing to share the Table with them. We have to treat them with dignity. Our salvation may well depend on it, not because God wants to make us uncomfortable, but because God wants us to become like Him.
In order to become like God, we have to learn to act in ways pleasing to God. As St. John Chrysostom tells us in his Second Baptismal Instruction, “Nothing gladdens Him so much as our fellow feeling for those who are members of the same Body, our manifestation of abundant affection for our brothers, and our great preoccupation with the salvation of our neighbors.” We should not take this to mean that only easy-going, neuro-typical, able-bodied people are included in the definition of “those who are members of the same Body.” In fact, in his Sixth Baptismal Instruction, St. John Chrysostom specifies:
If you ever wish to associate with someone, make sure that you do not give your attention to those who enjoy health and wealth and fame as the world sees it, but take care of those in affliction, those in critical circumstances, those in prison, those who are utterly deserted and enjoy no consolation. Put a high value on associating with these; for from them you shall receive much profit, you will be a better lover of the true wisdom, and you will do all for the glory of God.
Inclusion of persons with disabilities and special needs, in other words, is vital to the salvation of the healthy and strong.
Presence at the feast and inclusion in the community of the Church is also vital to the salvation of persons and families with special needs. This is primarily because we humans are made for the communion of God in His Church and thrive in such community like fish thrive in water. We began with the parable and saw first the householder who made ready places for those with disabilities. Imagine being welcomed into the Church as though you have a reserved seat at God’s banquet. That is the welcome we wish to extend to persons with disabilities, for the salvation of all.
GOD’S APPOINTED TIME –KAIROS
We have begun with the parable of the banquet because it calls so readily to mind our common life shared in the Divine Liturgy. We experience the meeting of time and eternity in the Liturgy, that appointed time for the Feast. “As in heaven, so let it be on earth,” we pray each day, and we experience the fulfillment of that prayer in the Sacrament. This matters because, with God as our reference point, we see that in God’s presence we are most fully who we are in all of time and eternity. We must enter the eternal, loving relationship with God in order to explore questions of our physical bodies, faith in suffering, and the wounds of unwelcome.
BECOMING LIKE GOD IN WEAKNESS –THEOSIS
The heart of our Logos theology is the revelation of the Logos of God through His loving relationship to us. As God is simple, we can neither comprehend Him nor set a boundary for Him. We are made to thrive on God’s presence, no matter our current weakness. Persons with disabilities need to be present in the Sacramental life of the Church to enter the presence of God. If we read the parable of the feast as a metaphor for the Divine Liturgy, we see that God wants persons with disabilities to come into His presence. Classically, the Church talked about the transformation that takes place in God’s presence as participation in God. That means He wants persons with disabilities to participate in Him and to become like Him.
SELF-EMPTYING DISABLES DISABILITY –KENOSIS
God invites and compels persons with disabilities to the banquet, even if our disabilities cause us to spill our cups. God’s welcome removes the social handicaps of isolation, because when our cups are empty, like at the wedding at Cana, God fills them with something better than we could have provided ourselves. In Philippians 2, St. Paul quotes an early Christian hymn on how God showed His humility by becoming human:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
The hospitality of God is self-emptying. We only need hearts open to accept love God pours out to us in order to enter fully in His feast. We can then pass the love along by pouring it out again, because imitating God is not limited to neurotypical and able-bodied people. The Church is enriched, and the disability of afflictions removed, when we work together to imitate Christ, turning the empty feast into an image of God’s self-emptying love.
THE ICONIC COMMUNITY –KOINONIA
We can trace the experience of God’s love toward us in three icons of feasts: the icon of The Holy Trinity (picturing the angels in the hospitality of Abraham), the icon of The Wedding at Cana, and the icon of The Last Supper. These images of feasts show three miraculous moments when God invites us closer to Him. First, in the icon of the Holy Trinity, we see God meeting us at a feast instead of an altar for burnt animal sacrifice. Then, at the Wedding at Cana, God the guest turns water into wine, which in the Last Supper, God the host turns into His very blood, life offered to us. Imagine that parable feast that God has filled with the weak and wounded and disabled. This feast of true community gathered in God carries the revelation of God’s love another step closer. When we’re all gathered at the feast together, we become an icon of God’s welcoming and transforming love for all.
PRACTICAL HELP IN GOD’S HOUSEHOLD – ECONOMIA
When St. Irenaeus described the history of God saving humankind, he called it the “household [economia] of God.” In the parable, we see the practical work of the feast carried out by the servant who is summoning and compelling people to come, not to mention the untold number of servants who prepared the feast. In order to carry out God’s command to bring everyone – including especially the weak and disabled – into the feast, the servants of God must change their usual way of running things. They, and we, must make the feast accessible in practical ways, because the Lord is already saying, “Come, for all is now ready.”
In 2009, the Standing Conference of the Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas issued a call to embrace persons with disability by calling the Church “to become the image of the Trinity, a unity of persons in communion, a place where everyone is welcomed.” We have written this book to build up the Church in a welcoming community.
God wants you here in this Feast. He wants all of us here. God wants to work through our weaknesses to bring love and healing to the world. God invites us to work with Him to be part of His kingdom. We are all honored guests.
Like an invitation to a feast, this book will provide practical instructions, addresses, and ideas to help you prepare and to be on your way. We see it as a starting point, gathering place, and conversation starter. The heart of the book is the story of God with us. The stories we share from persons and communities of faith are extensions of the story of God’s welcoming, transforming and empowering presence with us.
If you want people with disabilities to come, you have to go where they are, hang out with them, learn to love them wherever and however they are. That’s what the Master of the Feast commanded — go find the homeless and disabled and mentally ill and whomever and compel them to come. And, of course, in the Church, the only way we compel anyone is through love.
For further reading: Summer Kinard