The following book review was featured in the Spring 2015 issue of Collegium News and is reprinted with permission.
Discovering Trinity in Disability is the story of parents who have refused to allow their daughters and themselves to be defined, disparaged and disappeared by disability as deviance. Their probing interrogation has pushed back against the dark shadow of religious, social and cultural stigma that excludes and disables. Their interdisciplinary counter narrative, as personal and theological questions and responses, shines the light of inclusion of difference into the deepest places of meaning and daily living with disability.
This book is about a searching journey in which a family shares its ordeal to make and keep personal sense and sanity in daily encounters of disability stigmatized. It is explicitly theological. It shows the kind of existential engagement that evils of exclusion evoke and provoke at our deepest levels of making meaning — our identity in the human family. The outstanding writing is expressive and inviting, clear and sharp, evocative.
Maria Truchan-Tataryn and Myroslaw Tataryn are husband and wife, mother and father of three daughters, Myroslava, Anastasia and Aleksandra. Maria has completed doctoral studies in English literature (Saskatchewan, 2007) and Myroslaw in theology (Toronto, 1996). Myroslaw is a Ukrainian Catholic priest and dean at St. Jerome’s College, University of Waterloo.
Discovering Trinity in Disability uncovers radical reciprocity and interdependence as the core of being human and divine being. Maria and Myroslaw make the compelling case that inclusion of disability widens the embrace of our becoming more fully human and is divine-like. They show the face and body, the heart and voice, the mind and soul of living with disability. A cursory reading of the title might suggest that a theological notion of Trinity is being imposed on disability. The case they make is the opposite. An intrinsically relational model of being human through embracing disability emerges, reflects and corrects how we understand each other as community and even the Divine itself. “We searched our faith tradition for signs of disability and, indeed, we found the Divine Trinity.”
“Is it possible to teach English so that people stop killing each other?” This is the question Mary Rose O’Reilley began asking herself in 1967. Twenty-five years later, she describes the widening spiral of this recursive question that seized her in engaging students in literature. “(W)hen you go at life with a question and simply try to follow the trail of answers, then all the familiar contours of culture begin to shift. Everything is connected to everything else, and the web shakes with any touch at its farthest margins” (The Peaceable Classroom 1993: 36-37). Mary Rose O’Reilley’s experience captures the persistence, power and reach of Maria’s and Myroslaw’s “going at life” with the insistent question about the lived meaning of disability and embracing persons with disability for all of us in becoming human. This book traces their nearly 25 years of relentlessly questioning, now reaching to and shaking the far edges of religion, culture and identity. “. . . searching for answers always leads to further questioning” (back cover).
Historically such persistent inquiry about fundamental disturbing dilemmas has resulted in theology, in great literature as voicing questions impatiently posed and pursued. Twenty-five centuries ago Job (Hebrew Bible) questioned God about suffering he was enduring, unjust in his view, against the blaming accusations of his “friends” that he was being punished for his sins. Twenty-five years ago, Gustavo Gutierrez (On Job, 1988) asked how we dare talk about God and justice in the same breath in the face of widespread, longstanding unjust suffering of the innocent who are even blamed for their oppressed plight. This same Gutierrez gave voice to liberation theology and preferential option for the poor in 1971.
Discovering Trinity in Disability poses such lived, maddening questions, and hence is explicitly theological. Within the Judaeo-Christian prophetic tradition, Maria and Myroslaw, parents and authors, are engaged in demythologizing and in recovering practices and beliefs, images and models within their Eastern Christian faith tradition to interrogate their faith tradition, disability, and justice — suffering of the innocent they know first-hand. Like Gutierrez, they pose these questions within a social, cultural, economic model of human existence, and specifically about disability in the context of living fully human, all of us. They name and grapple with the social and cultural meaning of disability, using implicitly the sociological imagination that connects “personal troubles of milieu” to “public issues of social structure,” of culture, economy, and history. They bring theological, literary and disabilities studies together within a forged lens that illuminates, focuses and penetrates the intractable and recurrent questions of the meaning of being human in the face of religious, social and cultural exclusion — of being shunned as physical and interpersonal nobodies. They scrutinize beliefs and practices of religion, of society and culture, of ourselves and of the divine itself that we hold sacred and that, in turn, hold onto us tightly, too often misshaping how we live, who we are with disability, and who we name “other.”
Discovering Trinity is organized into 12 chapters. After acknowledgments, in one page Maria tells readers “Why we wrote this book.” An introduction then walks readers into an experience of rejection and exclusion, evoking the problematic of the book. The book concludes with a five-page bibliography of 85 entries.
The 12 chapters provide an informed, thoughtful and incisive interdisciplinary inquiry — way stations of inquiring conversation along the journey. Each chapter engages in retrieval that both challenges “the tyranny of normalcy” (often sacralized) while recovering vital elements in the religious tradition that had been, as the authors say, “transmogrified.” Although my short summary of the chapters can give readers some quick map of the book, no summary can substitute for the subtlety and connections within and between chapters or the power of the writing or surprise in a turn of phrase.
