Department: Pastoral and Social Studies
The spirituality of people with profound intellectual disabilities: a Christian perspective
This research concerns the theology of the spirituality of intellectually disabled people. There is a significant intellectual emphasis in Western Christian spirituality that is now challenged by the awareness of the spiritual needs of people with intellectual disability, for whom intellect and language are not available as a means of making sense of and expressing their faith.
The primary research focus is to understand theologically what is going on when there is a transformative encounter between God and a person with intellectual disabilities, and to identify the conceptual tools and vocabulary to express this theological understanding. Many contemporary approaches to spirituality are unsympathetic and unsuited to intellectually disabled people, and do not provide the necessary conceptual tools and vocabulary for our purpose. Their anthropologies and understanding of patterns and methods of spiritual growth assume a degree of intellect (in a limited sense of that term) and psychological mindedness.
It will be argued that prominent elements of the Christian mystical tradition, which view the self as constituted by relationality, and emphasize the centrality, in our relation to God, of contemplative knowing as love, can inform a more inclusive account of spiritual growth. The research will bring into conversation John of the Cross and Jean Vanier: John for his analysis of the nature and function of ‘intellect’ in our relationship with and knowledge of God, and of the patterns of activity and passivity in the process of transformation; and Jean Vanier for his account of the dynamics of love and growth in communion as developed in the L’Arche communities for people with intellectual disabilities. This conversation will be the basis for developing a theological account of the spiritual transformation of people with intellectual disabilities.
After completing the MA in Christian Spirituality at Heythrop in 2011, I wanted to follow a particular interest of mine: the spirituality of people with intellectual disabilities (or learning disabilities). I took early retirement in 2011 from a local government career in social care, affording me the time to pursue the research. I live in London, and divide my time between the research, helping to look after grandchildren, and serving on the local Mencap board of trustees.