The Gift of Fragility

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By Jean Vanier

The founder of L'Arche shares how living in a community based on weakness leads to friendship with God.

I have been living for 42 years 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.

The gospel vision is an incredible promise…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.

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.

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.

The cry of people with disabilities was a very simple cry: Do you love me?

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.

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.

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.

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 over 130 L'Arche communities exist in 34 countries on six continents. This article was excerpted from Chapter 1 of Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness (InterVarsity, 2008) by Jean Vanier and Stanley Hauerwas. It appears here by kind permission of the publisher.

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