PRECIOUS TREASURE: THE STORY OF PATRICK

by Elizabeth Matthews

Emmaus Road, 2002

138 pages, $11.95

To order: (800) 398-5470

or http://www.emmausroad.org

This is not merely a book about a mother's love for her autistic son and her nine other children — although it attests to that seemingly limitless well of maternal care and affection. Nor is it a book about autism — although it sheds light on how this complex developmental disability is lived out in the 1.5 million American homes affected by the incurable neurological disorder. It is not even about the beauty of a devout Catholic family — although it provides satisfying glimpses into the Matthews' lively household and their warm relationships with their extended family, the Mystical Body of Christ.

Instead, this is about how a loving God can use suffering as a channel of grace in the lives of Christians. It shows how he gently kneads and molds a docile spirit in the details of day-to-day life — smoothing here, trimming there — until the mature believer is transformed into Christ.

While Elizabeth Matthews' examples derive naturally from her unique vantage point as wife, nurse and “triage” mother, they are also instructive to readers whose experiences are not even remotely similar to those encountered in the topsy-turvy world of an autistic child's home. Matthews puts it simply: “God always gives me a chance to learn a good lesson when I need one.” And, as she recognizes those lessons in mundane activities such as washing laundry, changing diapers, scrubbing bathrooms and embracing her lot in life, she shows others how to discern what God might be trying to teach them. (In the book's foreword, Kimberly Hahn includes a checklist for identifying these holy nudges.)

Each chapter begins with a heart-rending letter written by Matthews to Patrick during his first year at a special-needs school about two hours from the Matthews' home. Since Patrick cannot read, the letters were never mailed. But writing to Patrick seems to have proved cathartic for Elizabeth. These tender expressions, written to a child who will never understand their meaning, reveal the role of the author's faith, courage and devotion in making the best of a difficult situation.

Each letter is followed by a vignette about life with Patrick at home, intended, Matthews writes, “… to open the eyes of those who do not recognize the priceless gift of children in their lives, and to encourage those who do recognize the worth of children,” as well as to demonstrate “the many ways … God has used Patrick's special needs to draw our family closer to him.” The chapter titles form a litany of the lessons Patrick has enabled his mother to learn; the Bible references correspond to these in ways that shed new light on Scripture.

There are a few instances when Matthews arouses the reader's curiosity by mentioning an incident, then fails to tell how things turned out. The other minor flaw is that her writing is sometimes uneven — an easily forgivable shortcoming, considering that this supremely busy woman does 10 loads of laundry each day. It's a wonder she finds time to write at all.

How blessed we are that she did. Atheists have often cited the mystery of suffering as the main reason for their unbelief. Precious Treasure shows the great Christian paradox that suffering, when embraced with Christlike acceptance of God's will, can be a source of great joy, love and goodness.

Not a bad lesson to contemplate as we once again recall how the temporal pains of Good Friday gave way to the eternal glories of Easter Sunday.

Ann Applegarth writes from Eugene, Oregon.

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