If you pick up an ancient Christian text on disability, you will probably encounter the metaphor of gold being refined. Suffering is given to refine us, the same way that fire purifies gold.
We all have to be purged of anything in us that does not tend toward the love of God and our neighbor, and that purgation can feel like fire. For someone suffering, though, there’s not much consolation in being held up as an example.
There’s a phenomenon these days of sharing feel good videos of people with disabilities doing normal things in the world, with community support. The videos are paired with captions that suggest that these persons with disabilities have meaningful lives, as you can see from the way they thrive when a community applies a bit of elbow grease and compassion.
We all need supports from our communities in order to thrive, and some of us need more or different supports in order to exercise our gifts and talents. For someone being held up as an example, though, there’s not much consolation in the suggestion that only paying work proves that life is worth living.
But back to the gold. Disabled people have been sermon illustrations since the early centuries of the church. If the sermons – lovely, virtuous, good sermons in many ways – were the only way the church talked about gold, talked about suffering, the consolation would ring hollow.
Be gold, you sufferers. Be gold, you people who do not suffer. Be thankful, all of you, because it’s good to be gold.
This is true.
Texts tell so little of a story, though. Tonight, I read this passage from St. John Chrysostom’s Homily on the Paralytic Let Down Through the Roof, and another word leapt out to me, and another meaning of that gold.
Knowing therefore that God is more tenderly loving than all physicians, do not enquire too curiously concerning His treatment nor demand an account of it from Him, but whether He is pleased to let us go free or whether He punishes, let us offer ourselves for either alike; for He seeks by means of each to lead us back to health, and to communion with Himself, and He knows our several needs, and what is expedient for each one, and how and in what manner we ought to be saved, and along that path He leads us. Let us then follow wherever He bids us, and let us not too carefully consider whether He commands us to go by a smooth and easy path, or by a difficult and rugged one: as in the case of this paralytic. It was one species of benefit indeed that his soul should be purged by the long duration of his suffering, being delivered to the fiery trial of affliction as to a kind of furnace; but it was another benefit no less than this that God was present with him in the midst of the trials, and afforded him great consolation.
Do you see that last word? Consolation.
That’s when I saw the passages on gold in a fuller context. There was the great bishop preaching to the people of the city, calling the sick and healthy, the abled and disabled to salvation together. All around them, holy icons covered the walls. Gold filled the nimbuses of the Lord and the Apostles and John the Forerunner and the Mother of God. That gold represented heaven and spiritual life. It represented the grace of God.
Here is how you get gold onto an icon: You pound the gold thin into leaf. You paint on clay and polish it until you can see your face in it. Then you breathe on the clay and lay the gold leaf over it. The clay opens with the breath and draws the gold into itself in an inseparable bond.
That is the consolation for gold. The breath of God breathes upon it.
Long-suffering, patience, steadfast love, hope that is waiting on God, all have in common the fire, but also the breath of God.
I don’t share those feel good videos about people with disabilities, not because they’re necessarily disrespectful, but because they miss the holiness altogether.
If you want to learn about the meaning of disability, you will have to step into the fire of God, too. You will have to let God breathe on you, too. Only then will you see the face of your brother or sister clearly, in the dignity for which he or she was created.