the paradox of humility and healing: thoughts about Vanier on his 89th birthday (part one)

Jean Vanier, founder of the L'Arche Communities, turned 89 this past Sunday. For the past two years I have been slowly and seriously reading his extensive works. Not only have I been attracted to his non-doctrinaire approach to living into the love of Jesus, but his "spirituality of tenderness" gives shape and form to my own maturation. In a video, "Belonging: the Search for Acceptance," Vanier says:

Power and strength can separate people; whereas weakness and recognition of weakness and the cry for help brings people together. When you are weak, you need people. It's very easy. When you are strong you don't need people, you can do everything on your own. So, somewhere the weak person calls people together. And when the weak call forth the strong, what happens is they awaken what is most beautiful in a human person--compassion, goodness, openness to another and so on. Our weakness brings people together... We have to find a spirituality which is not running away form suffering but entering into suffering and discovering a presence of God, and a presence of people, in pain.

Talk about upside-down, paradoxical, mystical insights about the kingdom of God! As he observes elsewhere, the call of Jesus is to love others - often those who outwardly seems unlovable - without trying to change them. In Hans S. Reinders fictionalized account of Vanier's life and work, The Second Calling, there is a lengthy retelling of how this wisdom became embodied in L'Arche. It seems there was a wounded young woman who was beyond Vanier's ability to love as Christ commands. He could neither fix her nor tolerate her agony. In despair, he consults the Prioress of an urban convent saying: "I hated this girl's chaos, the complete reign of impulse governing her life. So when I was trying to be truthful about my feelings, I could not find anything in her behavior that I actually appreciated." To which the old nun replied, "Which means you're a romantic." (p. 339)

The exchange that follows in the novel is clarifying: the nun tells Vanier that his moral impulse to help this young woman is not a problem, but his inner naiveté
is. In fact, believing he can be all things to all people is at the root of his woe. To know that others will affect us differently, she continues, is one thing: "to accept it willingly is quite another."

That takes an effort, a painful effort. I can tell you from personal experience. In your case, given your position... it means to accept that the community is not you, nor is it dependent on you... (Your perspective currently) puts you in the center of the universe, the typically romantic posture I might add, which certainly is not where you belong. God has blessed you with friends who can do what you cannot do. Don't you see what that means? God wants your work to succeed! The good Lord has put money into your work... that would never have arrived if the community's success was only dependent upon you!

In time the humbling revelation arrives that what God wants from Vanier is not only to accept help from others, but to honestly ask for it. God's servant cannot fix or help this wounded woman by himself. She needs gifts Vanier doesn't have. Romantics believe they can fix everything and grow disheartened and resentful when things don't work out. Asking for help, however, is the way to healing - a healing that includes everyone involved.  Small wonder The Second Calling starts with this quote from Vanier's Community and Growth:

Those who come close to people in need do so first of all in a generous desire to help them and bring them relief; they often feel like saviors and put themselves on a pedestal. But once in contact with them, once touching them, establishing a loving and trusting relations with them, the mystery unveils itself. At the heart of the insecurity of people in distress there is a presence of Jesus. And so they discover the sacrament of the poor and enter the mystery of compassion. People who are poor seem to break down the barriers of powerfulness, of wealth, of ability, and of pride; they pierce the armor the human heart builds to protect itself...This is the second calling, when we accept that we cannot do big or heroic things for Jesus... We feel useless; we are no longer appreciated.

In a word, we experience and embrace humility and then the living presence of Christ is revealed in the most unexpected places and people. "Little did I know that I was on the road to an amazing discovery, a goldmine of truth, where the weak and the strong, the rich and the poor would be brought together in community and find peace, where those who were rejected could heal and transform those who rejected them." (Vanier, Our Life Together) Incrementally over the past 40 years I have tasted this new wine. Now I am ready to take another step in cherishing it.

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