Deaf Christians Often Struggle to Hear God’s Word, How They Find Meaningby Jana Bennett Professor of Religion, University of Dayton January 8, 2020
For years, my husband would say after we returned from the church, “I thought the sermon was good.” To that, I would reply, “I didn’t hear the sermon, as usual.”
As a person with a severe to profound hearing loss, I nearly left the church out of frustration and anger. In addition to hymns, spoken readings and testimonies, Christian worship focuses on the spoken word. As scripture says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
I am not alone in feeling discouraged by so much focus on the word of God and spoken words in Christian tradition. Many people with hearing loss leave or disengage from their Christian faith.
But that doesn’t have to happen. As a theologian, I study how adults with hearing loss worldwide engage with their Christian faith through unique forms of worship and contemplative prayer, and I have found examples of holy people who experienced hearing loss.
Alienated in churches
One popular deaf Christian organization, Silent Blessings Deaf Ministries, estimates that as many as 4% of Christians worldwide are profoundly deaf. That number doesn’t include the people who have milder hearing loss, or older adults who experience hearing loss later in life. About 13% of Americans experience some hearing loss, which can affect their ability to participate in worship.
A 1997 National Council of Churches document on deafness describes the frustrations of people with conventional church services that emphasize spoken words. One woman who lost some hearing later in life said: “I was very active in the church, taught Sunday School for many years and served on the boards of various women’s groups. But then I started to lose my hearing and stopped understanding what was going on. I became very depressed and isolated. I don’t go to church any more.”
The biblical stories recounted in some scriptures also can feel alienating to deaf and hard-of-hearing people, according to theologian Wayne Morris.
In his 2008 book on deaf Christianity, Morris describes, as an example, how the story of Moses and the burning bush might be received in a deaf congregation. In it, Moses covers his eyes when he encounters God in the burning bush. Yet no person with deafness could stand to cover their eyes: Sight is what enables hearing-impaired people to navigate the world.
Other scriptures even name hearing loss as indicating separation from God. In Psalm 58:3-4, God’s chosen people of Israel are compared negatively to a deaf person. “The wicked go astray from the womb; they err from their birth, speaking lies. They have venom like the venom of a serpent, like the deaf adder that stops its ears.”
As a result of the challenges they face in churches that emphasize spoken words, deaf people might choose worship services led by deaf pastors, or hearing churches whose worship styles engage all five senses of the body rather than focusing on hearing alone.
A hearing church that adds a signing interpreter but that maintains reliance on spoken words isn’t necessarily being welcoming. This can make people with hearing loss feel like they need to be “fixed,” or “made able” to attend hearing worship.
A deaf worship service includes not only the deaf, but those who appreciate a worship that involves more than just the sense of hearing.
During a deaf worship service, praying happens with open eyes and with lots of signing. Hands are often raised up to sign a joyful “alleluia” to God. In fact, the whole congregation creates a mosaic of gestures that praise God. Silence is not required in order to hear the pastor speaking from pulpit.
People with hearing loss may find access to faith in the Christian tradition of silence, too.
Christian contemplative prayer, which developed among monks in the third and fourth centuries, celebrates silence as an essential part of prayer to God.
The 20th-century monk Thomas Merton, who is known for his contemplative and mystical spirit, once observed the ways words can even divide people from God.
“When we have really met and known the world in silence, words do not separate us from the world nor from other people, nor from God, nor from ourselves because we no longer trust entirely in language to contain reality,” he wrote in 1956.
Some deaf Christians see not hearing as a gift from God.
“He has created me with ears that hear what people REALLY say, for in my intensity to hear I listen not just with mechanically assisted hearing,” the deaf pastor Elizabeth von Trapp Walker said in a 1999 interview whether disability could be a gift from God. “I listen with my whole body. My eyes see the joy, pain and sorrow sometimes hidden in the words as the ears of my heart listen and read the body language of the speaker.”
For Christians like von Trapp and Merton, silence can enable a person be a better witness to the world around them.
The Catholic Church recognizes some saints who were deaf.
Saint Teresa de Cartagena, a nun who lived in 15th-century Spain, lost her hearing in childhood. She wrote “Grove of the Infirm,” a book about disability and faith, sometime between 1450 and 1460. Teresa writes of her deafness as a great good because it leads her toward God. “God has placed such cloisters on my hearing” so that she can “maintain complete silence in order to better understand” an inner spiritual life with God.
The 16th-century Saint Teresa of Avila similarly found her tinnitus – a ringing in the ears often associated with hearing loss – “no hindrance either to my prayer or to what I am saying now, but the tranquility and love in my soul are quite unaffected, and so are its desires and clearness of mind.”
An Italian woman, Benedetta Bianchi Porro, was recently declared blessed, a step before being named a saint, on Sept. 14, 2019. Porro experienced progressive deafness beginning at age 15 as a result of polio.
She sought healing in 1963 for deafness, along with other conditions associated with the disease, at Lourdes, a shrine in France that people visit in hopes of being healed of various diseases. While there, she wrote a letter to friend saying that she had received a miracle – not of recovery from deafness but of an understanding of the “richness of my condition.”
Porro isn’t the only Christian to learn that being deaf can deepen one’s faith. For me, finding a worship service that emphasizes all five senses and discovering that the silence I live because I am deaf has helped me embrace Christianity instead of leaving it behind.
Rather than fixing hearing loss or seeing deafness as a sign of God’s disfavor, the faith of deaf and hard-of-hearing Christians brings new understandings about God to the world.