This post about saints with disabilities is based on a presentation I gave to parents and clergy at the St. Nicholas program of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in June 2023. The St. Nicholas program is a camping experience for children with disabilities and their families.
What does it mean to feel seen? Have you ever had a time when you were reading a book, or you saw a meme on Social Media, and you said, “Was the person who wrote this following me around my entire life? How did they know?” It was so relatable. And thsaat experience, the experience of feeling seen, has so much joy that comes with it.
When you feel seen, you feel safe. You feel known. You feel valued. You feel like you belong.
Another way of saying “we all need to be seen” is to say, “Representation matters.” That’s the phrase that writers and inclusion specialists usually use at work. We want people who aren’t used to seeing people like themselves in books or movies, or even real life, to see themselves in the things we create. We want them to feel like they were well represented. We want them to feel seen.
Because of the work I do, I’ve known that representation matters. I’ve read the research about representation in children’s books and in movies and everywhere else. I’ve known how much it matters. That’s why I wrote Catherine’s Pascha – because I wanted Orthodox children and their parents to see families like theirs celebrating Pascha. I’ve had plenty of adults, and a few teenagers, tell me that Catherine’s Pascha made them cry, because suddenly, amazingly, surprisingly, they felt seen. And I’ve had families with disabled kids who weren’t Orthodox tell me the same thing, because Catherine’s best friend, Elizabeth, is an ambulatory wheelchair user. When they saw Elizabeth, it brought tears to their eyes. Elizabeth matters, because, if you’re also an ambulatory wheelchair user, it makes you feel like you matter. Your experiences matter. You belong.
Disability representation in books
I knew disability representation mattered. But do you know when I really, truly understood how very much it matters?
A few years back, before the pandemic, one of my kids was having surgery, and in the little shopping plaza next to the hotel we were staying at, there was a bookstore. And when I wandered into the bookstore (because how could I not?), I saw a picture book. Sweety. On the cover of the book is a little critter of some sort, and the critter was wearing orthodontic headgear. I grabbed the book and read it, every word of it. I studied the illustrations. I felt powerfully, profoundly seen. You see, when I was a kid, I wore orthodontic headgear just like Sweety’s 20 hours a day for a very long time. Seeing a character in a book who shared that experience was the most amazing feeling. I didn’t realize, before I saw that book, that there was a part of me that had never felt seen. I stood there in the bookstore, holding the book, with tears in my eyes. Feeling seen does that to you.
The thing is, there are not many children’s books that include disabled characters. In 2021, the last year I have the data for, just over 3 percent of children’s books published that year included disabled characters.
Disability representation in other media
There are even fewer disabled characters in movies. The Pixar movie Luca came out in 2021, and it includes a disabled character named Massimo Marcovaldo. Massimo was born with a limb difference. His missing arm is not a tragedy. It’s honestly no big deal. It’s just the way he is. That matter-of-fact treatment of his disability provides a powerful message of acceptance.
You’ll also sometimes see disability representation in advertisements. Have you ever seen the posters in the kids’ department at Target? Some of the posters show kids who have disabilities. I promise you, kids who have disabilities see those posters. Seeing another child who is using a walker or a wheelchair, another child, makes them feel seen.
Same with toys. Whether it’s a doll with vitiligo or a Legos minifig with a wheelchair, disability representation matters.
Disability representation in church
As much as it matters in books and movies, advertisements and toys, disability representation matters even more at church. Everyone needs to feel like they belong at church. Everyone needs to feel seen.
The best kind of disability representation in church, of course, wouldn’t be books and movies. It would be people. An altar server with Down Syndrome, a Church school teacher who uses a wheelchair, a priest who is open about being autistic, and so on. About 25% of the US population has one or more disabilities. We should see them all in church.
In general, though, people who have disabilities and their families are far less likely to attend church than people who don’t have disabilities. When one of my kids attended a special school for kids with developmental disabilities, I learned that nearly all of the families there used to attend church. There were just two families, mine and one other, who still attended church regularly. Everyone else had decided that it was just too hard.
