The Gift of Fragility
The founder of L’Arche shares how living in a community based on weakness leads to friendship with God
by Jean Vanier
I have been living for more than four decades with people with disabilities. It has been a wonderful time. Many people have come to L’Arche angry at being excluded or closed up in depression and crying out for authentic relationship. Many have come to our communities to be with people with disabilities, and there they are transformed by their relationships.
A huge gap of injustice and pain exists between the so-called “normal” world and those people who have been pushed aside, put into institutions, excluded from our societies because they are weak and vulnerable, or even killed before birth. This gap is a place of invitation in which we call people to respond.
The gospel vision is an incredible promise that we human beings can get together. It is a vision of unity, peace, and acceptance. It is a promise that the walls between people and between groups can fall, but this will not be accomplished by force. It will come about through a change of heart—through transformation. It will begin at the bottom of the ladder of our societies. Jesus didn’t spend much time in the rich cities of Israel, such as Tiberias. He spent time with the people who were called “sinners,” those who were excluded from the temple. He spent time creating relationships. His vision was to bring together all the children of God dispersed throughout the world. God cannot stand walls of fear and division. The vision of Jesus shows us that division is healed by dialogue and by meeting together.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1 that God has chosen the weak, the foolish, and the crazy to shame the clever and the powerful; he has chosen the most despised, the people right at the bottom of society. Through this teaching we see a vision unfold in which a pyramid of hierarchy is changed into a body, beginning at the bottom. One might ask if that means Jesus loves the weak more than the strong. No, that is not it. The mystery of people with disabilities is that they long for authentic and loving relationships more than for power. They are not obsessed with being well-situated in a group that offers acclaim and promotion. They are crying for what matters most—love. And God hears their cry because in some way they respond to the cry of God, which is to give love.
The mystery of people with disabilities is that they long for authentic and loving relationships more than for power.
That was my experience the first time I entered an institution. The cry of people with disabilities was a very simple cry: Do you love me? That’s what they were asking. And that awoke something deep within me because that was also my fundamental cry. I knew I could be a success. I had done well in the Navy. I had a doctorate in philosophy. I knew I could go up the ladder, but I didn’t know whether I was really loved. If I fell sick, who would be there for me? I knew the need for admiration. I knew the need to be both accepted and admired. But something deep down within me didn’t know if anybody really loved and cared for me as a person, not just for my accomplishments.
I had left my parents when I was 13. I knew they loved me, but I didn’t feel in any way called to stay with my family. Something was awakened within me as I started to visit people with disabilities and heard their primal cry for relationship; it became clear to me that Jesus was at ease with people yearning for love. I began to understand that these people could help me grow in the wisdom of love. They would help me grow in a relationship with Jesus. It did not matter if people thought I was crazy.
In 1963 my mentor, Father Thomas Philippe, a Dominican priest, had become chaplain of a small institution in northern France for people with disabilities. Because I wanted to be close to this priest, I discovered the terrible ways people with disabilities were treated. Why not do something for them?
But what to do? God knows I didn’t know. I wasn’t a social worker. Having finished a PhD in philosophy, I knew quite a bit about Aristotle, but beyond that, my knowledge was pretty limited!
I was able to buy a small house in the village where Father Thomas lived, and I met two men with severe disabilities who had been locked up in a dismal institution. We started living together. I was naïve—I thought I was going to do a little bit of good to these two men. But things started happening. People arrived to assist me, and six months later I was asked to take over the establishment where Father Thomas was chaplain. We moved from a very prophetic, small community to an institution for 30 people with disabilities.
Learning to see the holy
There are many things about people with intellectual disabilities that I do not understand, and I don’t know how to communicate well with each one. But gradually, over the years, I have learned many things from them and about them—primarily, that within these people is an openness to God. And their longing for closeness with God is felt on a personal, intimate level. I don’t know whether it’s just the culture of my community in France, but I never hear a person with a disability talking about “Christ” or “the Lord.” They only talk about “Jesus,” using his little name. We also talk about Mary, his mother, and I’m always moved by the intimacy with which those names are spoken in our community. People with disabilities realize there is holiness there.
