The power of the powerless

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Father Ed Dougherty

By Father Ed Dougherty, M.M.
In 1985, Christopher de Vinck, a high school English teacher from New Jersey, published an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Power of the Powerless: A Brother’s Lesson.” His article told the story of growing up with a sibling who was severely disabled, and it garnered immediate responses from people who were inspired by his message of the value of the human person. “I grew up in the house where my brother was on his back in his bed for almost 33 years,” he writes. “Oliver was blind, mute. His legs were twisted. He didn’t have the strength to lift his head nor the intelligence to learn anything.”
Christopher explains that, when their mother was pregnant with Oliver, she was exposed to toxic fumes that made her pass out for a short time. When Oliver was born, he seemed healthy but his parents later discovered that he was blind, and he began to exhibit other problems. A doctor said that Oliver’s ailments would never heal and suggested they place him in an institution. “But he is our son,” their parents said. “We will take Oliver home.”
“Then take him home and love him,” the doctor said.
Along with his parents and siblings, Christopher tended to his brother, feeding him, changing his diapers, bathing him, and keeping him entertained. In so doing, Christopher gained a profound education on valuing the human person, regardless of situation or station in life.
In his article and the subsequent book he wrote entitled “The Power of the Powerless: A Brother’s Legacy of Love,” Christopher recounts the way in which Oliver’s presence made an impact on him at an important moment in his life. In his early 20s, he fell in love with a girl and brought her home to meet his family. He had previously told her about Oliver, and, during her visit, he asked if she would like to meet him. Her answer was a flat, “No.”
Christopher then writes, “Soon after, I met Roe, a lovely girl. She asked me the names of my brothers and sisters. She loved children. I thought she was wonderful. I brought her home after a few months to meet my family. Soon it was time for me to feed Oliver. I remember sheepishly asking Roe if she’d like to see him.
‘Sure,’ she said. I sat at Oliver’s bedside as Roe watched over my shoulder. I gave him his first spoonful, his second. ‘Can I do that?’ Roe asked with ease, with freedom, with compassion, so I gave her the bowl and she fed Oliver one spoonful at a time. The power of the powerless. Which girl would you marry? Today Roe and I have three children.”
Christopher’s story gives witness to the way grace can work through those who are suffering when we open our hearts and our lives to them. Oliver’s presence was a gift to the de Vinck family, because it made them compassionate people. This kind of education in compassion is what all parents should seek for their children. It is an invaluable life lesson that teaches people to recognize the good in others and discern the right path in relationships.
Recalling his brother’s life, Christopher wrote, “Oliver still remains the weakest, most helpless human being I ever met, and yet he was one of the most powerful human beings I ever met. He could do absolutely nothing except breathe, sleep, eat, and yet he was responsible for action, love, courage, insight.”

(For free copies of the Christopher News Note The Enduring Value of People with Disabilities write: The Christophers, 5 Hanover Square, New York, NY 10004; or e-mail: mail@christophers.org)

Lawmakers should focus on tax, wage reforms

Father Ed Dougherty

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Father Ed Dougherty, M.M.
St. Paul wrote, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:11-13)
The secret of contentedness that St. Paul refers to is all about having gratitude to God for the gift of life itself. One particular story exemplifying this kind of gratitude is that of Justin Skeesuck and Patrick Gray, two life-long friends who traversed the 500-mile Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail in northern Spain despite Justin’s confinement to a wheelchair.
“I’ll Push You” is a documentary chronicling Justin and Patrick’s journey across the Camino, and earlier this year the book version of their story won a Christopher Award. “I’ll Push You” details their harrowing yet joyful trek along rocky and sometimes muddy trails, over mountains, and down winding roads to reach Santiago de Compostela.
At one point in their journey, Justin says, “You know, it’s inevitable we all die at some point. But I’m making the best of it now.” Suffering from a rare autoimmune disease that has left him paralyzed and uncertain how long he will live, Justin must allow Patrick to push, pull and carry him all the way to Santiago de Compostela, where their wives await them after being apart for several weeks.
They cross mountain ranges, pass through old world cities like Pamplona and Leon, follow trails through vineyards, and make pit stops at ancient Cathedrals and monasteries.
Justin talks about the difficulty of having to rely on the assistance of Patrick and other generous travelers who help along the way, but then later he shares a profound realization, saying, “When you deny someone that opportunity to help you, you deny them the joy in life.”