And it is hard. One of the things that makes it hard is that, so often, you feel isolated. You feel alone. Maybe you and your child are completely ignored. Maybe you’re stared at. Either way, you don’t feel seen.
This is where the saints come in.
Disabled saints in icons
If people with disabilities, if our children, came into a church and looked at the walls, and saw icons of saints with disabilities, we’d be like a child in the wheelchair at Target, looking at the poster of another little one in a wheelchair. We would feel seen. We would know we belong.
Our tradition, though, is to show the glorified bodies of the saints in icons, and that usually means that there is no trace of disability, of bodily infirmity, in the bodies of the saints. I find that a little bit problematic. For one thing, we know that our Lord’s glorified Body retained the wounds of his Crucifixion. More than that, though, because the icons of the saints don’t show disability, some people start to think that disability and holiness can’t exist in the same body. And that’s simply not true! It’s not the condition of our bodies that keep us out of church anyway. It’s the lack of philoxenia that’s the problem. The lack of love and care and welcome for people who are different.
As it happens, I know of three saints whose disabilities are sometimes visible in their icons: St. Seraphim of Sarov, St. Matrona of Moscow, and St. Luke the Surgeon.
St. Seraphim of Sarov
For the longest time, I didn’t know much about St. Seraphim. I knew about the bear. I knew that he had prayed kneeling on a stone for a thousand nights. I knew he told his friend that, if his friend wanted to, he could be all flame. I knew he called everyone who came to see him “my joy” and greeted them with the Paschal greeting, saying “Christ is risen!” even when it wasn’t Pascha.
But there was so much I didn’t know. I didn’t know that, when St. Seraphim was 10 years old, he became seriously ill. The Theotokos visited him in his sickness, and told him that she would heal him – which she did, when his mother took him to venerate a wonder-working icon.
I didn’t know that, when he was in his 20s, he was so sick that, for 3 years, he rarely could get out of his bed. The Theotokos visited him again, with St. Peter and St. John the Beloved, and the Theotokos told them, “He is one of our family.” Then she stroked his head, and touched his side with her staff, and he was completely healed.
Some 20 years later, St. Seraphim was living as a hermit in the forest, and some men came to rob him. He did nothing to resist them, but allowed himself to be beaten and left for dead. Again, the Theotokos came to see him, with Ss. Peter and John, and again she said, “He is one of our family.” This time, though, the Theotokos did not heal him. St. Seraphim, for the rest of his life, was bent over and in pain. He forgave his attackers, and even went to court and argued that they should not be punished. Even so, he was never physically sound again. He walked with a staff. Yet even in his pain, he still called people, “my joy!” And in his icons, he is always shown bent over.
St. Seraphim wasn’t holy in spite of his disability. Rather, his disability and his holiness were intertwined with his love for the Theotokos and her love for him. His injuries were transfigured into beauty, and the beauty is written into his icons.
St. Matrona of Moscow
Icons of St. Matrona of Moscow icons also show her disability. She was born without eyes, with her eyelids fused over the empty sockets. In her life, her disability and her holiness were also intertwined.
She was the fourth child of an impoverished family. While her mother was pregnant, she had resolved to send this newest child to be raised at an orphanage, but then she had a dream. In the dream, a beautiful white bird flew to her and landed on her arm. The bird had a human face and its eyes were closed. Matrona’s mother understood that to be a sign, and when Matrona was born, her mother kept her with the family.
When St. Matrona was a toddler, she would get up in the middle of the night, make her way to the icon corner, take the icons off the shelf, and talk to them. The saints were kind to her. The village children were not. They tormented her. She got to where she avoided the other children and spent all her time at home or in the church. While she had no physical vision, God had granted her, from her earliest years, the ability to see the thoughts and sins of other people. (This may have had something to do with why the other children didn’t like her.) She also had the ability see natural disasters and social upheavals before they arrived.
When she was only 7 years old, God also granted her the gift of healing. Ten years later, she lost the use of her own legs. So there she was, unable to see, unable to walk, but able to comfort, console, and heal countless people because of her faith and her holiness.
