PERHAPS GOD: Wisdom Through the Gift of Disability, by Larry Kaufmann CSsR. Redemptorist Pastoral Publications, Johannesburg, 2015. 66pp.
Reviewed by Michael Shackleton
Anyone who has experienced a mission or retreat preached by the Redemptorist Fathers will remember it well.
The Redemptorists have a methodical way of refocusing your life, material and spiritual, and its priorities by the use of practical examples and lessons you will not easily forget.
Who would have thought that this short, first-rate book containing one Redemptorist’s reflections on his close association with a deaf-blind confrere could have an enriching impact on the reader very much like that of a retreat experience?
With disarming simplicity Father Larry Kaufmann presents us with his friend, Johannesburg-born Fr Cyril Axelrod, a priest of extraordinary dedication to his ministry to the deaf-blind.
This is not a biography. It is an open-hearted description of the author’s reactions and attitude to a brother priest who began life absolutely deaf and then became totally blind, and yet calls his disabilities a gift from God!
Fr Kaufmann has tried to explore some of the deeper lessons behind the anecdotes he relates concerning Fr Cyril as a priest and severely challenged person.
He says that he had thought of calling the book “The Parables of Cyril Axelrod”, because, as in the case of the parables of Jesus, there is a teaching to be had from the moving stories he relates of his friend’s abandonment to God’s will and strength of character.
The measure of that strength was seen when, as a young Orthodox Jew his longing to be a rabbi was dashed because of his deafness. With the desire to be of service to others, he gravitated towards the Catholic Church through his having attended St Vincent’s School for the Deaf run by the Dominican Sisters in Johannesburg.
After ordination to the priesthood he devoted his ministry to the service of the deaf, a ministry that has mushroomed internationally. He has been honoured with many global awards for his caring work, and received the OBE from Queen Elizabeth II.
Early in the book Fr Kaufmann records how, with himself in tow, Fr Cyril went to the synagogue where he had once worshipped. In the presence of two rabbis he recited the Shema, the central tenet of Judaism: “Hear, O Israel, God is our Lord, God is One” (Dt 6:4).
The author notes that the rabbis immediately covered their eyes with their hands. They explained that Jews did this to turn their eyes and ears inward to hear God’s voice within.
One of the rabbis commented: “But this man is blessed. He is in a permanent state of Shema!”
From this moving moment, Fr Kaufmann reflects on how we need to let go of listening to ourselves. Fr Cyril’s lesson, deaf and blind as he is, is to teach us to listen inwardly, to be in an inner state of Shema.
The author goes on to confide what other profound lessons he has learned and shares them in a gentle yet compelling manner. He cannot avoid revealing his own thoughts and feelings as his companion’s communicator and interpreter, known as a “comm.guide”.
By describing their inevitable interdependence, he draws out the very human mistakes and embarrassing situations they land in, and simultaneously reminds us that laughing at ourselves humbles us and reconnects us to God and to others.
Fr Cyril Axelrod is a remarkable man living with and deriving spiritual energy from the lack of the gifts of sight and hearing. He embraces this deficit heroically and humbly, paradoxically calling it God’s gift to him. It impels him to turn what could be an introverted life into an extroverted mission to others for the sake of Christ.
Paging through this little volume you may grasp again what Jesus meant when he said: “I speak to them in parables because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (Mt 13:13).
Fr Kaufmann’s reflections on what Cyril Axelrod says and does are spiritually eye- and ear-opening. The twelve brief chapters are like twelve retreat conferences. In the best tradition of the Redemptorists, you will learn a lesson or two you will not easily forget.