Chapters 1 through 6 establish and employ a social model of disability as a lens to examine exclusion and inclusion of difference of persons with disability in the practices and beliefs of the Judaeo-Christian historic religious tradition. This lens is used to inquire about effective communities of inclusion, about God as an inclusive community, about how “deviating bodies” were viewed in the Hebrew Scriptures, including the prophets, about Jesus as deviant in his actions and associations with outcasts, and as “suffering servant,” about how early Christians formed community, and about the four-century struggle to construct linguistically the Divine as trinity. We see in these six chapters knowledge of scholarship on scriptural interpretation and historical context, of history and literature of the Church Fathers and later writers in Eastern and western Christianity
Chapters 7 through 9 take up challenges of including persons with disability in faith communities, in sacraments and in invoking miracles. Chapters 10 and 11 offers ways of reconfiguring and renewing Christian community based on retrieved notions and practices of sanctuary as hospitality, of the distinction between caritas and charity, and of iconography. Chapter 12 concludes with an overview of the thesis, summary of the book, and implications from the retrieval involved in Discovering Trinity in Disability.
Each chapter ends with a shaded text box, a conversational aside told in a family story or quotation that illuminates the text. Here we overhear family members living with disability, too often tyrannized by normalcy refracted in religious and social stigma.
I would suggest readers start with “Why we wrote this book.” Then read chapter 9, “Mad about miracles.” This chapter title might well have been the book title, giving a provocative, even if ambiguous, sense of challenges and oppressions of habituated practices of piety. Readers feel the legitimate frustrations of Maria and Myroslaw about the imposed pious claims that miracles will “fix” their daughters and themselves as persons living with disability. “Just thinking about miracles can be maddening” (98). Miracles prove to be a further form of oppression and exclusion. Some of the most powerful writing is found in this chapter and in other places where miracles come up. Listen. “When you are labeled ‘disabled,’ the concept of miracles as an instantaneous fixing of presumed brokenness clings to you like chewing gum in tangled hair” (91). This chapter also names the actual miracle for Maria and Myroslaw: the miracle of community that eliminates discrimination and bigotry for persons with disability. They describe the community of Geel, Belgium, as such a miracle. They also use this retrieved notion of miracle as the real challenge of living within inclusive Christian faith communities. This meaning of miracles points to the thesis of the book about the divine as community in the Trinity and is first voiced in the book dedication: “To our daughters Aleksandra, Anastasia, and Myroslava, the miracles of our life” (4).
In a social model of disability, the community is “the miracle worker” through inclusion, embracing difference. “The miracle would be a world in which our differences would make no difference. And so our differences would be valued facets of our valued lives” (shaded box, 105). What Paul Ricoeur observes about the parables of Jesus states the case for Maria and Myroslaw about community: “The extraordinary is within the ordinary.” “Mad about miracles” is a touchstone for seeing through appearances of superficial and oppressive piety, and a reversal to engage each day and persons as the locus of the sacred.
I need to call readers’ attention to two additional points. Chapter 11, “Transfigured Corporality: Being Icons,” retrieves a very different understanding from the popular notion of iconography as type of art. Icons “embody” the essential point in the Tataryns’ argument that being fully human means attention to our “embodiment rather than ability” (106).
Second, readers should pay attention to the contrasting uses of two words — “transmogrify” and “transform” and the great divide they convey in living with disability — rejection and embrace.
Discovering Trinity in Disability is a remarkable book. As theology, it is not stereotypically abstract, speculative, impractical. This is practical theology — embedded reflection that makes a difference in how we live with disability by enlarging how we live together, making space for all of us. It is honest, courageous, informed and intelligent. It represents a critique and a retrieval. It shows what it means, in St. Benedict’s words, “to pray with eyes wide open.”
The intended audience for this book is the Eastern Christian community in which faith tradition Maria and Myroslaw and their family have been embedded. The surprising agility and distancing they are able to achieve to critique and retrieve are remarkable. Such intellectual contributions are critical to the renewal of religious traditions, though too seldom appreciated. They make a significant contribution to their religious traditions in identifying resources for renewal through embracing difference, through mirroring disability in the relational character of divinity itself. However, others of us can learn from this scholarship in its strategy of careful and thoughtful retrieval within contexts, an approach Charles Taylor employs in his work on modernity.
Max Weber noted that historic religions arose as responses to the problem of evil. In their book Maria and Myroslaw Tataryn demonstrate that renewal of a historic religious tradition can also come out of honest, persistent engagement with the evil of excluding some of us as not fully human, when individually and collectively we mirror and are mirrored in the divine through relationships.
Thompson is professor emeritus, sociology, St. Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan.