What Withered Hands Can Heal: How John’s profoundly disabled body kept me in the game.

John’s body was less like mine than anyone else’s in the room.  In that room full of people with some very unique bodies and abilities, that was saying a lot.   It was the end of a weekend I spent on retreat with L’Arche, which is a set of communities of people with disabilities and the people who choose to build a life with them.

A picture of another celebration at L'Arche Antigonish, Canada

L’Arche retreats are celebrations that, in some ways, put Burning Man to shame in creating an environment where everyone can unapologetically  be themselves.  I knew the people in room were experts in living with unique limitations and gifts, but I still could not imagine how the evening would unfold in a way that John could fully play along.

Our procession began several yards from our meeting room in a wide stairwell that projected our songs through the building.   We danced shamelessly to music of a single flute and accordion.  This, surprisingly, rocked. We tied streamers on each other, but never to hide anything in the way people do when they dress for a date or the prom. Instead, we celebrated ourselves and our bodies just as we were.

Your hands are withered?  The blue and purple would go nicely around them, if I may.   You walk with metal braces on your legs?  They’ll look perfect with the green and yellow.  Doug, you’re a little pudgy in the middle?  How about all four colors?  We are exactly what we are right now.  Tonight we dance.

We marched like saints toward St Peter’s gate: skipping, hopping, and rolling without shame and also with a profound dignity.  We settled into groups in the meeting hall, which was now clobbered with candles, images and icons. These experts –  including people with disabilities – took time to make sure that every one of us could tell clearly, regardless of our ability, that this was a sacred space. And sacred things were about to happen here.

We gathered on our last night together to celebrate as Jesus had done with his disciples, by washing each other’s feet. It is an act of humility and grace to touch each other, and be touched.  The whole evening was so focused on full participation by the whole community. I wondered just how John was going to play his part.  It was easy to wash John’s feet.  But how on earth would he, with his very different body, wash another’s feet?

John’s body was so much different than mine that he really couldn’t sit in even a traditional wheel chair.   His chair was something more like a hammock hung from little parallel bars.  He had little control of his hands, and he certainly couldn’t kneel before someone. The best I could figure was that the group would find some subtle and dignified means to acknowledge his inability to participate in that aspect of the service and quietly move on.

Not a chance.

This community knows him. They know he is a doer, that he loves being on the dance team, and that he likes going on retreats. So they make it happen.   His friends know he is something like an adult version of the child in the classroom shoving his hands in the air and calling out, “Pick me! Pick me!”  Even though he cannot raise his hands or say those words, his friends have learned to hear him. “Here I am,” John says, “Send me.”  He, like all of us, wants people to know we are here and that we have something to give.

When it was John’s turn to serve, the group didn’t miss a beat.  It took nearly the whole group to make it happen but they launched into action without any hesitation as if they had done this a hundred times before.  Then I realized perhaps they had.  Like the six-winged angels in Isaiah, six of them swooped into place as if by habit.   Or better said, they swooped in to be the six wings so John could be the angel.  Two held his hands. Two held the bowl of water, and two raised someone’s feet to where John could reach them.

Even though at first glance, he seemed to lack the key elements to fulfill his vocation and his desire, they filled in the blanks to do as he asked.  “Send me,” he said.  So they found a way, and they sent him to serve.

This has been a tricky couple years for me.   Without question there was a time in which I was pretty sure God was done with me. I felt I had messed up everything in my vocation beyond repair, and I was going to be benched.  Done.  But then someone asks you to listen or just be with them.  Or someone calls you to help think something through.  Someone needs you.

Just as important, someone swoops in and cleans your room. Someone listens. Someone pushes your wheel chair. One part of the Body is asking me to help, and the other part is raising my hands so I can.

In life I can sometimes be more aware of my own disabilities and frailty than I am aware of my calling.   Clearly this is much more a problem for me than for God.  Somewhere there is a circle of people willing to hold the bowl before you and willing to lift your hands.  God has no bench. We are always on the field.

Certainly, Lent is a good time to reflect on areas in my own life where I am un-able or dis-abled to live to up to what God created me to be. But Lent  is also an important time to look at each other and to ask ourselves how are we living together.   Am I inviting the gifts of the whole community into my life?  Am I helping others to use what gifts they have?  Can I help you serve?  Can I lift your hands?

While I thought that John’s body was the least like mine than anyone else’s in the room, it turns out we are both part of the same Body.  We lift each other. We bring what we have. We receive what others bring to us.  We might even need to help them bring it. God has no bench. We are always, all of us, on the field.

Isaiah 6:1-8
 1 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. 3 And they were calling to one another:
   “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; 
   the whole earth is full of his glory.”

 4 At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. 5 “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”

 8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”

 And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”


  • Anthony Baker

    Thanks for this reflection, Doug. Since I can’t like it on Facebook, I’ll just like it.

  • theiconoclass

    Thanks for reading it. It is one of the more beautiful moments of my life and extrememly formative for me