Arthur’s Call: A journey of faith in the face of severe learning disability
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MANY people will know Frances Young’s 1985 book Face to Face, in which she told the story of her response as a mother and theologian to caring for her seriously brain-damaged and profoundly disabled son, Arthur, then 17, and reflected theologically on suffering.
Arthur’s Call is a further reflection on her journey of faith with Arthur, now in his mid-forties, and on the painful realisation that she and her husband could no longer look after him, and that he would need residential care.
Young writes about her son with love, sometimes in poems. Interwoven with the story are further profound theological reflections on her own journey of faith, “from grief to gratitude, from trauma to trust, from anguish to joy”.
Her links with the L’Arche community, and with Jean Vanier, its leader, give further understanding of what we can learn from people with a severe learning disability. In particular, she writes about Vanier’s exploration of “brokenness”, and the way the pain, brokenness, and death of Jesus bring healing.
Young explores the meaning of God’s creation and our creatureliness in the light of our human fragility and vulnerability, and especially the sense of God’s absence. The biblical understanding of wilderness is as a place of testing and doubt, but paradoxically also as a place where God meets people, as he did Jacob in his wrestling; and prayer is shifted from “Almighty God . . .” to “Loving Lord, Lord of compassion”.
Some of the traditional theories of atonement through the cross seem to take away God’s freedom. What does atonement mean for someone like Arthur? Through her long journey, Young comes to understand the cross personally in terms of redemptive suffering: “God, challenged to justify the awful things that happen in God’s own creation, is revealed there on the cross as taking responsibility for all the ‘gone-wrongedness’ by entering and bearing it all in the person of Jesus Christ. The sacrifice of Christ on the cross is about the kind of love that exposes the truth about our moral ambiguities . . . that stays with our pain.”
“I thank God”, she writes, “that Arthur has been the catalyst for deepening insights into this, the very heart of the gospel of Christ.”
This book isn’t an easy read, but it has depth — a beauty about it that is remarkable and life-affirming.
Sue Atkinson is the author of Struggling to Forgive (Monarch, 2014) and other books.