reflections on jean vanier at 89: part two

"When the student is ready, the Buddha appears" has long been an aphorism that speaks to me:  it is without judgment, avoids preachy or pious words, and suggests that I don't have to have life figured out all at once. My call is to simply continue on the journey. In time, when I am able to grasp a new way of be-ing, another layer of insight will be revealed. But not until the time is right for my soul. A Sufi story about the trickster-holy fool, Nasrudin, puts this truth in a humbling way:

Hussein told the Mullah, "I have terrible pain in my eye. What do you advise?" Nasrudin though for a moment and then said, "Pull it out." With shock and bewilderment, Hussein said, "You can't be serious." To which the Mullah replied, "Well, last month my tooth hurt horribly for weeks, until I couldn't bear the pain anymore. So I had the tooth pulled out - and then I felt much better. So, if it worked for my tooth, it should work for your eye, too, right?"

The first is gentler, to be sure, but no less compassionate than the second. Both are reminders that we are here to ripen. That wisdom is not one-size-fits-all. That binary thinking is a trap that encourages ignorance and arrogance. In true Christian formation the whole point of "missing the mark" is not judgment but rather discernment on the road to tenderness. The second century St. Irenaeus was clear: we were created incomplete on purpose. Through our failures, pain, brokenness and all the other ups and downs of living, we learn what we don't know so that we might be healed. Incrementally we become more like God: open, whole, compassionate, humble and creative.  Sadly, the Western Church has suffered under the influence of St. Augustine's Manichean heresies since the early 5th century CE.  To be sure, the saint from Hippo was brilliant, but so driven by his previous sexual obsessions and an ugly addiction to duality, that he re-framed the Jewish story of Adam and Eve in Genesis as "the fall." In the East, dear Irenaeus was far wiser:

Irenaeus incorporates Genesis 2 (like Augustine), but comes up with a very different explanation and theory for the enigma of sin in the world. Essentially, this perspective says that the story of Adam and Eve is really an allegory for all humankind rather than a literal history (the Hebrew term "adam" means simply "mankind"). Following from this thought there was no original state of perfection (unlike Augustine), and therefore no "fall from grace," but rather a developing of the human person and the culture over time to reach this perfect state. He also cites a different reason for our human tendency toward sin. Since we have been born into a world full of sin, it is only natural that we will sin. Individuals, societies and systems within societies constantly sin. When we, as children, are surrounded by these actions we cannot help but succumb to them ourselves, which further perpetuates the system of sin. This is the "original sin" Irenaeus speaks of.
(Thom Parker @ http://www.unewsonline.com/2005/04/14/ theteachingsofirenaeusoriginalsinasahopefuldevelopment/

In other wards, humanity is ripening, maturing and "developing toward a state of perfection." (NOTE:  Perfection here means maturity rather than without brokenness.) Jesus shows us what holy human maturation looks like - and this is where our journey can take us if we are quiet, aware, open and willing to live into the blessings of the Buddha when she appears on the road. 

One of the reasons I continue to find the earthy and ordinary teachings of Jean Vanier so compelling is because he has learned how to ripen.  He trusts that he doesn't need to know everything. More over, experientially he has lived into the wisdom of compassionate community where whatever gifts he doesn't possess are likely to be found in another. "Some people have a true gift of discernment. They can seize what is essential in a complicated discussion or a confused story. They are quick to understand what is really needed and at the same time, if they are practical, they can suggest the first steps towards putting people on the road to healing. Some people in a community who do not have an important position may have this gift of light for us. We must learn to listen to them."
(Community and Growth, p. 253)

Too often, however, the gifts of another remain hidden under a basket - unrealized - until we're small enough to honestly ask, "I need your help. Can you help me?" Vanier underscores that wisdom and spiritual maturity are born of being small and vulnerable. When we accept this truth like a small child, we can then ask for help and unlock the holy gifts others were born to share. "All of us have a secret desire to be seen as saints, heroes, martyrs. We are afraid to be children, to be ourselves." (Community and Growth) In The Heart of L'Arche: A Spirituality of Every Day, Vanier puts it like this: A poor person is one who is in need. It could be physical need or emotional or spiritual need. In this, we each know poverty:

The poor person is one who is in need, who recognizes this need and who cries out for help. Weakness is frequently considered a defect. Yet are we not all weak and needy in some way? We all have our vulnerabilities, our limits and our disabilities. When we recognize our weaknesses, we can ask for help; we can work together. We need each other. It is obvious that the weak need the strong, but, as we are discovering in L'Arche, the strong also need the weak. (p. 14)

What a relief, yes? What a blessing, too. To be liberated from striving for strength - or perfection - or measuring up to another's demands and/or standards? Instead, the way of the heart treasures and honors our weakness for as St. Paul observes, "In our weakness, God is made strong and grace becomes sufficient" for all. It has taken me 65 years to honor this truth. I have yearned for it all of my life, but only now know it to be part of the bread of heaven.

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