Stephen D’Evelyn on Disability, Skepticism, and the Opening of the Self


With New Year’s upon us, our thoughts may turn to the passing of the year and to our own mortality. So too we may consider possible New Year’s resolutions and simultaneously feel a pang of regret or scepticism about the likelihood of keeping our resolutions.

It seems to me that scepticism is a kind of faith in the self. That is, we must trust the self even though it is really no-thing, defending it against all comers. The self is the focus of attention. The self must be preserved from vulnerability. So we doubt anything other than the self.
When we are disabled by society, this gets complicated. We routinely encounter vulnerability. We cannot tell the difference between a king and a bishop when playing chess with our six-year-old son. We get eye-strain headaches from the brilliant mobile phone and tablet computer screens that seem to flash at us everywhere. We feel cautious about our surroundings. We can’t quite trust we won’t get hurt. But we also have to trust, have to trust our children to help us play chess. We cannot afford to make the self the isolated and protected centre. It has to be permeable and to love as well as wounded by pain, open to love and help freely given. We cannot freeze the self. We have to let things happen. We have to let time pass.

We find ourselves in between. Disability, temporary as well as enduring, may afford more intensive experiences of being in the middle — in the middle of physical variety and societal conditions, but also between life now and what lies beyond:

‘…a lifetime of disappointment, of skepticism, of bitterness, of unbelief can dull the spontaneous surge of the love of eternity in us. It is so mysterious—as is our deepest self-love, and not only our deepest loves of others—that we come to find it hard to credit it. A life has clogged the more original porosity of living; we think we more truly live, but the artery bringing blood to the heart of the soul is laboring to allow the flow. There are no boundaries in the true flow of life, not even the boundaries between life and what is beyond life now…’

Desmond, William, The Intimate Universal: The Hidden Porosity Among Religion, Art, Philosophy, and Politics (Insurrections: Critical Studies in Religion, Politics, and Culture) (Kindle Locations 6585-6589). Columbia University Press. Kindle Edition.

What is this “more original porosity of living”?

Desmond writes of “clogging.” This seems built in to being human in all its vaiety. We may feel pain because bits of us get tired or don’t work as we would like. We may feel pain realising the children are growing up or realising we won’t ever really get to play the guitar the way we once hoped we would. We may feel pain watching out parents get older.

But finding we cannot help but be open–we cannot wall the self in with scepticism–we may find ways to feel the passage of time more deliberately. Making adjustments, we may get to know the “more original porosity of living” — the more original connectedness of all things. Not seeing as well, we may touch more sensitively. We may feel and touch more intimately, and not try to hold on to time passing but sense the motion and the change, like body-boarding in Cornwall some sunny summer afternoon with that big swell swelling beneath us as we feel the pull of time. We may well sense a “more original” community than that we’ve come to expect. That original community is the primal gift of life: to be open to that is to be open to the gift itself.
So I will try to resolve to be open and not skeptical, to beliieve the wave is coming even as I know I may fall off.


Stephen D’Evelyn on the Season

This morning sipping tea and nibbling a mince pie, I reflect on the cliched trivia of the ‘festive season’. Long practices of monastic prayer help us see daily life’s spirituality. For me these days this takes the form of daily prayer with a podcast. I feel myself being returned to see the world afresh as filled with God’s glory. In the Christmas season full of family tensions and consumerist pressures this is a particular challenge with particular rewards.

