Finding God through difference

Published 12 October 2018


Originally published by America Magazine on October 9, 2018

A few months ago I attended Mass in the inner city of Chicago. Before the service, I went to the bathroom. Standing at the sink was a middle-aged man with Down syndrome. When he saw me, he cupped his hands, filled them with water, splashed me several times, let out a giant laugh and ran out of the room.

I should pause to mention that, before this happened, I was feeling particularly holy. I am a new Catholic, which means I am smarter and better than everyone else. I was also in town for the weekend and had gone to the trouble of finding a church, dressing up and praying the rosary before Mass. Practically a saint.

But now, I was soaked. I dried off as best I could and went back to Mass. Later, during the sign of the peace, the man who had splashed me, along with a dozen of his friends with disabilities, ran around the church shaking everyone’s hand. No one was spared. This took about 10 minutes. And yet, as I looked around, no one seemed to think it was weird. This was simply what happened every Sunday. I smiled, felt my shoulders drop and for the first time at the service, felt that I was home.

I am a comedian, but before I got my start in stand-up, I worked with people with intellectual disabilities for 15 years. What I miss most about that time is exactly what I experienced in that church in Chicago: the beautiful anarchy, the mayhem, the mess, the constant state of surprise.

I have no patience for sentimentality. People with intellectual disabilities are, in a very real sense, intrusions. Few parents hope to have a disabled child. They cost more money. They make lots of noise. They break the rules. They ruin our plans. They make a mess. They work too slowly. Everything takes forever. And just when you think you have got everything figured out, they prove you wrong and drag you back to reality.

They are as the founder of L’Arche, is fond of calling them, “friends of time.” I lived in a L’Arche community for three years. To share life in this way requires giving up the idea of how things “should” go. It means slowing down. It means planning your day and then throwing away that plan an hour later. It means abandoning the hurried and rigid schedules of modernity and patiently entering into another’s world, what The Washington Post writer Elizabeth Bruenig has called “participating in the rhythm of life with joy.”

This is hard—very hard. Our culture does not make it easy to welcome intrusions. Avoiding such inefficiencies is baked into liberalism itself. We have worked to replace a social order built on a rich web of unchosen obligations with a series of voluntary relationships entered into by rational, sovereign, independent individuals. And once our obligations are reduced to only those to which we have freely consented, we cannot help but regard the uninvited presence of the other as an intrusion.

It is no mystery, then, why close forms of community, particularly the extended family, have collapsed in the West. After all, you do not choose your parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, ancestors or heritage. You can choose whether to have children, but you cannot (yet) choose what they will be like. You can choose a spouse, but you do not get to choose how that person will change. Over time, he or she will become a different person. And so will you. In the end, every marriage is an arranged marriage.

So whether it is the disabled, the unborn, the elderly, the poor, the refugee or anyone else, our attitude is often the same: We did not agree to this. This was not part of the plan. They are burdens. And they are. But we are all burdens. We were once burdens, and we will be burdens again.

And I cannot help but see a connection between this attitude and the decline of religion in the West, between our frantic attempts to protect our lives from intrusion and our refusal, unlike Mary and Joseph, to welcome God, whom we did not choose and who has shown himself to be nothing if not intrusive.