I’ll Push You

Padre Pio once said, “In all the events of life, you must recognize the Divine will. Adore and bless it, especially in the things which are the hardest for you.” He meant that God can draw good out of all things, and Justin’s realization demonstrates his recognition of the good being drawn from his suffering.
Reflecting on the natural desire for independence that his condition has forced him to let go of, Justin says, “Once I’ve let that go, love can flourish and there’s this weird beauty that lies around that.” Understanding the insight this love has brought to him, he says, “I’d love to have my independence back, but I’m kind of wondering, if I got that back, would my life change and would love change, in that aspect? And would I trade it for that? I’m not so sure.”
Justin’s gratitude for the gift of life regardless of his condition sets an example for us all. He has achieved that state that St. Paul speaks of in terms of knowing how to live with abundance as well as sacrifice.
When we begin to appreciate life in all its stages — the joys and sorrows, pleasures and pains, moments of triumph and even defeat — we realize that God is utilizing all our experiences to draw us closer to His love. So embrace every moment of life with a heart open to transformation, and you will be content in knowing that God is leading you through it all to a state of everlasting joy.

(For free copies of the Christopher News Note THE ENDURING VALUE OF PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES, write: The Christophers, 5 Hanover Square, New York, NY 10004; or e-mail: mail@christophers.org.)

Patience keeps us connected to God

Father Ed Dougherty

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By Father Ed Dougherty, MM
Helen Keller once said, “We could never learn to be brave and patient, if there were only joy in the world.” After contracting an illness in childhood, Keller was left deaf and blind for the rest of her life. With the help of her teacher, Anne Sullivan, she broke through the isolation that her condition imposed upon her and went on to become a writer and lecturer. Her amazing resilience is a testament to the power of the human spirit to remain patient throughout a lifetime of struggle.
Patience is one of those intangible virtues that we can only gain through perseverance in the face of trials. Keller’s line about suffering providing opportunity to build character traits such as bravery and patience demonstrates how much she came to value the strength of spirit she cultivated in taking on personal challenges. Patience provides endurance amidst suffering and the wisdom to know how and when to take action.
The early Christian theologian Tertullian once said, “Hope is patience with the lamp lit.” What beautiful insight into the path that patience can lead us along when we allow the fire of the Holy Spirit to kindle within our hearts. That fire can direct our thoughts towards God in spite of the hardships of life, resulting in a heart filled with the hope of Christ.
Life often does not go the way we want it to, and we all face moments of profound frustration and disappointment. It takes patience to remain connected to God throughout the trials we face in order to be guided along the path we are intended to follow. The Christophers have a beautiful meditation on patience that highlights the importance of this virtue. It reads:
“Patience is a stillness that reaches deep within the human soul. It connects us with God by allowing us to pause and reflect on our actions. A patient heart waits for the resurrections that Christ effects in our lives, reviving us to a life of joy. Patience is the tender reaction of one heart to another. It is the essence of love.”
The patience we cultivate in waiting on God to guide us through difficult times prepares us to reach out to others in a loving manner. This mercy that we extend to the world is one of the great fruits of the Holy Spirit. God wants to work through us to bring good into the world, and it is only through patience that we are able to recognize the needs of others and realize the call to serve.
Patience enables us to deepen the bonds of friendship, family, and community life. These are the treasures that await all who have a clean heart in their interactions with others. Christ said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
We store up treasures in heaven when we put the good above all else, and it takes patience to do that in this world where temptation and adversity await us at every turn. So remember to be patient amid the struggles of life so that we can recognize the treasures of heaven and allow God to guide us along the path of true and lasting joy.

(Father Ed Dougherty is on the board of Directors for the Christophers. For free copies of the Christopher News Note LIVING JOYFULLY IN A STRESSED-OUT WORLD, write: The Christophers, 5 Hanover Square, New York, NY 10004; or e-mail: mail@christophers.org.)