Christmas Eve morning
full moon glowing steadily
into those empty bins

Stephen D’Evelyn on Mary’s Independence

Independence is a big deal. When you are disabled, it can take on overtones that non-disabled people may not hear. Is ‘independence’ doing more with less money? (See the so-called Personal Independence Payment that replaced the more adequate Disability Living Allowance.) Does it mean doing it all on your own, for better or worse, whether things are arranged to allow you to or not? Or does it mean perhaps having the capacity to do things or not if you would like to?
Disability History Month happens to overlap the Christian season of Advent. In Advent we may pay particuclar attention to the Blessed Virgin Mary. She takes centre stage as we wait expectantly for the coming to Jesus at Christmas.
In the story of the Annunciation, when Mary is told by the archangel Gabriel that she will be the mother of God’s Son, Mary is portrayed as playing a pivotal role in that momentous event. She is described as ‘troubled–the Greek word is also used for deliberation, for weighing things up. Mary does not acquiesse unquestioningly. She weighs up the wager. Should she say yes to becoming pregnant before she is married, running the risk of being driven out of her town, perhaps even stoned to death for adultery?
This is a stark moment of independence for a disabled person. True Mary is not ‘disabled’ in our sense–and we may recall that ‘pregnancy’ is a ‘protected characteristic’ in the law alongside ‘disability’, and not included in ‘disability’.  But she has been disabled by her society which discriminates stringently against unmarried pregnant women. She is certainly at a distinct disadvantage. I think Mary shows real independence, however. By taking the leap of imagination of believing the angel, she finds the strength to envision that she CAN take this strange event and run with it, or let it run away with her.

Mary is not ‘independent’ in the sense of being left on her own, exactly. She still has her relations–she goes to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth who is among the first to acknowledge the momentous event:  ‘Who am I that the mother of my Lord should visit me?’ She is not ‘independent’ in the sense of having to do more with less, a la the Personal Independence Payment. Mary is however ‘independent’ in that she stnds in a pivotal position. She holds the power to decide, to determine what happens. Perhaps disabled people here can find not just a sort of model but a special ally, someone we know stands with us because she has been there, and still is there, disadvantaged yet filled with prophetic insight and courage, made beautiful with God’s transforming beauty, pronouncing the topsy-turvy message of Christ, divinity recongising lowliness, making the last first.

Stephen D’Evelyn on Advent: Mary the Magnifier

This morning I represented a Union member in a bullying and harassment case. The staff member had been off on sick leave for several months due to a mental health condition triggered by far-reaching and long-running problems of behaviour by colleagues.

Repeatedly the HR officer tried to dwell on the fact that the staff member had been off sick wtih stress. Repeatedly I pointed out that the issue lay not with a medical condition with which an individual suffers but with the culture in which they were working.

These days I have been newly aware of the approach of Advent. This Sunday is Advent Sunday. Several participatnts in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults in which I am taking part will be presented to the congregation in the so-called rite of acceptance–they will (or may not) accept the premise, as it were, of becoming part of the Church and the Church will accept them.

Advent for me is also a time of particular pondering on and with the Virgin Mary. I went to work with the almost-rococo flourishes of the Magnificat as sung by Nóirín Ní Riain ringing in my headphones. Something from a recent RCIA session came back to me: Mary magnifies the Lord.

For those of us wtih a visual impairment, magnifiers are tricky things. They can of course be really helpful and wonderful. Magnifying does not change what you are looking at but it enables you to see it up close. In a sense it changes the conditions in which you see what you’re looking at. Mary is like that for me. She helps me see God differently.
And for me that sort of change is at the heart of the situation I tried to help with this morning. By reminding the HR officer that the issue in question was how we looked at the workplace situation, I hope I helped magnify the matter so we could see more of it. It was not the fault of the Union member that the situation had caused her to need to go off. To see this, however, requried a kind of magnification.

As I say, magnifiers can be tricky things. My heavy reading glasses not only make typeface look big to me, but make my eyes look very big to the endless amusement of our children. For me, Mary full of God’s transforming beauty–the word rendered ‘grace’ in Greek suggests beauty as well as favour and status– magnifies the Lord that way, allowing me to see more of God and maybe to be seen more as well.

Stephen D’Evelyn on Rediscovering Humanity through Liturgy

At the close of the US Election campaign, Donald Trump exhorted the American electorate to vote to fulfil their dreams. Again and again after the election the media have talked about how people have longed for a simpler, better time. Trump seems to have used a marketing technique of strong images that may not be connected or add up to a coherent picture to gain public attention. The quetion of how fantasy and reality relate seems to run throughout the Presidential campaign.

