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"Seeing God in Others"
What I discover today is every time I see a man or a woman with a severe mental handicap — the incredible cry that is coming from them — what I would call the primal cry — which is, "Do you love me?" — a very deep cry. And you find with people with mental handicaps that this is their — "Do you love me?", "Why have I been abandoned?" or "Has my life any value?"And you find with people with mental handicaps that this is their — "Do you love me?", "Why have I been abandoned?" or "Has my life any value?"
Somewhere this cry of, "Do you want to be my friend?" touched me. I began visiting asylums, hospitals, different institutions, families, and I discovered an immense world of pain which I never, never could have imagined. I had been schooled in the Navy and in a world of efficiency. I'd then been schooled in the world of philosophy and theology. Suddenly to discover these big hospitals with hundreds — sometimes thousands — of mentally handicapped people living in obvious pain. And from their being came immense cries of violence, of auto-mutilation — hitting their heads. So I discovered all this world which I hadn't even imagined existed. I met parents — the pain of parents.
And it seemed very clear to me that Jesus was asking me just to take one or two men and to start living together. So I was able to buy a small, broken-down house and I welcomed two men, Raphael and Philippe, from an institution. Raphael had had meningitis. He couldn't walk very well, he couldn't speak very well. Philippe had had encephalitis — one arm paralyzed, one leg paralyzed — living in a world of dream, but also with quite a severe mental handicap.
We began to live together. I did the cooking, so we didn't eat very well! We did everything together. We cooked, we worked in the garden together, we fought together, we prayed together, we forgave each other. And so, a whole sort of journey began. I began by thinking that I could do good for them, but then as the days and then the months moved on I began to discover, little by little, what they were doing for me — transforming me, changing me. I thought I was going to teach them something and suddenly I was discovering that they were teaching me quite a bit.
When Jesus says, "Whoever welcomes one of these little ones in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the Father," or "the one who sent me" — when Jesus says, "I was in prison and you visited me, I was sick and you visited me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, I was a stranger, I was strange, I was different, and you welcomed me" — it's really true. I never knew this. I mean, I'd read it in the gospels but I didn't know what it meant and I'm not sure that I really believed it. I'm beginning to realize that if Christians believed in Jesus hidden in the poor the world would change.
Of course, the great pain of the world — people sometimes talk about "the pain of handicapped people" and "the pain of the poor" and it's true there is an immense, immense, immense world of suffering everywhere — immense world of suffering. But what I am discovering is that the greatest suffering is not that man with the handicap, not that boy who is blind, who is deaf and severely brain damaged, but the greatest pain is in those who reject them. The greatest pain, without any doubt, is in the rich. There I'm seeing how people can lock themselves up behind prisons. We can call these prisons the prisons of comfort, the prison of security, but it's a terrible prison, because we lock ourselves away from humanity. You see, the whole mystery of Jesus is that he came to bring peace and our world is a world of immense conflict.
And I am beginning to see how fundamentally so many people are ridden with guilt — ridden with quilt. And the great mystery that Jesus came to announce, and there I see that with clear evidence every day, is that Jesus came to take away from our shoulders the yoke of guilt. People are ridden with guilt. People have the sort of feeling that "nobody can love me." I see this with our handicapped people, but I see it also with everybody — the feeling that "nobody can love me, I'm no good and I've hurt people." I see parents ridden with guilt because they feel they've hurt their child. I see husbands ridden with guilt because they haven't been able to correspond to the cry of their wives. I see women ridden with guilt because they cannot, they don't know how to correspond to their husbands. Covenants have been broken. I see Christians ridden with guilt because when they read the gospels it doesn't correspond to what they're living.
Jesus says, "Leave everything you have and follow me and give it to the poor." But they know they can't do it, they don't do it, and when they see the poor they see the poor as a nuisance and they see the poor as people who disturb them. They don't see the face of Christ in the poor because somewhere they are ridden with guilt.
The whole of the mystery of Christ is that he came to take away guilt. He came to forgive and to teach people to forgive. It's something really as simple as that. It doesn't have to be done in a big way, but it's to learn to live with each other.
