IT WAS an interfaith service and after various prayers were said, the leader noted: “The paths followed in our spiritual journeys may be different but all come to the same point: communication with an Almighty Force, greater than ourselves and complex beyond human understanding. There are various routes to the top of every mountain. But we find unity there.”
As a blind Catholic, that image of diverse paths toward a closer union with Christ has remained with me. As I pray alone or with my brothers and sisters, I am struck by the marvel of the sensory routes to the heart and soul of worship.
As one who can no longer follow the words printed on the slips of paper pressed into my hand nor contemplate the images that adorn the sanctuary and direct the thoughts of those about me toward a contemplative frame of mind, what occupies my senses and my mind? Are my unique physiological glitches really that unique? In addition to my blindness, I have lost hearing in my right ear and make use of a wheelchair for mobility. Are not adjustments to physiological limitations becoming more and more common, however?
While there would probably be general agreement that each of us is unique and comforted by differing signs of God's presence in our lives, there seems to be a sense that certain patterns of worship are appropriate for everyone. John Paul II reminded us in his apostolic letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente (On the Coming of the Third Millennium) of the importance of “the grace of Christian unity.” Where does that unity exist though?
Further study of John Paul's text is inspiring to those of us who seek accommodations for the diversity of functions we expect to find within every parish. For he notes that as we prepare for this wonderful jubilee, we need consider, “not just an inner joy but a jubilation which is manifested outwardly, for the coming of God is also an outward, visible, audible and tangible event…. It is thus appropriate that every sign of joy … should have its own outward expression.” He calls upon the Church to confirm its faithfulness by actions that “ensure that the power of salvation may be shared by all.”
The National Catholic Office for Persons with Disabilities has promoted that variety of “signs of joy,” encouraging the sharing of the Good News in forms and by means that are accessible to those with various limitations. As we seek those methods by which we can foster the spiritual development of our brothers and sisters with physical, sensory or cognitive limitations, we remind all who will contemplate the diverse channels through which the Good News is communicated that the blind will hear; the deaf will see and the cognitively disabled will be witness to the tangible signs of our shared jubilation. For when we make use of all the gateways to human hearts that God provides, each soul can come to ponder the mysteries of our faith in their unique way.
One might reasonably anticipate that some channels of prayer and worship might be less fulfilling for those of us who can not see the objects and movements that convey the non-verbal themes of our communal unity. As a former artist, I once imagined I missed the visual elements of worship more than anyone else could! I was reminded by a friend that the intensity of any loss seems greater to the one who actually experiences it.
While it is surely not wise to dwell upon the gaps in one's experiencing of any given moment, it seems appropriate to acknowledge losses and strategize ways to compensate for such limitations.
It is such an approach that has led to the advances in rehabilitation that have taken place in recent years. Within our spiritual lives, when one channel is closed it may be that those avenues of prayer still available become expanded and compensate for what might otherwise be missed; for God does not allow us to experience vacuums in our connections to Him.
I do not feel deprived as I sit among my fellow Catholics to pray. I sometimes crave the reinforcement that the symbols of our faith bring to our shared worship. The Cross above the altar, the carvings and mosaics; stained glass lessons illuminated by the sun; the candle light and flowers gathered in bouquets, the figures of the Blessed Mother and the saints and the colors of the vestments: these became a part of our tradition because of their pervasive significance. Without feeling sorry for myself, is it not possible to acknowledge that those of us who are not reminded of these time-honored signs of God's presence may long for substitution for the visual paths along which our consciousness may be guided to him?
This does not mean my communication with God, my Father, Christ, my Savior, Mary and those saints to whom I look for guidance and comfort, is in any way incomplete. They are as present to me as the air I breathe and no lack of function can remove them from my perception. For they are with me always.
I so love it when I can hear the Holy Water bubbling in a fountain and I crave the reckless flinging out of its healing reminder of God. There is a dash of disappointment when there is an insufficiency and the droplets do not touch my face or hands.