St. Luke the Surgeon
St Luke the Surgeon was also a healer, although he performed his healings primarily through his work as a physician. He was a talented artist, and originally went to the Kiev School of Fine Arts. It wasn’t long, though, before he decided that he wanted to do something to relieve the suffering of people who were poor and ill, so he went to medical school at the University of Kiev. When he realized how many beggars in Kiev had curable forms of blindness, he studied ophthalmology so that he might help them see. Later, he became an excellent surgeon and an important researcher and teacher.
St. Luke was also an unmercenary physician. Because his heart was filled with the love of God, he poured that love out on everyone around him. He treated anyone who needed his help, without regard to their ability to pay, their ethnicity, or anything else, because philoxenia is just that way. He later became a priest, then a bishop, and after the communist revolution, he was imprisoned and exiled – and yet he still managed to work as a physician.
Late in life, he lost his vision to glaucoma. In his icon, you can see that he wears glasses. I also have glaucoma, and, to me, his glasses are a beautiful reminder that his holiness didn’t depend on the perfection of his body, but on the purity of his soul and the depth of his love.
Stories of disabled saints
There may be other saints whose bodily infirmity is sometimes visible in their icons, but if so, there aren’t many. And many disabilities wouldn’t show up in icons, anyway. So, if those of us with disabilities are to feel seen in the Church, in the presence of the saints, it’s important that we know their stories, including whatever is in their stories about their disabilities.
All three of the saints whose disabilities are visible in their icons are modern saints. St Seraphim died in the 19th century, and Saints Matrona and Luke died in the 20th century. When you go back further in time, the bodily infirmities of the saints are not included in the icons, and often they’re not included in their stories either.
But sometimes they are. I’m going to tell you the stories of 3 saints whose disabilities are an integral part of their stories. But first, I’m going to tell you a bit about St. Joseph the Hymnographer.
St. Joseph the Hymnographer and hagiography
To understand why, we need to listen to the story of St. Joseph the Hymnographer. St. Joseph the Hymnographer was a priest, a poet, and a court official in the 9th century. He was an iconophile, and when the iconoclast Theophilus was emperor, St. Joseph was sent on a mission to Rome, at the invitation of Pope Leo. On his way, though, he was captured by pirates and imprisoned on Crete for 6 years. Because the pirates were slavers, and because an educated man like St. Joseph could have been sold for a large fortune, some people believe that the iconoclasts had paid the pirates to capture St. Joseph and imprison him. Whether that was the case or not, we know that, when Theophilus died and icons were restored, St. Nicholas came to Crete, freed St. Joseph, and delivered him to Constantinople.
One of the things St. Joseph had come to understand was that the iconoclasts didn’t just want to destroy images. They wanted to wipe out the memory of the saints. They wanted to erase their stories. They wanted the saints to be forgotten as individuals, and remembered only, if at all, as nameless parts of the great cloud of witnesses. During the time of iconoclasm, many of the stories had indeed been forgotten. After a vision in which St. Bartholomew told him to start writing hymns, he did just that. He wrote hymns and canons, and he created our weekly cycle of prayers. That’s why we honor St. Nicholas every Thursday, because St. Nicholas had freed him from captivity. And when St. Joseph he had written about all that he knew, he sent monks out to collect as many saint stories as they could so he could write hymns to them as well.
The stories, of course, weren’t intended to be biographies. It wasn’t important for the stories to include every detail about the life of every saint. What mattered were the details that would help people understand what made the saint holy. What mattered was for the people to glorify God in his saints.
For most of the saints, the ordinary details of their ordinary lives weren’t included in the stories. Sickness and disability were part of the ordinary lives of most people, before we had antibiotics and vaccines and X-rays and the like. So details about sickness and disability tended to fall out of the stories. We’re more likely to find those details in the lives of modern saints, like St. Luke and St. Matrona, where we have other records about their lives. Going back in time, we’re most likely to learn about disability in the lives of saints who were kings and queens and hierarchs, because, again, we have more sources telling us about their lives. Even with those saints, we often have to go looking for it.