I must say that what I've learned from people like Eric is that what is important in human relationships is to discover that God has led us together. I feel that very clearly for myself — that it was Jesus who brought me to handicapped people. And I know the day that I welcomed Raphael and Philippe I knew — and I know it today — that it was an irreversible act, that in welcoming Raphael and Philippe it was a covenant that I was entering into. And therefore, if this was given to me by Jesus, well then he had given me this strength and we'd live something together.
So I'm beginning to discover something which is really important about the vision of Jesus for our world: that Jesus wants our world to be a body and not a hierarchy. What do I mean by this? I mean that he wants humanity, each one, to find his or her place. And in the body, everyone or every member of that body has a place and the poorest and the weakest have a place. But somewhere we have transformed this world into a hierarchy, where everybody is struggling to win, where everybody wants to climb the ladder, where everybody is in rivalry and competition one with another. Where in some way we are in sort of "survival of the fittest". We must rise up to the top or else we die, we're no good, we're nothing.
And yet, Jesus came to create a body and in that body to respect difference, to respect the other person as different, to welcome each person into that body and to give space. That's what St. Paul says when he talks about the church, that the church is a body. And he says that the weakest members of the body, the most indecent, are necessary to the body and — then a little further on — should be honored. The great mystery of Jesus is that he has come to totally change the vision of the world.
The vision of the world is a vision based on hierarchy. At the top there is success, there is power, privilege and prestige. That's what everybody is striving for. Jesus came to change all that — to create a body where there's no more rivalry, but where there's forgiveness. And where each one can find their place. Where we work together in a body.
But the body is not everybody the same because the eye is very different from the ear or the foot. Somewhere the principle of the body is a covenant and then to respect the other one as different — man to respect woman as different.
Love is not fusion because fusion is quickly confusion. Love is not you and I losing our identity. To love is "I am I and you are you. And we come together — you are different from me and we can love each other and we can be one body in one family." So in a community, a parish, a church to discover the mystery that we are called to welcome people as different, because they are different. Not because they are the same but because they are different. And precisely because they are different then we grow together.
It's more beautiful, it's like a bouquet of flowers — not all just violets or roses. And that is our universe. The universe is an incredible difference and yet each one of us is seen as unique.
So handicapped people have been teaching me about living in the body. They've been teaching me that what is important is not to climb up the ladder, not to speak on television, but to go down the ladder and there to meet people and celebrate with people, communicate with people; to escape from our loneliness through covenant, to escape from our loneliness through communication and there to discover that we can love each other, that we can accept each other as different.
The handicapped person — Eric — is very different from myself. Eric with his blindness, with his deafness, with his brokenness, and yet Eric has something to tell me. Though he can't speak his body can speak. Somewhere to discover what non-verbal language is, to discover body language, and then to discover that Eric is very like myself and I am like him. We are different in many ways, because he cannot speak and his capacity of reasoning is very limited and so on; but yet, he is revealing to me that his heart is like my heart. He wants to be loved and I want to be loved and that's what both of us need.
Love is not just to do something for someone — love is not a sort of sentimentality and kissing each other and so on. Love is to enter into covenant — to know that you accept me as I am, that you see my gift, but also that you see my wound. That you won't abandon me when you see my wound, that you won't just flatter me when you see my gift. But you accept me as I am with all that is fragile, all that is broken, all that is beautiful, too.
Then to discover that we can do this — not just you and I — but in a community where we accept each other as we are. Then the extraordinary thing is we can let down barriers, we don't have to prove, I don't have to pretend I'm better than you are, I'm allowed to be myself. I'm allowed to be myself because you love me.
And then to discover that in your love you are liberating me, in your love there is a presence of Christ. That Jesus is present, and that he's truly present, and your love is also a sign of the presence of God. And that you love me not because I am going to give you something, that you love me not because you put me on the pedestal, but because in some way we're the same humanity, we belong to the same humanity, we are brothers, we are brothers and sisters together and we've been joined by Christ.
