1 March 2009 Fr Terry Tastard:

 Christy Nolan died in Ireland last week aged 43. He was born with severe cerebral palsy. Brain damage at birth had left him unable to walk, talk or use his hands, and a doctor told his parents that he would always have the brain of a baby. In fact, he was highly intelligent. His parents never gave up. They moved so that he could have special schooling. And eventually, he found a way of communicating.

Using a stick attached to his head with a band he would lean over a typewriter, pecking away at the keys. Even then sometimes it required help from his mother to hold his head steady as he typed. He became a prize-winning novelist whose way with words astounded the critics. If you doubt that, see for yourself his own description of the creative process: 'My mind is just like a spin-dryer at full speed; my thoughts fly around my skull while millions of beautiful words cascade down into my lap. Images gunfire across my consciousness.

Try, then, to imagine how frustrating it is to give expression to that avalanche in efforts of one great nod after another.'

During Lent we customarily deprive ourselves of a few things, so as to walk in the footsteps of Jesus who went out into the desert. But when we read the story of someone like Christy Nolan, we realise suddenly how paltry our renunciations
are. There are those who are deprived of many basic things that you and I would count essential. There are those who are handicapped, like Christy Nolan, who must watch with frustration as people around them take for granted abilities and freedoms that they would dearly love to have themselves. For them, Lent is not a season. It is a lifetime. If we remember this alone, then we have learned a spiritual lesson, because we get in proportion the petty frustrations of life. It helps us come to terms with little disappointments, for compared with their suffering these things are nothing.

The story of Christy Nolan also leaves me wondering about the indomitable human spirit. When we read about Jesus in the desert, we read that angels looked after him during that perilous time (Mark 1.12-15). Sometimes I have felt that I have glimpsed a similar strength and endurance come to people in situations of great difficulty or distress. I know that we need to be careful here. Suffering does not always ennoble people; sometimes suffering can destroy people.

And yet, I must say that as a priest, I have often been humbled and awed by the courage and dignity of men and women in testing circumstances. From somewhere beyond themselves there has come a strength that points to the sustaining power of God. St Paul himself once wrote to the Corinthians that in a time of suffering he had realised that God would not take away the suffering, but in his, Paul's experience of suffering, God would give him strength (see 2 Cor. 12.8-10). As the story of the flood reminds us (Gen. 9.8-15) the will of God is not destruction, but life.

Sometimes this gift of grace wells up within a person. Sometimes, like the angels that ministered to Jesus, it requires the help and encouragement of others, to see the person through to a better day.

Fr Terry Tastard is Parish Priest of Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church, Brook Green, London W6.

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