So I’m going to tell you about three more saints, St. Servulus of Rome, St. Pimen the Much-Ailing, and St. Dositheos, the disciple of Abba Dorotheos of Gaza. Their icons don’t reveal anything about their bodily infirmities, but their stories do. We need to remember their stories, and tell their stories, and make sure people who see their icons know their stories. By doing this, we can help the people in our families and communities understand that disability is no barrier to holiness, and we can help the people we love who are disabled feel seen when they are in church.
St. Servulus of Rome
In the 7th century, St. Servulus was born in Rome to a poor family. As he grew, he didn’t hit any of the milestones that his older siblings had hit. He didn’t crawl, or sit up, or stand, or run. He didn’t put his hand to his mouth, or play with his toes. He was completely helpless. And yet, he loved God, and he loved the poor. It’s almost as if he didn’t realize that he was himself poor. His mother and his brothers took him every day to the Church of St. Clement to beg.
Those going in and out of the church recognized both his need and his goodness, and he received from them all that he needed to sustain himself and his family, and when he had more than he needed, he would do one of two things. He would give the extra to those around him who had less than he did. He would also buy books. That’s something I can relate to. He bought a Psalter and a Gospel and other spiritual books, and he would ask the clergy and monastics who came to visit him to read to him, and by listening, he memorized the Scriptures, which he recited through the nights. Those who knew him – including the bishop known in the Western Church as St. Gregory the Great, and in the Orthodox Church as St. Gregory the Dialogist – valued him for his wisdom and his great virtue.
St. Pimen the Much-Ailing
With St. Pimen, we know he was severely disabled just from the name he is remembered by in the Church. St. Pimen was never healthy, until his very last day. He was born sickly, and as he grew up, he was rarely able to leave his bed. He asked his parents to take him to the Monastery of the Kiev Caves. I think they thought the journey would be too difficult for their frail, sickly child, but finally, they relented and did as he asked. At the monastery, Pimen’s parents asked the monks to pray for his healing, but Pimen said no. He didn’t want to be healed. He had accepted his illness as a gift from God, and he wanted to keep the gift. What he wanted was to become a monk.
While the leaders of the monastery tried to decide what to do about this request, Pimen was allowed to spend the night alone in the chapel, praying. Only he wasn’t alone. Angels were there. The angels tonsured him that night, and took the hair that they had shorn from his head and put it in the reliquary of St. Theodosius. There were folk beliefs in Ukraine at the time that someone of ill will could take hair from your head and use it to work evil against you, so it makes sense that the angels would have been careful not to allow anyone to be tempted in that way. So anyway, the angels told Pimen he would never be healthy until the day of his death, and the monks who heard the angels singing came to the chapel to see what was going on. They found Pimen vested as a monk, holding a candle in his hand. So it was that Pimen became a brother of the Monastery of the Kiev Caves.
As a monk, St. Pimen was just as sickly as he had ever been. He seems to have suffered some form of paralysis. He needed hands-on care, which, as many of you know, can be tiring for the caregiver, and, well, let’s just say that, day after day, week after week, with no end in sight, it just isn’t fun. The monks assigned to take care of him would often fail to bring him food and water, much less provide the more personal care he needed. He accepted this neglect joyfully.
There was another monk at the monastery who was also very sick, and needed the same kind of care St. Pimen needed. This other monk wasn’t happy to be neglected. He asked St. Pimen to pray for his healing, promising that he would care for Pimen without fail if he were healed. So Pimen prayed for him, and he was healed, but it wasn’t long before he began neglecting Pimen. And it wasn’t long after that, that his illness returned to him. He repented and returned to Pimen. He asked Pimen to pray for him again, for his healing. But he was also worried that, if he were healed, he wouldn’t have anything to offer God at the Last Judgment. St. Pimen assured him that, at the Last Judgment, the one who cares for the sick and the one who is sick both receive the same reward.
St. Pimen prayed for the brother again, and the brother was healed, and this time, he served Pimen faithfully until the day of Pimen’s death. On that day, when Pimen woke up, he was completely healthy. He took the Eucharist, asked forgiveness of all the brethren, took his bed to the place he wished to be buried, laid down, and died.