Because the whole of the mystery of Jesus is to bring people together. The work of the evil one, Satan, is to divide, to put frontiers up between people, to create a world where there are goodies and badies, and where we judge and where we condemn.
The whole of the mystery of Christ is in those words that Jesus says in the Gospel of St. Luke: "Be compassionate as the Father is compassionate. Don't judge and you won't be judged, don't condemn and you won't be condemned, forgive and you'll be forgiven, give and in the measure that you give you will receive." That's the whole message of Jesus. "Love your enemies, I say to you love your enemies, love those that hate you, criticize you, pray for those that persecute you." And he goes on...It's easy to love those in the same club. It's easy to love those that love you. I mean, anybody without God can do that. That's not the problem. It's easy to lend to someone when you know that if you're in need they'll lend to you. "But I say," says Jesus, "Love your enemies." That's to say, love those who in some way are a threat to you.
Of course, the incredible thing with Jesus is that these words "love your enemies" are a commandment — it's not an option. But before being a commandment it is a promise because he is saying: I'll teach you, I'll change your heart of stone and I'll put my spirit in you.
The whole of the mystery of Christ is to change us so that we become the face of Jesus, we become the hands of Jesus, that we become the heart of Jesus, that our body becomes the body of Christ, that our words become the words of Christ. That's the mystery — that he gives us his Spirit so we can continue this work of peacemaking, so we can be Jesus to reconcile others to this world. And reconciliation begins as we welcome those that are different, as we welcome the person who has leprosy, as we welcome the person who is mentally sick, as we welcome into our homes the old.
But our world has been created in such a way, our culture, where we reject the useless — what we see as useless. And in point of fact, those we reject are those that Jesus wants as the foundation stone of the new society. And the foundation stone of the new society of those who believe in Christ are the poor, the weak, the old, the little — those who in some mysterious way prolong the mystery of the incarnation.
You know the whole mystery of Christ — we don't like to talk about this too much — is that Jesus disturbed people because his vision was too beautiful, his vision was too demanding, because his vision is a vision of love which is in direct conflict with all the powers of egocentrism. Jesus is calling people to love. And because he called people to love, to give their lives, to give their riches, to become poor, then he was rejected — they didn't want him so they killed him and put him aside.
Today this is continuing. The poor are crying out for love. The weak, the handicapped people, the physically handicapped people, they are all crying out for love. They are all saying, "Do you want to be my friend?" Just as Jesus is saying, "Do you want to be my friend?" But then they are trodden upon, they are put aside, they are aborted, they are not wanted — rejected.
So we find the prisons are full, the young people don't find hope, they are going into a world of drugs and so on, because they don't see love, they don't see sharing. They see a world where there is terrific hypocrisy — people saying one thing and doing another — people "fooling around" with other people. But it's not love, it's not a gift to themselves. So many people are in despair, many young people are in despair because this world is so broken and so little and so, so weak.
Jean Vanier, "Seeing God In Others." Transcript from a broadcast of 30 Good Minutes, October 1, 1995, produced by the Chicago Sunday Evening Club.
Reprinted by permission of the Chicago Sunday Evening Club.
In 1964, Jean Vanier, the son of a former Governor General of Canada, was teaching philosophy at the University of Toronto when he visited the chaplain of a small residence for handicapped people. That visit was a turning point in Jean Vanier's life and it became clear to him that God was calling him to something new. Soon after, in a small town outside of Paris, he invited two handicapped men from a nearby institution to come live with him. In time, others joined them, until the community grew to over 400 people. Their success in ministering to the handicapped in a radically new way — a way inspired by Jesus — gradually spread until today, there are more than 120 L'Arche communities in 30 countries and on six continents. Jean Vanier is the author of: Becoming human, Made for happiness: Discovering the meaning of life with Aristotle, Finding Peace, Drawn Into the Mystery Of Jesus, Encountering 'The Other', and From Brokenness to Community.
Copyright © 2005 Chicago Sunday Evening Club