In Your Midst

'Jesus Loves Me as I Am'

August 2008

Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche, visits St. James Cathedral

During almost all my years at the Cathedral, I have been blessed to serve as community pastor for the L’Arche community over on Capitol Hill.  The beginning of my relationship with the community was less than promising.  I remember battling rush hour traffic over to 15th and Aloha, all the while knowing that I was going to be late for an engagement that I kind of wished I had never accepted:  Mass with the L’Arche community.  It’s embarrassing to admit this but it’s true.  I had accepted the community’s warm invitation mostly because I didn’t want to say no, and as I was fighting my way through the traffic that evening, I was feeling a little put out, a little tired and resentful (one more demand on my time!), and not a little embarrassed that I was going to be late.

Happily, I wasn’t late.  Well, I was, but so was everyone else (a l’Arche trademark, I found!).  But the real happy thing was what happened after I walked into the living room of Noah House and found myself greeted with warm smiles by people like Marge and Jack and Tom and Carol and Eddie and Theresa and Patty.  I rather quickly began to realize that this wasn’t about me at all; it was about them.  It wasn’t about anything I had to give; it was about what they had to give.  I was greeted that night by what I will always think of as a living gospel: beautiful people, wounded and weak people, vulnerable and broken people who were willing to accept me and who, in welcoming me to their community, gave me the opportunity to be spiritually nourished by them.

My only regret over the many years that have passed since that January evening is that I haven’t had a whole lot more time to spend with this loving, caring, crazy bunch of people in whom God is so powerfully and mysteriously present.

L’Arche really is a living gospel.  In a world of competition, of self-promotion, of “we’re number one,” a world where more is better, where beauty is confused with appearances, where wealth is confused with money and things, where truth is traded for what works, where individualism is exalted and prized above community, where poverty and brokenness are shameful, l’Arche points to the way of Jesus: the way of love, the way of acceptance, the way of vulnerability, the way of humility, the way of communion.

How blessed I am to have been able over these years to see and read the living gospel of l’Arche at close range through the eyes and heart of the community of L’Arche Noah Sealth.  And how blessed I have been to have spent time on several occasions with L’Arche’s remarkable founder, Jean Vanier.  Jean is without a doubt one of the true saints of our time.  He is everything (and everyone) whom Jesus calls blessed.  He’s the poor in spirit, he’s the meek, he’s the peacemaker, he’s the one who hungers and thirsts for justice; he’s the one who loves his enemies, who judges not lest he be judged; he’s the one who finds the face of Jesus in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the sick, the prisoner—“the least of his brothers and sisters.” 

And Jean understands in a way few people do the precious worth of each human person.  In a politically correct society that can mount passionate campaigns to save the whales and the spotted owls but overlook life in the womb, or life after it has ceased to be ‘useful,’ he reminds us of Jesus’ teaching that each human person is “worth more than many sparrows.”   That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have a deep care for all of creation and for all of God’s creatures—he most certainly does—but the Christian philosopher in him assures  him that each human person made in God’s image and likeness has a worth beyond measure, and that is true whether the person is ‘normal’ and healthy, or handicapped, severely disabled, and of no perceivable worth to society.

The following are extracts from Jean’s talk in the Cathedral on June 22.

Father Michael G. Ryan

What I’d like tonight is to lead you into a mystery.  A mystery is not something we can grasp.  It’s not a reality that we can hold on to intellectually.  It’s a reality that’s given to us: a reality that we experience, but can’t always understand.  Jesus, the Word who became Flesh, is teaching us in L’Arche and in Faith and Light that the Flesh becomes Word.  The word became flesh so that the flesh becomes word…becomes revelation.  The whole mystery of the word of God:  in the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, turned towards God, and the word was God… The Word became flesh.  Not the word became a ‘human being’… the Word became flesh.  L’Arche and Faith and Light were founded on the reality of broken bodies—fragile bodies—vulnerable bodies.  We’re not first of all founded on the Word, but on the Flesh that becomes Word.  The flesh speaks, the flesh announces.

We all know how a little baby is born, and the incredible relationship between mother and child or father and child.  The mother, through her tenderness, through the tone of the voice, through touch, is revealing to the child, “I love you.  And you are important.”  And the child is revealing to the mother—communion, tenderness.  That’s how we all begin.  And in a way, this is the reality of L’Arche and of Faith and Light.