I think the story of St. Pimen is important for a couple of reasons. One, it is a reminder that sickness and disability are, or can be, ascetic labors. If they are accepted with joy, as Pimen accepted them, they can work to our salvation. Two, it is a reminder that caring for the sick is also an ascetic labor, and if that labor is accepted with joy, it can work to our salvation.
St. Dositheos, disciple of St. Dorotheos of Gaza
St. Dorotheos was the infirmarer of the monastery at Gaza in the 6th century. He’s one of my very favorite saints. And while there are hints in his life that he may have suffered some kind of chronic illness, I’m not going to talk about him today, but about his disciple, St. Dositheos.
Now, St. Dositheos was a weak and frail. He was the relative of a rich and powerful general, who provided him with every luxury he could provide, and ensured that he had everything he ever wanted. Once, what Dositheos wanted was to visit Jerusalem, so the general arranged for him to go. While he was in Jerusalem, he saw an icon of the Last Judgment, and as he was trying to figure out what it meant, a beautiful appeared beside him and explained it all to him. It was the Theotokos, although he didn’t know that at the time. After she explained the Last Judgment to him, she told him that if he wanted to escape judgment, he must fast, eat no meat, and pray often. Then she left him.
St. Dositheos began doing what the woman had told him, and the general’s men noticed, and told him that if he wanted to live that way, he should go join a monastery. So he did. At the monastery of Gaza, Abba Seridos put Abba Dorotheos in charge of this young man, telling him that he was responsible for Dositheos’s salvation.
Because Dositheos had a weak constitution, he didn’t fast as rigorously as the other monks did. In fact, if there was a bit of leftover food in the infirmary, he would eat it, even if it was an indulgence like gravy. He didn’t keep vigils the way the other monks did, either. And yet, what set him apart from the other monks was his kindness to the sick, and his obedience to his abba. If he ever said a cross word to one of the sick ones, or failed in the tiniest way to provide for them, he would go hide in the storage room and weep until Dorotheos found him, told him he was forgiven, and to get back to work. Which he did, cheerfully.
Whatever Abba Dorotheos told him to do, he did, instantly, no matter how unreasonable it was. And Abba Dorotheos was often deliberately unreasonable, so that he might teach Dositheos how to accept whatever happened without complaint. At the end of his life, Dositheos developed an ailment of his lungs, probably tuberculosis. Abba Dorotheos told him to pray, and when he was too sick and in too much pain to pray any more, Abba Dorotheos told him only to keep God in his mind.
Finally, Dositheos could not even do that, and he asked permission to die. The first time he asked, he was told no, and he didn’t. Some days later, he asked again, and Abba Dorotheos told him to go in peace, and to stand before the Trinity and to pray for them.
The other monks took offense at that. Here was this weak, sickly monk who had grown up in luxury and who had never engaged in the kinds of rigorous asceticism that the desert monks were known for. He ate every day How could he go and stand before the Trinity? Some time later, though, a great elder came to the monastery to visit Abba Seridos, and while he was there, this great elder asked God to show him all the departed fathers of the monastery. God gave him a vision of a great company of saints, and standing in the middle of them, more radiant than all, was St. Dositheos.
St. Dositheos had become holy, not through praying more and fasting more and attending more services than any of the other monks. He had developed his radiant holiness because he had allowed his own bodily infirmities, and the bodily infirmities of those he served, to teach him about humility and mercy and love.
There are many other saints who had serious disabilities or chronic illnesses. There’s one more I want to tell you about today: our beloved St. Nicholas. For much of his life, he lived with chronic pain. That fact about him isn’t in the stories that were handed down to us. Of course, the stories don’t tell us everything. And we have another source of information about him and about his life.
We have his bones. They’re in a tomb in an underground room in the Cathedral of St. Nicholas in Bari, Italy. In the 1950s, the walls and the floor of that room had to be repaired. That meant that St. Nicholas’s bones had to be removed from his tomb temporarily, while the repairs were done. The bones hadn’t been disturbed since Pope Urban II placed them in the tomb in 1089.
