Ours is a world in which many seek to define themselves according to their particular disability. The crutch becomes a pillar of self-identity, the wheelchair the vehicle toward a hope in a kind of empty sympathy disguised as kindness. In short, ours is a world with very little overarching vision regarding the purpose behind sickness and suffering, and a world that struggles with the notion of whether or not there exists such a vision.
Over against those who suffer from sickness stand those who view these ailing as useless. Sickness equals uselessness in a world such as ours with its utilitarian tendencies. Sickness, at best, causes one to be ignored, to be swept under the societal rug; at worst, “gotten rid of” or “put out of their misery” via euthanasia or worse. (One only need examine take a second look at the historical trends of these, the twentieth and twenty-first century.)
Yet, there are still many more in our world who offer a radically different alternative to both of these moral positions. These saints remind us that there is, indeed, a vision that makes sense of sickness and of the suffering brought on by ridicule, by restriction, by being ignored or unwanted. This is the vision offered by God in Christ, who suffered as “the image of the invisible God” on earth (Col. 1:16). These saints remind us that in Christ, suffering is counted as transformative and redemptive. In taking up their cross, they help us recognize that the pain we experience is not merely “our cross to bear” (a cheap phrase that melodramatizes “suffering”). Rather, pain is an avenue through which we become conformed into Christ’s image, granted that we understand it through the lenses given to us by our Lord.
I name such people saints because each and every one of those who claim Christ as Lord of their lives are afforded such a title. We Christians are all sinner-saints, in whom the grace of Jesus Christ is working toward our sanctification, as we conform our will to his. However, there are some among this communion of saints who make manifest the presence of Christ in thought and word and action on a truly consistent basis. There are some who in having conformed their wills more totally and fully to Christ have allowed his light to shine that much more brightly in and through their lives. I find, too, that most of these particular saints are they who have undergone suffering and embraced and understood its purpose in the Christian life. They have understood in the midst of their suffering that Christ is faithful to complete the good work that he began in them from the very first as new creations.
In my own life, one such saint was my grandmother, Radene Fowler Christian. Today, October 31, 2017, marks the second anniversary of her realization of what true life looks like. Yes, she is no longer present in the flesh. But, I am filled with the utmost confidence that each one of us who are in Christ will be rejoicing with her when Christ comes in his glory. Though she is, for now, departed, I want to reflect some on her life, what it meant to me, and what it can mean for us who still have the opportunity to continue living into the reality that is Christ in us, our hope of glory, and the hope of the world.
Radene Christian was courageous. Her courage was most manifested in her battle with a disease that she contracted at the age of seven, namely polio. By most standards, her situation would be considered unfortunate at best. She was a part of the generation of young children who contracted polio prior to the development of the polio vaccine. Polio, in many ways, radically altered the course of my grandmother’s life. She spent the entirety of her second grade year in the hospital, underwent painful physical therapy throughout her younger life, multiple surgeries in middle school, and wore corrective braces on her legs. Add to that her living in a household with an abusive drunkard father who was verbally and, at times, physically abusive, and you might consider her lot to be one most unfortunate.
Nor did the end of her childhood mean the end of her struggles. Her mobility was limited as she walked with a crutch during her middle school and high school days, during which she had to take a special entrance into school. There were activities in which she simply could not participate. There were quotidian tasks that were harder for her than for most. In the latter portion of her life, a wheelchair gave her a new challenge to meet. She suffered falls that proved to be somewhat debilitating, and near the very end of her life, complications from pneumonia that cause her to go into cardiac arrest twice: the second time being the very last.
But, even in light (and not in spite) of all these particular struggles, Radene Christian was one of the most joyful people that I had the privilege to know. The joy that my grandmother demonstrated was a truly Christian joy in that she did not chase after the kind of ephemeral happiness that many (if not most) in our time seek out on a daily basis, much to their disappointment. In a sense, it was not given to her to chase after such ephemeral things. I firmly believe that in and through the more difficult existence she led, she was given a gift: an opportunity to let Christ be and fill all in all.
The fullness of Christ poured out of her like sunrays. She possessed a holy understanding of what it meant to endure pain under the banner of Christ, and was, by this understanding, able to share in the sufferings of those around her in a truly empathetic way.
She was able to ponder and pour of the matters of utmost importance in life without bitterness at her condition, but only thankfulness to God for the life that she considered to be one of the greatest gifts God had bestowed upon her.
