Wednesday, September 20, 2017

reflections on vanier at 89 (part three)

In part three of this series of reflections on the work and wisdom of Jean Vanier at 89, please consider this insight by Hans S. Reinders, Bernard Lievegoed Professor of Ethics and Mental Disability at the Free University of Amsterdam. Vanier has learned, Reinders, writes that "community is not about trying to live a shared idea."

Rather, it is about learning the truth about oneself and others. Contrary to a frequent misreading of its experience, L'Arche has nothing to do with an ideal community that is shaped my morally exceptional people. Instead it has everything to do with people learning to be with each other and be accepted as who and what they are. Thus understood, learning to live in L'Arche is not about following a pattern or a plan according to which the moral self must be shaped. Its gestures of community are about accepting brokenness and limitation in order to create the freedom of celebrating difference.
                                      (The Paradox of Disability, ed. Hans S. Reinders, p. 6)

For idealists, romantics or those of us driven by a disembodied notion of doing "God's will" with our lives, living into this truth can be simultaneously frightening and disorienting. We hunger and thirst after righteousness (justice and authentic compassion.) We are striving, however, to participate in a healing in the world that we have not yet encountered within our hearts. With zeal, we fight against the social forces that wound the vulnerable. We earnestly challenge oppression and passionately critique the status quo. In solidarity, we whole-heartedly link our identities with various movements for collective transformation. Only to discover one day that we have burned out. Or become disillusioned with leaders who are imperfect, women or men with feet of clay, who break our hearts.  

In such moments, it is incomprehensible that our despair also holds the key to our happiness. All we know is darkness, not light; anger, not joy; confusion, not clarity. Consequently, some become cynical and quit trying. Others self-medicate their pain and try to push it away with externals. And a few seek the counsel of those wiser than themselves and practice going into their suffering so that they might be embraced by vulnerability and spiritual resurrection. "As Vanier has explained many times, there is no way of doing something for other people if you do not first learn how to receive whatever gift they have to offer, which presupposes your willingness to accept that you also are a person in need. The L'Arche community is about learning to receive other people as God's gift." (ibid, p. 4)

Speaking from within my own experience of activism for peace and justice in the 1960s and 70s - including organizing with Cesar Chavez's farm workers union - my early motivation had to do with building the kingdom of God on earth. My go to Biblical texts were: "Seek ye first the kingdom of God" (Mt. 6: 33) and "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." (Luke 9: 62) In pursuit of becoming a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, I became a vegetarian. "How can I be a person against death," I asked, "if I eat death to live?" In fact, those type of questions dominated my quest to eradicate contradiction from my being. I genuinely believed that with enough effort and education, I could train myself to become a true man of peace. Like other young people of good will and idealism, I was certain that if I failed at something, I just needed to try a little harder and I could make it work. 

So, when things went south with Cesar, the bottom of my world dropped out. I couldn't fix things so I became despondent over his frailties and disappointed with his cynical and faulty leadership. I couldn't make it better and became angry, too. How could a once revered icon of nonviolence turn out to also be a small minded demagogue with cultist tendencies? I was vicious with my critique and ran into the embrace of the Church seeking yet another external expression of healing. In time, it was inevitable that I would discover that it too was more the broken body of Christ than a community of the committed. Often, it was petty. Or fearful. And it's vision was shaped more by its wounds than the grace of God. Again, I was hurt and angry. Same was true for my work in traditional electoral politics. And when that turned out to be less than I hoped for, I still didn't look within - or own that my quest for outward healing was driven by my own inner suffering - until my divorce. That is when I had to face my own fears and failures.  In the 12 Step movement this is called: hitting bottom. 

Now, the thing about hitting bottom is that it can be a blessing and a curse at the same time. It is humiliating - the curse - but can nourish humility - the blessing. It is a total failure and hurts even as it holds the possibility of new life. Vanier put it like this in The Heart of L'Arche describing how he came to accept the presence of the Lord in people with intellectual or physical challenges at a time when he was at wits end:

If, at times, some people with disabilities awakened a new tenderness in me, and it was a joy to be with them, at different moments others awakened my anger and defensiveness. I was frightened that they might touch my own vulnerability. At times I felt agitated and ill at ease with them, just the opposite of the peace and openness I needed to be present to them. It is hard to admit the darkness, fears, anguish, confusion and psychological hatred in our own hearts, all of which hid our past hurts and reveal our inability to love. If we love only those who love and affirm us, is it really love? It it not simply self-love? 

For those who like me, have always been able to do what they like and have always succeeded, it is difficult (to learn to love); at the same time it can be a real source of salvation and growth to discover our poverty and our powerlessness, and to be confronted by failure. I had to accept my own difficulties and poverty, and look for help. Faced with my anger and inability to love, I came into contact with my own humanity - and become humbler. I discovered that I was frightened of my own dark places, always wanting to succeed, to be admired and ready with the right answers. I was hiding my poverty... (what I came to realize) is that to become a friend to people in need, I needed to pray and work on myself, with the help of the Holy Spirit, and with good human and spiritual accompaniment... I had to learn to accept myself without any illusions. I had to discover how to forgive and discover my own need for forgiveness. Little by little, the weak and the powerlessness helped me to accept my own poverty, to become more full human and grow in inner wholeness. (pp. 34-35)

He discovered that if he let the wounded lead him into those places he dreaded, in time there was blessing. There was peace. There was love. By going into the darkness with others saturated in patience, he came to experience - and then trust - a love greater than his fears. Jesus promised as much to Peter in St. John's retelling of the resurrection: after Peter's betrayal and anguish - after the disciple's alienation and awareness of his own conflicted nature - not only would there be Christ's forgiveness, but also a life beyond dread and panic. "Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go." (John 21: 18)

The charism of Vanier's work in L'Arche is "to reveal to an age obsessed with
achievements that the essential value of each person lies not in the intelligence, but in the wisdom of the heart." (The Heart of L'Arche, p. 12) It is a small gift. A mustard seed in a field of confusion. And it points towards the peace that passes all understanding that we ourselves cannot obtain alone.  Effort, education, wealth and status cannot bring us to the place of peace: striving does not work. T.S. Eliot brilliantly summarizes human folly like this:

O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying!
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of heaven in twenty centuries
Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.

("The Rock," T.S. Eliot)

Vanier's alternative to human arrogance is nourishing the love of God: letting others see my poverty gives them space to love me.

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