Finding God in the Margins

During my recent reporting in Lebanon, where I looked at Catholic institutions caring for people with specific challenges in their lives.

During my recent reporting in Lebanon, where I looked at Catholic institutions caring for people with specific challenges in their lives — from deaf children to the mentally ill, to those struggling to end addiction, to those confined to geriatric wards — the question of the role of faith kept coming up.

What became clear very soon to me as I undertook my interviews was that not only is faith a very strong part of many of these people’s lives but, in many cases, the specific challenges they faces has led to a deepening of their faith.

It led me to reflect on the role God plays in everyone’s life, especially during moments of trial. As a child, I learned from the Bible that God never forgets us and that he is with us, by our side, even when we have forgotten him. As I have grown older and my faith has evolved, this notion has been of much comfort to me in my more difficult moments.

However, many of the people I interviewed for this article, face daily hardships to a degree I cannot probably even conceive of.

Some of the adults whom I met at the Psychiatric Hospital of the Cross, in the Beirut suburb of Jal al Dib, suffer from mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bi-polarity that have caused them to be removed from their families and communities.

Many of the deaf children I met at the Father Roberts Institute for the Deaf (some 40 minutes up the mountains from Beirut) face social stigma surrounding the hard-of-hearing. What’s more, many of these children are now on the cusp of puberty and they will soon have to grapple not only with the huge identity turmoil that is involved in becoming an adult, they will also have to grasp — and eventually accept — that they will become deaf adults.

At Our Lady’s Hospital for the Chronically Ill in Antelias (near Beirut), which caters mostly to geriatric patients, many of them face death with few or no family by their side; a good number of them struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease or indeed with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia.

And yet, they told me with a conviction that seemed unflagging, that God is with them every day, that indeed their hardship makes their faith stronger. Alice Khoury, an aging schizophrenic patient in Our Lady’s Hospital for the Chronically Ill told me: “I love my God. Without my faith I would no longer be here.” God has helped her survive and overcome the challenges of her life.

In an art workshop at the Psychiatric Hospital of the Cross, art therapist Mona Esta explained how various patients perceive reality and how they replicate that reality on the canvas, based on their specific psychiatric condition. Schizophrenic patients are unable to reproduce depth and perspective, she tells me. Excessive focus on painting a point or dot within a canvas is a classic artistic trait of a patient with psychosis.

It made me think how these patients — who live with such challenging disabilities yet who have such a deep faith — visualize or imagine God, or the Baby Jesus or even various biblical tableaux such as the pregnant Mary being led to Bethlehem on a donkey by Joseph, the walking of Christ on water, or even the Crucifixion. How might these believers see these biblical figures and events? How does God manifest himself in their imaginations and thus in their lives?

I looked about me at the various finished paintings on the workshop wall. Some were recognizable depictions of objects, people, and landscapes. Others slipped more into abstraction, even cubist renditions of physical reality.

And yet there was a beauty in all of them, and a truth. As I looked around, I could see traces of God and his love, in myriad forms and abstractions, all around the room.

Read more about Reaching the Margins in the September 2017 edition of ONE.

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