Yesterday evening at Mass it struck me that liturgy opens up ways of realising reality in many dimensions — length of our steps be they hobbling or striding, breadth of Christ’s arms stretched on the cross and of our arms reaching out to each other and stretching out to receive Communion, heights of heads erect and bowed and of sky, time of syllables and of breath. Our spirits are constantly reconfigured by these distances.

Reality in its fantastic variety and complexity is the obverse of fantasy projected onto reality in desperate wilful hope. It seems to me that desperate wilful hope is what is at the root of the UK Independence Party in the UK, Trump in the US, the Freedom Party in the Netherlands, the Front National in France, and so on. Regular people certainly do have legitimate grounds for resenting globalisation. Some liberal commentators were largely dismissed for suggesting that globalisation was at the root of the disempowerment that Islamic fundamentalists have been tapping into. Maybe it’s part of that same trend, though.

We will have to see how the tension between globalisation and the widespread desire for more local identity and control plays–if not for a simply simpler, better time–plays out. It seems to me that globalization involves, at least as portrayed in purely negative views,  a loss of particular reality –local community, connection to means of production–in favour of abstract transnational financial power fuelled by consumer culture–what we might call empty images.

In experience human contact and human “being” exceeds the promises of  consumerist images. Humanity goes beyond first impressions. Disabled people show this most clearly. If we are to relate fully to each other in all of our variety we must go beyond first impressions. A Paralympic athlete may impress us because she achieves so much when seeming so impaired. But maybe the old lady in the wheelchair whose carer struggles to get her onto the bus is just as important. Her mundane life is not as attractive to our fantasy because she is not going faster, further, or higher than what we would expect. Those expectations are calibrated to what able people do.

In short, it seems to me that connecting with deep reality in liturgy–length, breadth, height, time, touch, breath, change–is an antidote to Trump, UKIP, etc which seem poised to replace globalisation’s abstract power with the abstract power of nationalism. Instead of abstract power we can rediscover the power of particularity, not as abstract categories assumed to be worthwhile but as persons, breaths, words, touches, bread broken and exceeding bread, wine poired out for each and for all. We can respond to popularism as we redisocover being people.

Stephen D’Evelyn on All Souls and Trumpism

Today is the feast of All Souls. It falls in a season when we may have haerd about the Day of the Dead and the large-scaled public celebrations in Mexico City inspired by a recent James Bond film or the ancient Celtic holiday of Samhain. It also falls this year towards the end of the U.S. Presidential campaign.

All Souls is an occasion energized by love in peculiar contrast to our most common modes of order, chance and will. For at All Souls the Church explicitly celebrates those who are gone, those who have least purchase on power. Instead we enact and celebrate the community of open-ended history. Putting it that way may sound like sectarianism or tribalism. To me, All Souls offers a repost to tribalism. It affirms that what binds is not categories of power and exclusion, not chance and will, but generosity, a bigheartedness that sees beyond the present while delighting in each moment.

if there is more at work than tribalism, chance, and will in the workings of human beings and of being itself, then we may be called to behave towards each other and the origin of being in ways other than sheer will. Instead we may find an ethics, a metaphysics — a religious practice — of letting be.

This is particularly important to disability. In a world view defined by will, the strongest actors are the self-appointed actors of justice. But this justice is of course not the justice of defending the marginalized, evening things up, but of giving more to those who have more. Disability is defined by those who control culture and its norms. Disabled people therefore inevitably become marginal in systems of will.

As the US Presidential election approaches, it is all the more important to keep the problem of will in view. Mr Trump is a wheeler and dealer in will. His vision of power has widely been critiqued as lacking an understanding of pluralism. Putin’s praise is not misplaced. So as we sweep up the Halloween candy wrappers and consider the dead, let us remember the origins of being in letting be. Let us try to let there be forms of society and politics that enable love.

