Jewish Priest, Catholic Rabbi, Deaf-Blind Healer

Cyril Axelrod

Imagine for a moment, if you can, that you are both deaf and blind. You are lying on your back on a massage table, your body draped with a cool sheet, and scents of mint and citrus pervade the quiet room. Your mind is reeling with a deep grief for your own sense of sight which, over the past few years, gradually narrowed to a tiny field of vision, only to disappear completely like a glimmer through the crack of a door that is sealed forever. This is the effect of Usher’s Syndrome, a rare disease that causes profound deafness and, eventually, irreversible blindness.

As you lie there, wondering if you will ever communicate with loved ones or access an exchange of ideas again, you feel a gentle hand grasping your toe and then pressing the sole of your foot. Next this hand, a man’s warm and consoling hand, cradles your own upturned palm and begins to write on it with a fingertip: HELLO. IT IS ME, CYRIL. HOW ARE YOU FEELING? You release a breath you didn’t know you had been holding, and a swell of relief passes through your body as you begin to relax. Cyril is the deaf-blind priest who is guiding you through this appointment, an aromatherapy massage session that will calm your plunging emotions and begin to open you up to your new life, a life that will teach you to appreciate new ways of knowing, to recognize your own belonging and self-worth, and above all, to experience that radical trust we call faith.

Reading the autobiography of Fr. Cyril Axelrod–a deaf man who was born into a Jewish Orthodox family in South Africa and converted to Catholicism to become a priest–easily made me wonder what it might be like to be a recipient of Fr. Cyril’s healing ministry. Fr. Cyril’s life story, completed in 2005 through a combination of tactile communication, sign language, and braille, is written in the clear style of a friend telling you his life experiences at the moment he knows you can learn from them. Chapter after chapter, the persistent, forward-looking pacing of the story makes it hard to put the book down, and the events of Fr. Cyril’s life reveal a stunning testimony to the human spirit. For me, Fr. Cyril’s life of radical service to deaf people in multiple nations calls to mind that spiritual classic The Cloud of Unknowing, where the 14th century writer councils: You are to smite upon the thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love and do not cease no matter what happens. The irony of this is that Fr. Cyril’s life is fueled not only by contemplation, but by constant action and agency, to the point that he is now in demand worldwide as a speaker and retreat leader.
The book begins with a flash forward as 60-year-old Fr. Cyril steps onto a stage at Gallaudet University to receive an honorary doctorate for his lifelong and worldwide service to deaf people. As the vibrations of applause reach his feet, he reflects back on the stages of his life, which sometimes seemed so isolated from each other. Now he saw clearly that each challenge in his life was a new opportunities to improve the lives of others. Though blind, Fr. Cyril is a man of single vision about his life’s work — that is, serving deaf and deaf-blind people.
First we learn about the young Cyril in his family. We meet his Jewish Orthodox parents and learn about the love he had for his ancient spiritual tradition as a Jew, despite the difficulty he had communicating with his mother and father. When his parents learned that there was no Jewish school for the deaf near their town, they began to send three-year-old Cyril to a school run by Catholic nuns. Understanding how distressed his parents were that their only son would be going to a Catholic school, the nuns arranged to teach him about his own Jewish tradition with the help of other Jews in the community. Although he did not become Catholic in school, he was favorably impressed by the care these nuns gave him, and especially by how strongly they believed he could do anything he put his mind to. At this school, he learned English and the foundations that would enable him to undertake higher education, both in deaf and mainstream institutions. At the same time, his family helped to found a Jewish hostel for deaf people in his town, a place where deaf Jews of all ages could come and learn, through sign language, about their faith and each other. Cyril learned to read and to pronounce Hebrew with other deaf Jews, and he grew to love the prayer traditions that were his birthright.
It was during a series of tragedies, including the death of his father and his mother’s lengthy hospitalization after an accident, that Cyril began to feel a deep desire to serve deaf people through spiritual leadership. In his early 20s, he began to express a desire to become a rabbi. When it became clear that there was no way to make this happen through the current educational routes, Cyril turned to the larger community outside his Jewish family and friends, which was the Catholic community of South Africa. Although he had begun to study accountancy, he mind was still pulled toward spiritual matters. One day while doing his homework at the public library, he saw and began to read the Summa Theologica, though when he reached the words “Jesus Christ” he felt uncomfortable and closed the book. Finally, one day, he found himself wandering into a Catholic cathedral. There, when he saw the light through a window lighting up the crucifix, he felt that he was being called. In his mind, he associated this light with some mysterious flashing lights he had experienced before, a precursor to his loss of sight. With a sense of urgency that he could not put into words, he knew he was in search of something to fulfill and put to use his personality and specific strengths. Afterwards, he asked a deaf Catholic friend if the deaf people needed a priest. “Yes, deaf people feel excluded and could only really be included if the priest could use sign language.” But when Cyril asked if he thought he could ever become a priest, his friend “looked startled and signed wildly, ‘You must be mad! How can an Orthodox Jew become a Catholic priest? Your family would kill you.'” Despite painful opposition from his family and the Jewish community he loved, Cyril decided he would go to the seminary. Eventually he became a Redemptorist priest, an order he chose for its emphasis on community over self gratification. About his conversion, he reflects,

