“Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:/
…myself it speaks and spells,/
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.”
– Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ
Community living includes facing together the mystery of death: saying good-bye, memorializing, and grieving – a process I experienced several times in my years of community living with adults with disabilities. I recently attended the memorial service for “David,” a former community mate who had died unexpectedly. As I grieved his passing and reflected on his life, several well-meaning friends offered as a consolation that David is in heaven now, free from the disabilities which challenged him his whole life.
I certainly understand that the idea of a loved one who has struggled with a physical or intellectual disability being freed from that disability in the hereafter can be deeply consoling. Yet somehow as people expressed this sentiment, it did not sit comfortably in me. Our own deepest intuitions as well as the wisdom of our faith tradition tell us that we are more than our physical bodies; there is a spiritual element which somehow transcends death. It is important to err always on the side of humility in the face of life’s great mysteries, of which death is arguably the greatest, and not fall into simplistic thinking or biblical literalism.
I find myself engaging in that mystery in the face of David’s death. I can’t avoid wrestling with those questions we inevitably ask when a loved one dies: how does that person remain with us in some non-physical way? What are we saying in the creed when we claim to believe in the resurrection of the body? How do we understand eternal life? Given David’s disabilities, these questions take on an added dimension.
In my ponderings, I invited into the conversation medieval Franciscan theologian Duns Scotus with his concept of haecceitas: the property that uniquely defines an object, its “being-ness,” “thisness” or “suchness.” With Scotus, we claim to be created in God’s image and likeness; that we – and all created things – are unique, unrepeatable, one of a kind. My sense is that our haecceitas is not some perfect ideal, but includes all of our being: our quirks as well as our passions, our weaknesses as well as limitations, our handicaps (and we all have them – diagnosed or not!) as well as our strengths.
To love and be in community with another is to know something of that haecceitas – the good, the bad, the ugly, and everything in between. When I reflected on that unique “being-ness” of people with disabilities with whom I’ve shared life, their disabilities and how they deal with them are woven into that “being-ness.” Certainly, we are infinitely more than our limitations – whether they be a mental health diagnosis, an intellectual disability, a visual impairment or any of the myriad other challenges which come with this messy, beautiful experience of being human. And yet our limitations, how we respond to them, and how they shape us are undeniably a part of us, part of that unique haecceitas. The idea of eternal life is impoverished if we envision it simply as our own and others’ perfection, the attainment of all the ideals we could not fully reach in this life. The eschatological hope of God’s Kin-dom is certainly broader and more magnificent than simply our own limited vision of what our “perfect” self might be.
David’s haecceitas includes his radiant smile, his love of Top 40 music, his bright laughter, his distaste at getting his hands dirty, his concern for others, his love for sushi and aversion to salad, kindness to children, and boredom at the “long poems” I shared in community. It also includes the hesitancy with which he walked because of his vision impairment, and how that hesitancy would lead him to reach for my arm when we walked down a flight of stairs. It also includes the speech impediment that required patience from him and others which led him to learn American Sign Language and write carefully crafted notes to others to communicate his needs, wants, hopes, and gratitude. It also includes his hands which – though they appeared so fragile because of a problem with connective tissue – baked bread, created art, held a spoon to feed a community member unable of feeding herself, and performed countless other acts of creativity and service.
I celebrate and remember with warmth all these (and so many more!) elements of David’s haecceitas and trust that all of them are a part of his identity as God’s beloved. Though the challenges his disabilities created were undeniable, they are still pieces in the mosaic of this lovely, unique, never-to-be-repeated man. To imagine David in the great beyond – however it is imagined in our finite, human minds – without those mosaic pieces is, I believe, to do a disservice to his spirit and to diminish the greatness of his love-filled life.
I dare to believe that in the eyes of God all of us is beautiful – even those elements which limit and challenge us, those elements which we and others wish weren’t there. Somehow I find myself hoping that those elements are somehow included in that mysterious beatific vision. That in the fullness of time our shortcomings and frailties do not disappear but are held in that great, creating and re-creating Love and so made new (Rev 7:17).
I hold to this hope for David – and for all of us – in the paradoxical words of poet James Broughton in his poem Easter Exultet: “nothing perishes; nothing survives; everything transformed!”
About the author: Rhonda Miska (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004) and a graduate of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Originally from Wisconsin, her past ministries include accompaniment of the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, Muslim-Christian dialogue, social justice education, direct outreach to people who are homeless, congregation-based community organizing, and coordination of a community with adults with intellectual disabilities. She is currently a Partner in Mission with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary at the Villa Maria Education and Spirituality Center in Villa Maria, Pennsylvania.