Sunday, November 16, 2008

Special Needs

Just over a week ago, the following question was posed in the comments box:

I am gravely concerned for the my son's soul. He is autistic and non-verbal and mentally impaired. How can he accept Christ? How will I know if he has?
My heart has been touched deeply by this question and I have been praying  for several days and I would like now to offer something of a stammering response.

Over the years, it has been your cross to care for your son. To some extent, this is no different from what most parents must do. Mommies and Daddies have, for centuries, bathed, fed, changed, cuddled, corrected, and loved their children. They do this not, of course, so that the child remains dependent on them forever. Rather, they do this so that they may become independent, free to live and to love as adults. Thus it is that the care necessary for an infant is radically different from that needed by a 3-year old, or a seven-year old, or a teenager. While our fundamental needs never change - we always need nourishment, shelter, and love - we grow over the course of our lives to be able to secure these for ourselves. 

Your son, I suspect, will never claim such independence of you; he will always be radically dependent upon you for everything. In truth, I cannot imagine the heartache this involves...for it must be hard not to compare him with other children his own age. Simple things we take for granted, such as potty-training, sleep-overs, and musical recitals, may be wholly outside the realm of possibility of your son. This may have led you to wonder how, within the life of the Church, you son might be able to have a relationship with Christ.

So let me say this: I have no doubt that your son encountered Christ, that Christ has been very much an loving and saving force in his life. Indeed, I would be willing to call this a mystical encounter the likes of which few of us will ever know or appreciate. 

It is strange, but I believe it to be true.  

And here is the reason: because you have loved him. Your son depends upon you and your love, lives only because he is surrounded by those who love and sustain him. Where other children grow and strike out on their own, your son depends wholly on you for everything. You will, no doubt, recall late nights, tantrums, and sickness. Do you sometimes feel frustrated that he cannot speak like other children? That he'll never date? Produce grandchildren? Live on his own? Do you sometimes feel as though you can't change one more diaper, or you can't spend one more sleepless hour worrying? 

Facing these and so many other challenges, you you continue to love him. In the face of impossible odds, you find the strength to love. This love incarnates itself in all that you are and do: can you ever make a decision without thinking of your son? Even when it is difficult, even when you entrust him to another caregiver so that you can find rest and repose, even when you make painful decisions about schools and special programs, you are doing so only for his best interest. 

Your son has never done anything to merit your love, has never tried to earn your favor. And your capacity to love your son will bewilder many: for how many of us can imagine what it is that you are going through? Perhaps you could not have imagined this before he was born, perhaps years ago you would have thought yourself unable to drink of this cup. And yet here you are, drinking deeply the cup that you have been handed. 

Please remember that the Good News is that God loves us. I think Christianity has a very simple message that we forget too easily: God loves us. We do nothing to deserve this, nor can we barter for God to love us. We sin most grievously when we arrogantly think that we, through our sin, can change God's mind about us. God cannot stop loving us. It is we who kill our love for God. 

So let me say that, in your hands, your son experiences most fully and wholly the love of God, the saving grace of the Lord that accepts his reality into God's own reality. In the day-to-day struggles, you incarnate God's love for your son. You become a symbol to the world of God's redeeming love that reaches out in an act of creative and sustaining love...even when it is difficult. Your hands - calloused, chaffed, sore, and tired - have become Christ's own hands.

Could you imagine not loving your son? Apart from tragic exceptions, could a mother not love an ailing child? When I see parents who, day in and day out, care for a dying relative or child I wonder how their hearts handle it. But then I recall that our hearts have an infinite capacity to love. And this love is given flesh in our own lives, in our own hands, as we reach out towards others. 

The love that empowers you every day, the love that keeps you going even when it is difficult, the love that gives you strength when it seems that everything within you wants to give up...this is an amazing grace. When you cradle your son, know that this love has been made flesh. When you sit by your son through long nights, or experience the frustration of trying to understand his desires, this is love made patience. In you love surges toward your son, enveloping him in care. 

So it is not that your son needs to seek out Christ. Rather, it is you who have brought Christ to him. As you have loved him and continue to love him, you make an ever more powerful witness of love in the world. In drawing your son into your heart, you enact the salvation of God that strains to draw all of us into God's own life. 

In your life it is both your burden and blessing to be, quite literally, Amazing Grace. For in and through you does God reach out to your son. And as you reflect on your love for your son, consider then how you could not decide not to love him; you cannot not love him. Imagine, then, God's own amazing grace as each of us is looked at with God's loving gaze. 

I have often said that if I weren't interested in teaching theology that I'd probably teacher either kindergarten or special education. Seven of the happiest summers of my life were spent working with developmentally delayed children at a summer camp. I learned, over those summers, more about how to love than I ever thought possible; they, to be sure, taught me more than I've ever learned in any academic course. Consequently, I know something of what your day-to-day life might be like.

Please know that I shall keep you and your son in my prayers. The ability of the human heart to love unrestrictedly is an amazing grace. At your hands, your son has experienced the mystical experience of unrestricted and freely given love that most of us completely ignore. In your quiet struggles as a loving parent, you are a symbol of God's love; in your hands, your son rests secure in the love of Christ; in your embrace, you and your son are caught up into God's saving plan that aches only to draw each of us into the divine life of the Trinity. 


Unknown said...

I truly believe this post by Fr Ryan is a grace filled response written with compassion.

I trust this entry, written with compassion by Fr. Ryan, will bring comfort to this mother and provide encouragement to her secured by faith that God's well spring of grace will continue to provide for the shared journey that she and her son travel.

I, too, have benefited from reading this entry.

Anonymous said...

A very well-reasoned homily, Mr. Dunns. My Reader's Digest response: Your son has already accepted Christ; in fact, he IS Christ, as are all who need our love. I have a high-function autistic stepson (Asperger's Syndrome) who accepted Catholicism (though now he thinks he's a Buddhist--tomorrow it will be a Hindu--who knows? He's Catholic...) who is a Christ in my life as well and who has certainly made my own salvation possible. Who are we really talking about here? Please insure that you accept Christ when you meet him. God gives you Himself every day--recognize that and accept it.

(Note to readers: I'm pretty high on the Autism scale myself).

Betsy McKenzie said...

You have broken my heart a bit, in order to heal it a bit in the writing of this post. I am a mother of an Asperger's son, who is high-functioning now as a young adult. I cannot imagine the pain of the mother who wrote the letter. But I do know how I hurt and felt alone when my son was younger and was much more out of the span of standard function. What a lovely post, and beautiful essay! I would love to link to it so that more parents of special needs children might find and read this beautiful piece. Whatever their faith, I believe, these parents will find much to heal their hearts here. Thank you, Fr. Ryan!