There are many holy people in our communities, but it is not always easy for people to see this if they do not share the conviction that the meaning of life is to become holy and prayerful. Every time I leave the community, Pascal comes up to me and gestures to say, “I will be praying for you.” I believe in his prayer. I believe we can ask people with disabilities to help us.
I believe we can ask people with disabilities to help us.
Jacqueline, who began L’Arche with me many years ago, now has Parkinson’s disease. We couldn’t keep her in the community, so she is in an old persons’ home. I see her as often as I can. But what really brings her alive is when I say, “I need you to offer what you’re living as a prayer for us.” As we get weaker and poorer, the challenge is to believe that the cry of the poor truly is a cry to God. God listens to the cry of the poor.
Does the church really believe in the holiness of people with disabilities? Some people believe the church should do good things for the poor. But do we believe in their holiness? I get upset when people tell me, “You’re doing a good job.” I’m not interested in doing a good job. I am interested in an ecclesial vision for community and in living in a gospel-based community with people with disabilities. We are brothers and sisters together, and Jesus is calling us from a pyramidal society to become a body.
A fundamental text for L’Arche is Luke 14:12-14, where Jesus says, “When you give a meal, don’t invite the members of your clan, members of your family, your brothers, your sisters, your rich neighbors, and your friends. Don’t invite those that you normally get together with to flatter each other.” This is what people usually do when they throw a party. They invite their clan. One person says, “You’re super.” The other says, “No, you’re super! You gave me good wine last time. I will give you good wine next time.” This is Aristotle’s vision of friendship—sharing among equals. But Jesus says, “No, when you give a banquet—a really good meal—invite the poor, the lame, the disabled, and the blind. Invite those who are excluded, and you shall be blessed.” You will be repaid in the kingdom’s currency. If you become a friend of somebody who is excluded, you are doing a work of unity. You are bringing people together. You are doing God’s work.
Tales of transformation
Looking back on the story of L’Arche, we can see how many people have been transformed. I think of Janine, who came to L’Arche at the age of 40 with one arm and one leg paralyzed. She experienced epileptic seizures and had difficulties understanding and learning. There was a huge amount of anger in her. She didn’t want to come to L’Arche; she wanted to stay with her sisters, but she was terribly jealous of them because they had many children and she couldn’t have any. To be placed in L’Arche was the last thing she wanted. She needed to express her anger, so she broke things and screamed and yelled. We took a lot of time to reflect, to try to understand where the anger was coming from. She was angry with her body, angry with her sisters, angry with God, angry because she didn’t want to work in our workshops. But gradually, gradually, she discovered who she was and that she was listened to, understood, and loved.
Janine used to love those old French Parisian songs that most people don’t remember now. She loved singing them, and she discovered that she could dance to those songs and that other people appreciated them as well. Then she discovered something extraordinary: She was loved by God.
She asked to be baptized and learned that we needed her to pray for us and our broken world. The last three years of her life were beautiful. I used to go and sit down beside her sometimes; she would see that I was tired and would put her hand on my head, saying, “Poor old man.”
It is not easy to name how and when Janine’s transformation took place, but somehow it did, as it has for many at L’Arche. Transformation has to do with the way the walls separating us from others and from our deepest self begin to disappear. Between all of us fragile human beings stand walls built on loneliness and the absence of God, walls built on fear—fear that becomes depression or a compulsion to prove that we are special.
Many assistants who come to us are also transformed. One young woman came to L’Arche at the age of 17, like a wounded sparrow. Her parents had divorced. She was fed up with school, which forced her to learn things she did not want to learn. She had heard about L’Arche from her aunt. She came, and she was healed by people with disabilities who loved her and trusted her. So she began to trust and love herself. She became responsible for a home with 10 severely disabled people. After five years, she left us, a mature woman, to go to Peru to work with kids in the streets.