Recently I heard a liturgist remark: “We'll never have incense or gongs here!” It's hard to explain to those who are dedicated to the post-Vatican II freshness that I miss the wondrous “smells and bells” of the past. I sometimes wonder if the sighted members of my parish family are remotely aware of how blessed is the faint aroma of incense, the sound of the clanging chain upon the censer and the other hints of the presence of the Holy Trinity within our midst. When the Host is placed upon my tongue, there is no doubting of Christ's presence, but I crave the build-up to that climax.
I am convinced God does not allow the fragility of our bodies to destroy our ability to worship him. In fact, study of the saints would tend to confirm that the coming to the realization that the human spirit is more powerful than the container into which is poured the gift of life may assist in discernment of our unity with God. Consciousness of our shared fragility reminds us of our need for him and each other. We gather to share in the Eucharistic feast, not as totally independent or autonomous individuals but as essential members of the Body of Christ. None of us is complete except as we join with God. With that essential knowledge, that we are so intimately intertwined, I sometimes wonder why we do not work harder to explore the various avenues of worship that bring us to that table.
I am filled with joy when the altar server swings the censer with sufficient vigor that the metal chain clatters to tell of preparations to attend to the telling of the Good News. The scent of incense as it wafts upward and outward has carried a message of spiritual ascendance for centuries. When it fills the room and seems almost too strong I am reminded that God's presence in the air I am breathing is almost too powerful for me to incorporate into myself.
When it is time to share the sign of peace I silently pray for evidence of unity with those around me. For I am reminded of a repeated dream from my early blindness in which I wandered in gray clouds with arms outstretched, hopeful, yet fearful of encounters with others lost in that same fog. For it is eye contact that informs us if others are ready to share this moment of fellowship. I miss such visual clues. I must trust my fingers will find the hand of a companion on the journey of faith, reaching out, hopeful that the miracle of wholeness is present in our shared worship.
Upon a visit to a parish in a strange city, tears of joy filled my eyes when the beautiful reverberations of the bell marked that moment of the eucharistic miracle. I joined in prayerful wonder at that moment and this sign of God's love for us all. While I am used to estimating the moment when the Host is raised to be witnessed and worshipped by all present, I miss the brass reverberations that signal the incredible transformation.
That Sunday morning, as the ringing subsided and the prayers had been said, my joy continued as I advanced to join my brothers and sisters in moving forward to receive the Blessed Body of my Lord. I prefer it when I am not marked out for receiving at my place. For although I am also a wheelchair user, I much prefer to join in the procession of the faithful, moving forward in solidarity.
There was a loss when my failing eyesight could no longer follow the words on the song sheet. I love to sing—loudly. In fact, I have sometimes said my greatest disability may be my failure to follow the melody as I range far in search of harmonies that strike my ear as beautiful. Over the years I have grown tired of singing “la-la-de da” as I seek to harmonize my voice in joyful or sorrowful singing.
Then one day I found myself at a service that was audio-described. Up in the balcony, overlooking the visual stimulus below, sat a volunteer who softly whispered through an earphone the details of what others were observing. A short-range FM transmitter was sending her voice to a small receiver in my hand. It was the size of a pack of cards. She told of the movements of the celebrant and the look of the altar. This day I knew the colors of the robes, the details of the cross, the carved symbols on the altar and the shade of the flowers that were clustered at the steps. When the singing began, she was reciting the words to the next phrase of the hymn in that small space between refrains. For the first time in years I was hearing, feeling and singing each inspiring word which others were enjoying.
I'd forgotten how beautiful the words of our hymns can be. They are a part of the prayers of the faithful that I had sorely missed but seldom acknowledged.
What do I seek within liturgical celebrations? I want to be a fully participating member of the worship community. I want to experience the liturgy through means not reliant on vision. The rush of sensations independent of sight mark God's presence in our midst as we gather in unity: I rejoice when the sound of the bell rings out at the moment when Christ becomes present at his table; I long to feel the healing touch of God's living water on my face. Such invisible signs bring him to my consciousness to thrill me; the quiet whisper in my ear of words unread or symbols not glimpsed will be eagerly awaited.
I will rest content with the knowledge that God has made me, as he makes us all, in his image. I am complete and only seek the enrichment that can be provided when we join hands and hearts to promote meaningful inclusion for all.
Mary Jane Owen is executive director of the National Catholic Office for Persons with