Looking back, I remember how my mind would go blank when people asked me about it and I could never explain it in terms of faith alone. To me it did not feel like choosing to give up one faith for another. It was not, as many people thought, that the love and care I had from the sisters at St. Vincent’s School had influenced me to give up Judaism. It is true that their warmth was something very important to me and that my parents, by contrast, had found it difficult to overcome the communication barriers. However, this was not the reason. In fact, now I realize the choice I struggled with, through the various phases of my conversion, was really not a choice at all. I have within me, even now, an acceptance of both faiths as equal, harmonious and complementary, something which maybe is beyond the comprehension and understanding of most Jews and Catholics. (72)

He did not see his conversion as a departure, but as a continuation into a new form and development of his Judaic faith. In time he would see his new vocation, in his specific drive to serve deaf people, as a way to bring faith not just to Jewish deaf, but to deaf people all over the world. He was able to attend Gallaudet University for two years, where he learned ASL and improved his English skills while discerning his vocation. Then, he went to seminary among hearing peers back in South Africa. Unlike the ample and easy communication he found at Gallaudet, priestly formation was arduous and involved years of isolated study in his room. It was often difficult for hearing peers or even his superiors to understand Cyril’s lack of ability to participate in class as a deaf man, but finally he was able to pass all his tests. In a touching scene related in all the significance of his two blended faiths, Fr. Cyril’s mother not only comes to his ordination, but actually offers her only son to the Church for his new vocation. For as long as he could afterwards, his superiors encouraged Cyril to go home on Friday nights so that he could say the Kiddush with his mother, a practice that made her, and eventually the rest of his family, very proud to call him their own.
Fr. Cyril’s first work with deaf people was as a chaplain in a school for black children under Apartheid. There he faced the challenge of learning not only Xhosa, the tribal language of the people in that part of Africa, but also their sign language. Against all odds, he was able to overcome the social barriers of Apartheid and found a school for the deaf, where both black and white children could learn to communicate together in both sign language and English. His ministry then moved to Johannesburg, where he was charged with a mission by the Redemptorists: to develop services for deaf people in different places regardless of their race or creed. This he did for many years, traveling widely and conducting Mass in sign language so that the deaf would have access to religious services.
After visiting China, Fr. Cyril decided this was where he most wanted to continue his mission. With his characteristic focus and energy, he set out to learn the language so that he could communicate with both hearing and deaf people: “My jaw ached from practicing the tones of Cantonese, my head was dizzy from memorizing the 314 radical roots of Chinese characters and my hands were stiff from writing Chinese characters.” But again, he was able to bring people together regardless of polarizing beliefs. In this case, there was a deep division between deaf Catholics and deaf people in Evangelical churches. Fr. Cyril was able to persuade them of the benefits of a united Deaf Club, where people could communicate and organize together regardless of their religious differences. He then continued his work in Macau, a place that clearly enchanted him with its combination of Portuguese and Chinese culture. He worked with the deaf in this city until it was handed back to the Chinese Republic in 1999, but by then his sight had deteriorated to 3 percent of normal field of vision. Leaving the Deaf Association in Macau to be self-governing under their new Chinese government, Fr. Cyril moved to England, where is eyesight closed in until he could no longer read, no longer see faces, until finally, he could only distinguish between light and dark. In his words:

I became depressed, angry and filled with disbelief. It was a time of great loss and I seemed to feel it throughout my whole body. I became restless, weary and uncoordinated. My vision, my physical mobility, my ability to read, my ability to communicate with others and above all, my independence had changed… Only a few people knew my background or knew of my life’s service. Suddenly I was seen only as a deafblind man. People did not approach me as they once had. I had learned to receive sign language by feeling rather than watching the signer’s hands (hands on), but I noticed that some deaf people in England seemed to withdraw from me, not feeling confident about communicating this way. (189)

During this dark night, Fr. Cyril began to learn how to live as a deaf-blind man: to distinguish between street lamps and telephone poles with a cane and how to put every item in the kitchen back where he could find it by touch; how to read braille and how to use a taxi or the rail system as a blind person. Slowly he began to feel comfortable with his new skills. He even found himself rediscovering his Hebrew through Braille. He also began to draw on meditative prayer practices, both Catholic and Buddhist, that he had learned in his travels: “I began to ‘feel’ blindness in a new way as the true touch of God upon my soul. I began to make blindness my friend. I could see that I was beginning to gain a new kind of knowledge and understanding and wisdom that I could, in turn, give to the world. But I could not quite see how!” (195) At that opportune moment, he received word that he had been chosen to receive an honorary doctorate from Gallaudet University. The trip and the faith others had in him made him realize once again that what he thought were insurmountable obstacles were really new and profound opportunities to serve others in new ways.
Of course the next step was to begin a ministry for deaf-blind people, but how? Resourceful and open-minded as always, Fr. Cyril decided to learn aromatherapy massage so that he could use it to serve deaf-blind people. With some worried resistance from his local community college at first, he began a two-year course of study in anatomy and the therapeutic effects of scent. Through the use of braille and the support of hard-working interpreters, he became a licensed practitioner in 2000. Today he continues to live and practice as a priest, with his unique set of skills, in London. The end of his book was a little anti-climactic, but that is probably because his life and his work are nowhere near their end. As his last chapter tells it, deaf blindness is really just the beginning of another journey for Fr. Cyril.
Fr. Cyril’s book, And the Journey Begins, is not often seen on shelves in the United States, because it was published in 2005 by a small British publisher specializing in books on deaf culture and education. To say Fr. Cyril’s book is thought provoking and inspiring is an obvious understatement, so I decided to give readers a taste of it here.