2015 Hook Lecture – Frances Young on ‘Fragile Creation: The vocation of people with severe learning disabilities’

The Hook lecture is an annual lecture series hosted by the Leeds Church Institute in association with Leeds Minster and the Theology and Religious Studies department at the University of Leeds. This year’s lecture was delivered by Frances Young and was entitled ‘Fragile Creation: The vocation of people with severe learning disabilites’. In it, Young offered an account of her journey of faith living with her first son, Arthur, who, after sustaining brain damage, developed a severe learning disability.

1986 (First Edition)

1986 (First Edition)

Young has written of her journey a few times; in a 1986 work called Face to Face, updated in 1990, and more recently in Arthur’s Call, published in 2014. In the lecture Young described how initially her primary response to Arthur’s disability was one of questioning: how can one believe in God when one’s son is so severely disabled? How can one believe in God when one’s son is, for example, incapable of moral development, especially given the often assumed strong connection between moral development and personhood. This questions became more acute for Young between Arthur’s seventh and eleventh years. During this time Arthur experienced extended periods of great distress, finding no peace, and as Young said “his distress fed my distress, and my doubt”.

Some Biblical passages exacerbated this doubt, at least at first. Young talked about the passage in John 9 where, faced with man blind from birth, and being questioned by his disciples about the cause of the man’s blindness – the assumption being that it was someone’s sin – Jesus says that sin was not the cause but rather that “the man was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (John 9:3). Reading this, Young felt angry: what about the man’s experience? What about all he suffered because of his blindness? It just doesn’t seem fair. But Young came to realise that this passage spoke of something bigger: Jesus as the light of the world, and as the light of the world even while he is united with all the brokenness, all the gone-wrong-ness, of the world. It is clear, Young said, because it’s in the brokenness of the cross that God’s glory is found. A second thought was also present: the complaint belies the assumption that we know enough about the suffering to demand an answer from God. And while we should never attempt to reduce the suffering experienced by anyone, there is a valid point here – in fact, two closely related points. First, sometimes we don’t know much more than that there is some suffering being experienced; we know little about it’s nature. Second, even if we feel that we have a grasp of the suffering experienced, still, we don’t know what God is doing with and for that person. Young felt this was certainly true of Arthur, for he was incapable of communicating very much at all about what he was going through.

The real breakthrough with respect to the problem of suffering, however, came with Young’s realisation that if God is indeed god, then it doesn’t matter one bit to him whether or not she believes in him. Young grounded this thought in God’s aseity, his thorough and utter independence from any other being. And Young’s point was that her failure to believe, if it had transpired, would have affected her and her alone. This was the only part of the lecture I was uneasy with. For if God is the kind of god revealed in Jesus Christ, who, as Young said, joins with all the world’s gone-wrong-ness on the cross, indeed, who demonstrates his very glory in the brokeness of the cross, then he would seem to be the kind of god who is indeed affected by the plight of his creatures, the kind of god who cares a great deal about the response his creatures make towards him.

After coming to terms, to at least some degree, with the problem of suffering raised by severe learning disabilities, Young described how her later works have focused more on the positive reflections her journey has resulted in. This began in earnest in 1991 when Young became involved in serious reflection on the value of people with learning disabilities as part of the L’Arche communities.

The Raising of Lazarus

The Raising of Lazarus

Young’s reflection was spurred on when she came across an icon depicting the raising of Lazarus. The icon, shown to the left, resonated powerfully with Young. There were a few reasons for this. According to Jean Vanier – founder of L’Arche – a case can be made for saying Lazarus had a learning disability (he’s mentioned as living with Mary and Martha, but it is said to be their house; that is, he’s not cited as the head of he household, as might expected given their culture). Second, Lazarus is depicted in this icon as fairly small, like Arthur, and has a moustache, also like Arthur. And it occurred to Young too that it depicts well our position: the women in the icon are on their knees, weeping, pleading to Jesus for help, and cannot see either Lazarus or Jesus’s engagement with Lazarus – they can’t see what Jesus is doing for him, just as we often can’t see what Jesus is doing for those with a learning disability.

Where does this leave us? What then is Arthur’s vocation? Young’s first answer to this came from a comment made to her by one of Arthur’s carers: “he’s a man with a message”. Arthur is someone who could never be successful by the standards of the day; indeed, he’ll never be able to perform daily tasks such as getting dressed and eating without help, and certainly never be able to complete a degree or run a business. But far from seeking to find something that Arthur can do, some area that he can at least be mediocre in; far from trying to find something he might contribute and so have his worth defined that way, we should instead allow Arthur to challenge the very values that define success in terms of achievement or contribution. I found this to be a wonderful, powerful insight. And nothing underlined it more fully than Young’s love and affection for Arthur, evident in every sentence spoken about him. It’s a message I think we need to hear, and hear loudly.

Young’s second answer was this: people like Arthur carry the pains and disabilities of the world in their bodies. And it is through these pains and disabilties that others – and no doubt they themselves – encounter God. Young spoke frequently of being ministered to by Arthur even as she served him by looking after his needs. The relationship is not a one-way matter of an able-bodied person serving someone more disadvantaged, but is deeply mutual. As Young served Arthur, she found herself ministered to by him. She received from Christ in the process of looking after Arthur because they were in relationship. He had no choice but to let her care for him, but that meant he could simply be, and be with those around him. As a result Young was adamant that we should not be afraid of the wilderness; “it is in the extremes of life that we discover God”. It might be true that we don’t know what Arthur gets, say, out of being in worship. But isn’t it also the case that, necessarily, being in God’s presence always, for everyone, means not understanding, simply because of who God is.

2014

2014