Stephen D’Evelyn on Human Perfection and the Church

In Confessions, Augustine describes how God calls to us. Fragrance, taste, and desire orient us:

‘Come, O Lord, and stir our hearts. Call us back to yourself… Let us scent your fragrance and taste your sweetness. Let us love you and hasten to your side.’
(Penguin Classics ed., p. 163).

I have a clerical friend who works  to normalize the sorts of difference the Church often struggles with. Today he wrote to me about more general questions of vocation. He noted, seemingly without irony, that the church has very high demands of ministers and that spreadsheets, social media, confidence, and punctuality seem at least as important as prayer and spirituality.

This took me back to a time a few months ago when I felt rather stuck spiritually. I kept running into an tension between spirituality (in the sense of prayer practices and participation in the life of God) and class: if one believes in the validity of ritual and matter as conduits for grace, it is too easy to get sucked into a kind of perfectionism thinking that the SORTS of matter and ritual must approximate the divine—be humanly perfect, or as close as possible—to be effective. This misses a crucial point, that God is working through matter and ritual.
Disability brings this into focus since disabled people deviate from the artificial norm of human perfection constructed by ‘perfect’ (‘able-bodied-and minded’ people) and do things in ways that draw attention to that difference.

To me this is exactly why disabled people ought to be ministers of the sacraments. They are visibly broken open to grace and can incarnate Christ’s alternative to the will to power. It could be argued that able-bodied priests run the risk of perpetuating that will to power by seeming hierarchically, socially, and ontologically superior to the laity.

In fact it seems to me that the understanding of the sacraments, as in Thomas, lets us see how there must always be a tension and never a simple superiority, a tension that can lead to a kind of attentive mindfulness and dwelling in the midst of God’s glory.  All the varieties of how we experience our minds and bodies in relation to society — designed and maintained by people with normative minds and bodies  — help us be more fully aware of all human being in the middle. Disability especially so. Paying attention to differences we then become more sensitive to the scent, taste, and love of God in the world.


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