Many people with disabilities have led a painful life, and parents of people with disabilities have suffered an immense amount.  When they discover that their child will not speak, will not be able to walk, will not be able to go to school like other people, there’s a terrible wound in the heart of mom and dad.  That wound in the heart of mom and dad is in some mysterious way transmitted to the child.  “If I’m not loved, if I’m not wanted, then I’m not lovable… no good.”  In L’Arche, as in Faith and Light, our vocation, our gift, is to welcome those who in some way have been a disappointment to their parents, a disappointment to family, and a source of concern for many people.  And the whole of our lives at L’Arche as in Faith and Light is to say “I love you.”  We’re not first of all there to do things for people, we’re there to reveal.  And what do we reveal?  “You are precious; you’re important.  It’s a gift for us to be with you.”  I would say that the essential element of L’Arche is just to say, “I’m happy to live with you.”

Generosity is a great gift.  So many people are filled with generosity.  Generosity is when one has the capacity to do things, to bend down, to give, to help, and that is a wonderful human quality.  But essentially what we’re discovering in L’Arche is that this generosity must lead to a meeting.  When one is generous, one has power, one has a certain superiority—we give to whom we want, and when we want, and how we want.  But if generosity leads to a meeting, we become vulnerable.  I’ve met your eyes, I’ve seen the tears in your eyes, I’ve touched your wounded heart, maybe I’ve heard your anger or heard your violence, your feeling that you’re ‘no good’… we have met.  And when we meet someone who is vulnerable and in pain, we ourselves become vulnerable.  The cry that comes from many people with disabilities is a cry for friendship.  Do you love me?

We have been led, L’Arche and Faith and Light, into the mystery of the Gospels.  We didn’t seek things like that.  But we have been led.   Jesus wants to lead us all into the mystery.  And where have we been led?  To those words of St. Paul:  “God has chosen what is foolish in this world, chosen the weak to confound the strong and the so-called intelligent.” It’s important that we reflect on those words.  What is this choice of God?

I’d like to share with you the very first experience I had with people who were fragile.  I was teaching philosophy in Toronto.  And my mentor, my spiritual father, a Dominican, Thomas Philippe, was then chaplain of a small institution where there were some thirty men, many of whom had been in psychiatric hospitals or asylums.  Father Thomas suggested to me, “Come, come and meet these people.”  He said, “To understand human nature, to understand a society, you must speak to those who have been pushed aside and marginalized.”  I said I would come, but I was a little bit anxious… How would we communicate if people don’t talk?  Even if we do talk, what’ll we talk about?  I could teach them a little bit about how to drive an aircraft carrier—my last ship; I could tell them a little bit about Aristotle—I did my doctorate in Aristotle.  And so there was a bit of anxiety.  But I was amazed.  All my anxiousness disappeared.  Each one of these men in some way or another expressed through their body the flesh become Word.  Each one was saying, “Do you love me?  Am I important for you?  Will you be my friend?  Will you come back and see us?”  I saw there an immense cry for relationship.

My students in philosophy wanted a bit of the things in my head (which was not very much).  They wanted the things in my head so they could get through their exams, and then get a job and have money and go into this society which is a very competitive society, as you know.  My students weren’t seeking my heart, they were seeking my head.  But this was different.  The men in this particular institution were seeking a relationship.

Jesus speaks in the Gospel of Matthew and Luke—22 Matthew or 14 Luke—about a wedding feast.  A king has prepared a huge meal for a wedding feast.  And he sends out his servants to say, “All is prepared: come.”  “I’m too busy.  I’m sorry, I’m too busy.  I’ve things to do, my daughter’s getting married, I’ve bought land, or I’ve bought a pair of oxen, I’m terribly sorry.”  And each one made excuses.  You can imagine the pain of the king.

This wedding feast is a sign of the kingdom.  Those who are in power, well inserted in society, are too busy.  They’re taken up with short term or long term projects.  So the king, and we read this in Luke, sends out the servants into the highways and byways.  “Bring in the poor, the lame, the disabled, and the blind.”  They came rushing in.  They were yearning for community, they were yearning for relationship… not just to have a good meal, something much deeper.  So when Paul talks about “God has chosen the weak”:  the weak are crying out for relationship.  The mystery of God is that God is relationship.

Let me tell you a rather beautiful little story.  It happens in a parish in France, in Paris.  There’s a little boy of eleven with an intellectual disability, and it’s his First Communion.  After the liturgy, the Eucharist, there’s a family celebration.  And the uncle who is also the godfather of the little boy goes up to the mother and says, “Wasn’t it a beautiful liturgy?  The only thing that’s sad is that he didn’t understand anything.”  The little boy heard and he said, with tears in his eyes, “Don’t worry, mommy, Jesus loves me as I am.”
Jesus loves me as I am.  Do we dare say that?  Or will our reaction be, Jesus loves me if I pray a bit more, if I’m kinder with my wife, with my husband, with the children… That consciousness that that little boy had.  “Don’t worry, Mommy, Jesus loves me as I am.”
In our communities it’s very striking, when we pray together, when we share together, nobody will ever talk about “Christ,” they’ll never talk about “the Savior.”  They’ll talk about “Jesus.”  A first name, Jesus.  Jesus is my friend.  I’m loved by Jesus.  I love Jesus.  The whole mystery of God is a mystery of relationship.