Stephen D’Evelyn: Beauty and Mr. Trump

Recently, a caller on a radio chat show simulcast in the UK and in the US asked didn’t Hilary Clinton supporters have better things to worry about than how Donald Trump talked about his exploits with women?

It seems to me that this is worth worrying about. The now-infamous ‘Inside Hollywood’ interview with Trump is significant not only because of its moral implications. It’s about how he sees power.

It fits a much wider trend. We — I included — have probably forgotten how Trump last November mocked a New York Times reporter’s disability:

Trump does not just objectify difference. He sees encounters with difference as occasions for mastery. His understanding of power–including presidential authority–depends on mastery and the binary of power and powerlessness.

For me, at least, the way of encountering the unique transcendent power that cuts through this binary is through the act of liturgy–the original meaning of the word suggests public offerings–and the relations of public, private, transcendent, and positive finite that delineate the Church as community. In this mystical community a fuller kind of wellbeing and relationality –a fuller kind of personhood and otherness– should be able to emerge, one that I continue to explore as a disabled person from a foreign land.

At its best, beauty can make us more aware of our own identity, others’ distinctness, and the ways we long both for more and for some sense of satisfaction and balance. I find this in the beauty of liturgy and elsewhere. Yet beauty can easily be misappropriated. In the now-infamous ‘Inside Hollywood’ interview, Trump speaks of being irresistably attracted to beautiful women. That attraction seems all too often to be what matters and not the persons themselves in their particularity. Trump seems unable to accept others as being other.

That otherness of others as other creatres a distance and relationality. Trump instinctively seeks to reduce this tension which we experience in recognizing otherness and yet feeling kinship with the person seeming to embody beauty’s otherness. Trump wants to replace tension with his mastery, reducing a person who confronts him with the otherness of beauty to an object to be possessed, fondled, used.

Trump’s vision is one of power and ability, of making America great again and making a big noise. This action-adventure approach has the effect of foregrounding human action. We lose a broader view that includes human action and what is other to it–I might call it divine otherness. What becomes important is the clarity of single zoomed-in images. We may think of commentators’ observations on pornography, the isolated image. Trump admits he cannot control himself around beautiful women. As we lose a broader view including human action and divine otherness, in turn we lose the perspective of distance. Trump seems consistently to try to avoid distance and eliminate it.

Yet when Trump encounters his ideal of feminine beauty, he seems to experience distance, a kind of lack deep inside. The connection of beauty, desire, and lack is a topic as old as Plato not to mention Homer’s Helen of Troy. We experience beauty and we long for more, finding that we feel an emptiness inside. When Trump encounters his ideal of feminine beauty, his vision of greatness may be undermined by emptiness. He seems to feel threatened. This threat also would be appear to be a kind of self-affirmation. The feeling of threat confirms the existence of Trump’s self in an otherwise empty world. (We remember this world is walled off from ways of being other.)

I think Trump may even need to feel threatened by encounters with his definition of feminine beauty; in those moments of threat his agonistic self is engaged. Trump’s lack seems to send him back to himself as a doer rather than to peace beyond individual experiences of lack. So he may never be open to the sense of being other which we find as we are perplexed and reflect. Trump thus seems never moved beyond those individual experiences of lack.

Trump appears to be caught between his self-image of action and ability and lack. His plight reveals that action’s opposite is not inaction but peace. Instead, he needs always again to encounter lack. This helps explain why there are so many instances of women whom Trump has abused. It also helps us understand why his image of action keeps recurring. Any hint of action defeated must be a conspiracy. It seems logical that evangelical Christians remain some of Trump’s most loyal supporters. Jesus is victorious. He is active. The Cross is empty. There is no troubling paradox of victory in defeat, love transforming hate, divine open wholeness in human brokenness – bread, wine, body. These supporters want a strong man. Trump cannot bear what he thinks of as weakness. That might just keep him out of power.