So, in 1953, the archbishop of Bari engaged Dr. Luigi Martino, professor of human anatomy at the University of Bari, to examine the relics. The bones and bone fragments were removed from the tomb, inventoried, examined, measured in every possible direction, and even X-rayed. Dr. Martino and his team determined that St. Nicholas was over 70 years old at his death, that he was about 5’6” tall, slender, and ate a mostly vegetarian diet.
The bones also tell us that he had severe chronic arthritis of the pelvis and spine, and that his skull, which had been broken between his eyes, had healed in such a way that he would have had chronic head pain.
What gets included and what gets left out
Why don’t St. Nicholas’s stories tell us about his pain and his disability? It has to do with why the stories were written.
People who write a story about a person’s life can’t tell you everything. St. John even tells us, in his Gospel, that his Gospel doesn’t contain everything about the life of our Lord Jesus – that a book that told everything would fill the whole earth! I think the same is true about St. Nicholas, too. Those who wrote his story had to pick and choose the details they include, based on the purpose of the story they’re telling.
In the early church, there were three primary reasons that someone might write the life of a saint. The first reason had to do with the way people came to be acknowledged as saints. When a holy person died, the people who had known the person in life would start venerating, asking for their prayers. Perhaps there would be miracles associated with that saint. The people would tell their bishop of the person’s life and their miracles, and the bishop would investigate the matter carefully. If the bishop agreed that the person was a saint, they would add the saint to their local calendar of saints, and the bishop would write the life of the saint to share with nearby bishops, to encourage them to venerate the saint as well.
In writing the stories of the saints, the bishops would likely write the story in a way that would emphasize the particular virtues that the saint had that they wanted people to emulate. The saint’s story would explain how he was an example for all of us. So the stories of St. Dositheos and of St. John the Dwarf emphasize their humility and obedience, because those were virtues that the abbas of their monasteries wanted to instill in the brethren. St. Nicholas’s stories emphasized his goodness and kindness and mercy.
And, of course, as St. Joseph the Hymnographer told us, the stories were told so that the saint would not be forgotten.
Why St. Nicholas stories don’t mention his pain
The stories of St. Nicholas that were handed down to us don’t mention his pain. They also, surprisingly, don’t mention that he was a confessor, that he had been imprisoned for the faith during the persecutions under Diocletian. And while some of them mention that he disputed with Arius and preserved the doctrine of the Trinity, they don’t actually say that he was at the Council of Nicea. Some of the records of that council say he was there, and some records don’t.
Those who first wrote the stories of St. Nicholas’s life certainly knew that he was a confessor, and they would have known whether he was at the Council of Nicea or not. They may considered his pain something else that was so obvious and so well known that there was no reason to include it. Or perhaps they didn’t know. Perhaps he never told anyone. He was not blinded or maimed while he was in prison, as some of the other Confessors were, so he may have considered his own afflictions minor in comparison, and unworthy of mention.
But we have his bones, and his bones have told us that he lived with chronic pain from the time he left prison until he died. There are so many people today who also live with chronic pain. They need to know that there were saints who shared their pain, who knew what it was like. They need to be seen, to know that, like St. Seraphim, they are part of God’s family, that like St. Nicholas, they are loved exactly as they are. They need to know that they are safe. They belong.
St. Nicholas, pirates, and Thursday prayers: A bit more about St. Joseph the Hymnographer and his encounter with St. Nicholas.
When your eyes are too tired to see: What it’s like when a disability or medical condition makes it difficult or even impossible to do ordinary things, and what that experience is like for a child.
The best picture books with disabled characters: These book are all highly recommended!
Books by Charlotte Riggle
Catherine’s Pascha shares the joy of Pascha through the eyes of a child. Find it on Amazon or Bookshop.org.
The Saint Nicholas Day Snow is filled with friendship, prayer, sibling squabbles, a godparent’s story of St. Nicholas, and snow. Lots and lots of snow. Find it on Amazon or Bookshop.org.
In The Grace of Being There, women who are, or have been, single mothers share stories of their relationships with saints who were also single mothers. Charlotte’s story of the widow of Zarephath highlights the virtue of philoxenia. Find it on Amazon or Park End Books.