She loved fiercely, and she loved widely: it was not only her husband, her children, and her grandchildren that had the gift of her love. The recipients of Radene Christian’s love are too many to count. She looked on none with preconceived notions or prejudice, but loved the other as they were: images of the divine.
More than anything, she loved her God. Radene Christian’s faith was utterly unshakable. I will never forget my grandfather’s telling me one of the first things my grandmother said to him following her first episode of complications from her sleep apnia. She told him that she was, at the time, fully ready to meet her Maker, Christ himself. Even in the middle of trying time after trying time, my grandmother demonstrated a faith that was firmly founded: a faith that continually inspires me toward faithfulness.
In short, I would say that I have met few like Radene Christian. However, there are two particular characters that, in my view, are her kindred spirits.
The first of these is one Flannery O’Connor, who happens to be one of my literary heroines. Flannery herself suffered from lupus, a fatal and incurable illness that attacks and shuts down the nervous system. But, O’Connor simply refused to make lupus the defining center of her life. In this particular vein, she showed a firey spunk and resolve that was most certainly characteristic in my own grandmother: a spunk that comes out all over her prose. More than that, in and through her fiction (and her nonfiction, both of which I commend to your extensive reading), O’Connor communicated a deeply Christian vision of reality, in which Christ himself is clearly present even in the midst of what the world might well call “grotesque” or “ugly.”
One particular example that comes to mind from O’Connor’s body of work is her “Memoir for Mary Ann,” who was a young girl with neuroblastoma that lived in a convent of care-taking Catholic sisters. In this particular essay, O’Connor deals with the issue of the suffering of children: something that, in the mind of many, plants seeds of doubt regarding the goodness of God. In fact, one might well extend O’Connor’s thoughts to suffering writ large, for our world is one that, in many cases, cannot deal with even the thought of suffering, much less the fact that children do, indeed, suffer. Suffering, for much of the world (and even, let’s be honest, for many Christians), is a suggestion that God might not be as good as he claims to be.
However, O’Connor flips this world’s notion on its head in this essay. It is the world, she says, that does not understand the fact that Mary Ann, whose eye is popping out due to her cancer, provides an example, an image of Christ himself. The world does not want to look at Christ and see him as the Suffering Servant. They would rather look at him as a practitioner of some kind of abstracted tenderness and sentimental, saccharine love. But, Jesus himself refuses to be seen in this way, a refusal that is made evident in his call to the disciples to deny themselves, take up their own cross, and follow him. Jesus’ love, Jesus’ tenderness are practiced in terms of his life as the suffering God. Shockingly, O’Connor argues that we too often want to “detach” tenderness from the Source of tenderness, a practice which she claims leads to the most egregious evils of the world, such as the gas chambers of Nazi Germany.
O’Connor, like Radene, was one who had eyes to see through the lenses of the suffering Christ. She was able to understand that her identity was not rooted in a crutch, a crippled leg, or a wheelchair. Her identity, rather, was rooted in him who had gone before her in her pain and in her struggle, and helped her to radiate his presence to others around her even in the midst of such pain.
The second comparison I want to make has to do with a young man in the Bible named Mephibosheth. Mephibosheth was the son of Jonathan, King David’s closest and most trusted friend. Following Jonathan’s death and David’s ascent to the throne of Israel, David sought out anyone left of Jonathan’s household that he might bless them. Mephibosheth, being the only son left in Jonathan’s house, was brought before David, though he had lived as a crippled beggar all his life. In fact, he had been that way since birth because his caretaker had dropped him, and the fall had broken both of his legs. Crippled existence was the only existence Mephibosheth had ever known. Even still, King David followed through on his promise, and provided Mephibosheth with a seat at the king’s table: a place that would be his for the rest of his days.
I see the parallels between this story and that of my grandmother as unmistakable, and applicable to each and every one of our lives. Mephibosheth had been broken from the very start in the physical sense: a breaking that he had no real control over whatsoever. However, despite his lowly estate, despite his being broken, the king chose to bless him, to take him in and sit him at his table. So, too, does Christ the King take us as sinners broken from the very beginning of our lives (both in body and in soul) and offer us his saving grace, which is that alone that provides us a place at his eternal table.
To me, Saint Radene of Houston, Texas exemplifies the way in which we are to live into that gift of grace which Christ has so freely offered us. She exemplifies the courage it takes to live in the garment of costly grace: grace that will be found, but found in the midst of hardship. But, moreover, she exemplifies a joyful life in the sense that her joy was found in the Giver of Joy, whose face she now beholds and worships joyfully for all eternity.
May it be so with us, as well. Amen.