The Deacon's Bench

A few days ago, one of the key speakers at Quebec’s Eucharistic Congress was a man whom many consider a living saint, Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche community for the disabled.

This morning’s Washington Post On Faith section has an appreciation of Vanier and his work by Timothy Shriver:

“How’s your mum?”

That’s what Peter Frey says every time he speaks to anyone. He says it maybe 50 times a day. He says it every single day. He’s been saying it for as long as anyone can remember, over and over again. “How’s your Mum?”

Peter works on a farm in Canada, lives with friends and has a severe intellectual disability. To most, he appears an unlikely teacher. Short of stature, with an extra chromosome in every gene, to the world he’s vulnerable and hopelessly disabled. He can’t do anything. Except say, “How’s your Mum” over and over and over again.

But to Jean Vanier and to his thousands of followers around the world, Peter is among the world’s most gifted teachers of the art of relationship.

Vanier is a man just months short of his 80th birthday and is the cofounder of L’Arche. In L’Arche homes all over the world, people with severe disabilities live, work and pray together with non-disabled assistants.

In this community, every person is assumed to be of equal value. The members’ goal is to live relationships that reflect that ideal. Everyone gives and everyone receives. The community works to find the right place and the right role for each person — those with disabilities and those without. Their aim is to create a way of living that radiates the value of each life. In doing so, they hope to be a symbol to the world of God’s overwhelming and unconditional love for each of us.

It’s not easy. “Core” members—those with disabilities—come from psychiatric hospitals and institutions. They have complex and life-threatening medical conditions. Some were abandoned in early childhood or abused. Many require full-time care, night and day.

And yet they are the light of L’Arche. Last week, my wife Linda and I spent two days visiting L’Arche in France and met many core members. We met Angelique who was intent on interrupting our conversations to tell us of the abuse she had suffered as a child. (She insists on telling all new visitors her childhood story so they understand where she’s coming from.) We met Guillaume who became our French professor, guiding us on our tour of his bread-making shop. We met Vivienne who did not speak or eat during our dinner with her, but clapped and smiled wildly when it was time to sing the prayers before and after meals.

What all the core members at L’Arche appear to have in common is their disability. But what the so-called “normal” members of L’Arche (called “assistants”) experience in common is their capacity to awaken God’s love in them. Assistants come expecting to help but find themselves helped in reducing stress and living simply. They come expecting to give to the vulnerable but instead learn to accept their own vulnerability. They come to teach but stay because they discover how to place relationships above everything—to live with others in peace holds the highest value.

To some, L’Arche may seem nothing more than a radical experiment in religious living. But the truth is quite different. Today, vast chasms separate rich and poor. We fear difference and misunderstand each other. Our religions are distrustful of one another.

L’Arche has a simple message for our time: focus on relationships. Welcome the poor and the rejected. Create communities where relationships are the highest priority. Create communities where each person’s gift is valued and celebrated. Welcome the least and as a result, discover the best in all.

There’s more at the link. I’m heartened to see Vanier’s work getting the attention it deserves. His books, by the way, are jewels — clear, glittering, heart-felt meditations on the Christian way of love.

“To accept our weaknesses and those of others is the very opposite of sloppy complacency,” Vanier wrote. “It is essentially a concern for truth so that we do not live in illusion but can grow from where we are and not from where we want to be or where others want us to be. It is only when we are conscious of who we are and who the others are, with all our wealth and weakness, and when we are conscious of the call of God and the life he gives us, that we can build something together.”

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