The mystery of membership
Another fundamental text for L’Arche is 1 Corinthians 12, which remains an enigma to me. It’s about the body of Christ, the church, and Paul says that those parts of the body that are the weakest and least presentable are most necessary to the body and should be honored. Often the parts of the body of society that are weakest and least presentable are the ones we hide away in institutions or try to get rid of. There is today a movement for reintegration of people with learning disabilities, through work that is very positive, but we must not forget the numbers of people who still cannot work, who have psychotic behavior, who are antisocial, and who do not find acceptance and integration.
Today some people idealize people with disabilities when they find autonomy, live alone, look at television, and drink beer. Autonomy can be good to a certain extent, but in our community a number of people who wanted to live alone fell into loneliness and alcoholism. The problem was not that they lived alone but that they lacked a network of friends. It always comes back to belonging. We have to discover more fully that the church is a place of compassion and fecundity, a place of welcome and friendship. We need time to listen to and understand people with communication problems. It takes time to become a friend of people with disabilities.
It always comes back to belonging. We have to discover more fully that the church is a place of compassion and fecundity, a place of welcome and friendship.
Before starting L’Arche, I was rather serious. I prayed, I did philosophy, I taught. When I started living with people with disabilities, I learned to fool around and to celebrate life. There are three activities that are absolutely vital in the creation of community. The first is eating together around the same table. The second is praying together. And the third is celebrating together. By celebrating, I mean to laugh, to fool around, to have fun, to give thanks together for life. When we are laughing together with belly laughs, we are all the same. We’re all just belly laughing. Some of our people are really crazy and really funny. They are funny because they are crazy, and they are crazy because they are funny. It’s super to be with them.
In L’Arche we take every opportunity to celebrate. We celebrate birthdays. We celebrate Christmas. We have a big celebration when somebody feels called to a long-term commitment in L’Arche. We celebrate 10 years, 20 years, 30 years in L’Arche. We really spend a lot of our time celebrating. And when we celebrate, we don’t just give gifts. We say to one another, “You are a gift. You’re a gift to the community.” Around the table we can see the relationship between prayer, food, and celebration. It’s the place of our covenant. We are bonded together.
In our communities things can be going badly, and a visitor will come and say, “Oh, what peace you have in this place.” Everybody sort of smiles. Somewhere it is true that there is peace. But it is so fragile. It is all a gift. Not all of it comes from our efforts. In time we learn to see and receive the gift of our life together and the peace that is there. And somehow, in the process, we are transformed.
I have become very influenced by Etty Hillesum, who was assassinated at Auschwitz in 1943. At one point, when she was waiting with 10,000 Jews to be carted off, she said to God, “One thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that you cannot help us, that we must help you to help ourselves. … We must help you and defend your dwelling place inside us to the last.”*
How can God come into this world if our hearts are not open to receive him so that God can be present in this world? It’s somewhat similar to the words of the Apocalypse, where the Lord says, “I stand at the door and knock. The person who hears me and opens the door, I will enter and eat with that person, and that person will eat with me” (Rev. 3:20). We have to hear Jesus knocking at the door and then open the door and let him come in to be our friend. To become a friend of Jesus is to become a friend of the excluded. As we learn to be a friend of the excluded, we enter into this amazing relationship that is friendship with God.
* Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life (New York: Henry Holt, 1996), p. 178.
Jean Vanier is the founder of L’Arche, an international network of communities where people with and without learning disabilities experience life together and share a mutuality of care and need. Today about 140 L’Arche communities exist in 38 countries on six continents.
This article is taken from chapter 1 of Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness (InterVarsity, 2008) by Jean Vanier and Stanley Hauerwas. Copyright 2015 by Jean Vanier and Stanley Hauerwas. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, USA.