The experience we have in L’Arche is that those people who are extremely vulnerable are leading us.  I welcomed two people from an institution, this goes back over 40 years ago, and there was something within me which was generosity, a desire to good, to react to the situation of many institutions where people with disabilities were locked up, or where they were locked up in their homes.  I believe that somewhere at the beginning of L’Arche there was a desire to do something “good.”  Gradually, as we’ve lived together, and here we touch the aspect of mystery, which maybe you will not really be able to believe unless you yourself have experienced it, that in living with Raphael, Philippe, and others, I have changed.

In my own community, not far from Paris, we once had nineteen future priests in the various houses that were nearby.  They asked to meet me at the end of the month that they’d spent with us.  I said to them, “I don’t want to talk to you, I want to listen.  What have you lived?”  And each one said in some way or another, maybe using different words, “I feel transformed.  After the month I had in L’Arche, I feel transformed.”  I said, “Do you realize what you are saying?  You have had an experience of God.  You’re hoping to become a priest.  And you’re saying that spending a month in L’Arche, maybe giving a bath, eating at the same table, working together, helping those who are more fragile… you say you have been transformed?  What does that mean?  What is that experience that you have lived?  And what is the meaning of transformation?”

I think we came down to the realization that these men were moving or had moved for a brief while from the head to the heart.  You see, we can learn theology.  We can do studies.  We can know things that can enrich us and help us, maybe later we can teach.  But relationship is something very different.  As we enter into a relationship, as we move from generosity into a meeting, where your heart touches my heart, then in some way, we’re caught.  We become vulnerable.  Vulnerable, one to another.  Your pain becomes my pain.  Your concerns become my concerns.  And we enter into a meeting which gradually can be the beginning of a friendship.  We begin to know each other’s name.  The other person is no longer a person with disabilities.  It’s just Mary or Nancy… it’s a person, with a heart, a wounded heart, and I have my heart, I realize also that my heart is a wounded heart.  So we begin to need each other.

So I’ve learned a lot.  I’ve learned about the beauty of relationship.  I’ve learned that we are transformed little by little as we enter into relationship with the weak.
You know, Jesus is extraordinary.  I encourage you to meet him.
At one point, the disciples are on their way to Capernaum, and Jesus turns to them and says, “What were you talking about?”  They were talking about who was the best amongst them, who was the most important, who was the most loved by Jesus, all that sort of stuff.  And Jesus, taking a little child, said, “If you want to enter the kingdom of God, you must become like this little child.”  And he said, “Whoever welcomes a child like this one, welcomes me, and who welcomes me, welcomes the Father.”  Can it be true?  That if we welcome a wounded child, fragile, broken, we welcome Jesus?  Welcome the Father?

I’m always touched by the text of the Book of Revelation where the Lord says, “I stand and knock at the door.  If someone hears me, and opens the door, I will enter, to eat with that person, that person close to me, and I close to that person.”  Jesus knocks at the door, and often we don’t hear, because we’ve got too many projects or things in our head, too many fears, too much busyness, we don’t hear.  But if we do hear, maybe we don’t want to open the door.  And the incredible thing is that Jesus is waiting outside.  Just waiting.  He doesn’t kick the door open.  This is the incredible delicacy and tenderness of Jesus, the deep respect, deep respect, he has for our freedom. Because there can be no love without freedom. We can only love freely, and receive love freely.  Jesus waits.  He knocks at the door.

This incredible invitation.  You have probably heard as I have heard, some people who say God cannot exist, there’s too much pain in the world.  If God is all powerful, either he just doesn’t care about us, or he doesn’t want to do anything, so he can’t exist.  You can hear people say things like this.  They don’t know about the vulnerable God.  The All-Powerful who becomes powerless. 

If somebody has a toothache,  don’t sit with that person, and say “I’ll pray for you.”  Take them to a dentist.  If somebody is hungry, don’t think that suddenly bread will fall from heaven… give them food.  If there’s so much pain in the world, it’s not that God is disinterested. 

The way God works is to say to you, Will you give bread to the hungry?  Will you welcome those who are fragile?  Will you succor those who are abandoned?  Will you be present to those old people who have Alzheimer’s?  Will you be close to those who are hurt?  Because God will be saying, I want to work through you, and if I can become your friend, we will work together, to bring peace to others.

Jean Vanier, Sunday, June 22, 2008 at St. James Cathedral

Click here to listen to Jean's talk and to view an album of this event

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