“Every person, and in a special way the beggar and one who is vulnerable and rejected, is precious to God and can lead us to God”
MY VISION and understanding of salvation has been deepened and enriched by the discovery of the world of people with learning disabilities. Before L’Arche, I lived my life understanding that salvation (the way and welcome into the heart of God) flowed from my belief in Jesus, and in and through the Church. Jesus is the Lord and Saviour who came to reveal the compassion and faithful love of God to the world. He is the Messiah, the Son of God, the source of oneness with God.
So what has changed in me?
I have been changed by the love of people with learning disabilities. This love has transformed my life, my values, and my vision of salvation. I was, and I expect in some ways I still am, part of a culture, a way of being in the world, that makes success its priority: you have to be first; you have to win. If this is the criteria for recognition, then it becomes important for me to develop capacities to do things well and to be successful in what I do; and to strive to climb the ladder of success and to encourage others to do the same.
When, however, I began to live with Raphael and Philippe, the first two men I welcomed from a big and violent institution, my aim was essentially to welcome the poor and the weak, and to do good to them. Little by little, this noble desire was turned inside out, and I realised that Raphael and Philippe and others whom we welcomed later into L’Arche had begun to change me, to welcome me, to make a home for my heart. I understand that this is part of what salvation means — indeed, that it is integral to it.
From that first small house in Trosly Breuil in France, a family of communities throughout the world has evolved — communities that are Christian, ecumenical, and inter-religious, welcoming people of faith and of no particular faith.
All these communities, whatever their composition, have discovered that the assistant members are being transformed through their relationships with people with learning disabilities and one another; that something is happening that transcends seeming boundaries of difference. In this way, our communities have become a sign of hope in our world, and of the saving work of Christ, which removes barriers and makes peace, as we read in Ephesians 2.
THROUGHOUT the world, people with learning disabilities have over time been seen as a punishment from God and a terrible shame for their parents. They have been judged to be hardly human: labelled as imbeciles, idiots, and — for some people living with severe and multiple disabilities — even as vegetables.
However, in living in close relationships with men and women with learning disabilities, we have discovered the beauty and sensitivity of their hearts. While unable to develop intellectually, and so to assume responsibilities that are considered important in our world, they have beautiful and sensitive hearts that are open to loving faithfully and tenderly.
We may not share deep intellectual conversations, but we do have fun together, laughing and singing, fooling around, and delighting in the other in a spirit of great freedom. We are happy to be together. Our wealth is the love and joy that we share.
Because most of these men and women cannot live by themselves or create a family, our communities have become, for all of us, marvellous places of communion. We live together, and in so doing become a sign for our world that people who are very different from one another can live together in communities that radiate love, and are places of celebration and peace.
We have learned to see the secret beauty of the other — a beauty often hidden under the difference of disability and temperament. Salvation is always a matter of beauty and happiness, although the Church can forget this fact.
ASSISTANTS frequently come to our communities to “do good” to those who are weak. They have been formed by our cultures to be strong, knowledgeable, successful, and to climb the ladder of promotion. When, they come to L’Arche, however, they discover that they are being invited to learn not to be a success, but to love; to create relationships of love and friendship with people who are at the bottom of the ladder of society, who are the most vulnerable and weak.
As they enter this world of love and friendship, the defensive walls around their hearts, and their need to be seen to be superior, begin to fall away. They start to live relationships of trust and fun, of shared laughter and tears. They are invited to be present to the suffering of the other, and to be open to receiving the gift of this other.
People with learning disabilities are obviously transformed as they discover that their deepest self is accepted and loved. So, too, are assistants transformed. God’s salvation returns us to ourselves in this way.
We discover that real human values are about loving and accepting the other, whatever their culture, their disability, their difference; that what is most important is to recognise each person as a beautiful child of God. And so L’Arche becomes for them a place in which to learn what it is to live, and love, in peace.
To love people with learning disabilities is not about doing things for them, but about revealing to each person that they are more beautiful and precious than they dare to believe.
We are not asked to judge or to condemn but, through our tenderness, deepest listening and compassion, to help them to discover little by little their inner person; to find a new trust in themselves and their own freedom, so that they too can share the gifts of their hearts, and discover that they are called by God to reveal to others their secret self. In this way we become witnesses to the real mission people with learning disabilities have in our world.
AS ASSISTANTS open up to those who are weak and vulnerable, they begin to accept their own weaknesses and vulnerability, and so to accept their own hearts. They then have a desire to grow in greater love. To be human is to grow in love and in openness to every person in our huge human family. It is not a matter of winning and of being promoted, but of growing in love. All this takes time, and each person needs to find the spiritual way that will enable this growth.
Jesus tells us that when we give a meal, we should invite the poor, the lame, the disabled, and the blind (Luke 14.12-14) and not just our family and friends. If we do so, he says, we are blessed by God. Eating with those who are rejected becomes a beatitude for us, a way into the Kingdom of God. If we eat with such people and become their friends, then we are transformed. And so we discover that every person, and in a special way the beggar and the one who is vulnerable and rejected, is precious to God, and can lead us to God.
Jesus says (Matthew 25.34): “Come, blessed of my Father, into the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” He goes on to say that those who enter the Kingdom — those who are saved — are those who were compassionate towards the weak and the needy. Everything they did for the least of his people, they did for Jesus.
We discover that L’Arche is a school where we learn to grow in love and compassion. The road is long. L’Arche teaches us that, as we grow in goodness and compassion, even if we do not know him, we become like Jesus, who is merciful and compassionate.
Jean Vanier is the founder of L’Arche, a federation of faith communities living with people with learning disabilities. Begun in France in 1964 in a Roman Catholic context, the communities have spread throughout the world and have taken root in diverse cultural contexts and religious traditions.