Human Being

Day 3 (Jean Vanier)

Last night I shared about Kiku and Helen, Helen very disabled, broken and blind; about the pain of people with disabilities -- the deep pain which is the reflection of the pain when a child feels that they are not wanted -- that all of of us have felt when we have felt we not wanted -- it is obvious that Helen needs Kiku, but it also becomes a apparent that Kiku needs to Helen and it shows what it means to be a human being, to build community. Something we have learnt in the sharing between those who are openly very weak and those who have a show of strength, is a lot to do with the body -- a lot of communication is through the body. We discover a great deal about language, how to communicate with those who cannot speak -- those who speak through their violence, through their cry; and how to accept people who are different.

I want to share with you tonight the idea of communion, with a mutuality, a mutual trust in which we are giving each other freedom -- it is not to do things for them, but to reveal to them that they have value, that they have gifts. They who come to us have been told that they have not much worth -- they come to our communities and learn that they have value, they are beautiful.

I want to tell you tonight the anger that came up in me when I met Lucien. I saw rising up inside of me angers that I wouldn't want -- a gradual discovery of who I am. When you live in a strong relationship world, you find on one side a capacity for tenderness, but we also touch an immense brokenness and fear of people. I have had the privilege of travelling a lot for L'Arche and for the non -- residential communities `Faith and Light' (now present in 64 countries!). One has the impression that the world is going through a lot of fragmentation -- people are losing a sense of communication -- television is one of the reasons. The television on the dinner table is not the most propitious situation for communicating! As I walk through the village at night, all the families are in front of their screens. They are losing the capacity to share and to celebrate -- yes they can drink beer, but not to have fun, to be people -- celebration is to be in one family, to be bonded together. We are in a fragmented world, a competitive world.

So we are entering into a world with a lot of loneliness. Then you have to protect yourself, in a world where there is an immense amount of violence We have immensely worked-out defence mechanisms by which we protect our defence mechanisms. It's not easy to become vulnerable, because as soon as we become vulnerable we can become hurt. There is so much latent anger, because people are lonely. I can make you laugh and sing, but the clown is a mask. So we live in a world where people are developing powers of aggression to push people off, or powers of defence.

So I want to talk to you about building a world of community, where we don't need the barriers, we don't need the mask, we can trust each other. There we can also discover our inner liberation. It is caring, to say that ``you are important in the community'', that ``you have a place''. People with disabilities discover that they have a place. Moltmann said: a community without handicapped people is handicapped community. Humanity is made of very different people, all in need. If we cut away those with a particular disability into an institution which does not integrate them, we cut off one of the arms of our community. When we come together in friendship, in covenant bonds, there is always a reason. When people become clowns, fighters, they need something else. People come together into community -- show concern for each other -- people who are entering into dialogue, reflecting with each other, concerned by each others welfare, pain, etc. Community is where we feel responsible for each other. Then there is a sense of belonging when we have power inside us, we don't sense that we need belonging. When we become weak, old, fragile, when we have less of this dynamic force within us, we need friends, fidelity, covenant relationships, yes in some way we can trust each other. We can see this in Ingeron, in the Ivory Coast, who had been the mad beggar in the market place, who would eat what he could find. He was taken by the police when people complained, and put in the psychiatric centre, where he would lie, heavily medicated, under a blanket. Then he came into a community; at first he never ate at the table -- he never had; with a very broken history, his family convinced that he was possessed by an evil spirit. He is now an elder of that community -- an incredible beauty, stillness, peacefulness. He welcomed me to the community,and I saw the transformation over 20 years, he knows that he is loved. Just to see the stability and the peacefulness!

In the village, Andre said ``It appears that we have bought that house'' -- he had said ``we'', not ``you'', not ``the association''. Because they cannot cope, people with disablity feel they do not matter unless they have a sense of belonging. At Maundy Thursday, each of us tells our story -- where were you 20, 10, years ago, how did you get here? 20 years ago, we did not know each other and now we are bonded together. It is a beautiful thing that in our communities we welcome people until they die. They know that, that they will not be sent off. The assistants do not stay as long, some are ``permanent'', others for months or years. But somewhere there is that sense of belonging that gives security. Somewhere in this world of ours -- we are entering into a fragmented world with a sense of helplessness (with our technology we can do everything we want except to build a really caring environment -- a human environment where we welcome difference) because we are in a very competitive world; somewhere in our anguish -- I won't go too much into that -- we have to prove we are admirable; you're admired for your excellence -- you are loved because I love you, I don't know why. We are in a world where few win, many lose; you see this in Africa, which is going through a great deal of pain, a feeling of being abandoned; we are in a world where we feel abandonded, helpless, the problems are so immense; we hear on TV the bad news, we don't get to hear the good news. We are in a world where there is an immense amount of dislocation -- we see people dying of hunger on TV, have a feeling of helplessness in a world where leaders are corrupt, you don't know which way to turn -- there is great feeling of helplessness, loneliness; then we try to forget, to do our little projects, to live in a dream. ``I much prefer to live in my dreams, because reality is too painful''; ``yes, but maybe on day you will have enough force to come back to reality -- in a dream you are alone.''

You will know in your studies that the problems are too big; that we don't know how to solve human problems. So today we look at what being human is about -- to build community. We can't change the world, but we can welcome the person in. Alone in front of problems we have to shut them out, but with two or three people who really believe in themselves and in the power of God, they can do fantastic things -- they can bring hope to our world -- so belonging is important -- with covenant relationships, but belonging can be dangerous, there are sects; because young feel people feel vulnerable they come together under a powerful father -- figure, quickly dividing the world into goodies and baddies. You will find in the next 10 years, there will be an increase in sectarian mentality -- a wall not round the heart but round the group -- but it is the person that is important -- it is important that you have the space to be yourself, so you can really be, so you can be really responsible (in a group you can lose this to sacrifice it into giving oneself to a group); the important thing is to grow.

I suffered a lot when I saw some very good assistants leaving; in 30 years I've seen very good people come, stay for 3 years and move on -- people are caught up in a world where they have to succeed and have no space to find who they really are -- pushed into a world of studies and work that they never choose or that they did not choose as something live that would give them a sense of meaning. It is important for L'Arche to welcome people for a few years, so they can develope and see ``Where is your hope?'', ``What do you want to do?'', ``What is the meaning of your life?''. The pain I had when people leave -- now I see that that is right, that that is good -- people stay with us for 2 years, they find what they want to do in life -- in belonging they find they have the security to believe in their deepest intuitions. We are called not to be forged by a system, but to be free people -- community is called to be a place of belonging for people; but it is open, we are not in a desert, we want to be able to go to the parish and the swimming pool, not just to be locked up in ourselves but to be present in the world. And that is one of the tensions that is going on in the world, between identity and openness -- some become strong but closed, or open and lose their identity, and we try to be a strong community but with a strong sense of openness. To be continually open for innovation, to discover new things -- and so belonging. But belonging is also painful -- we are in a world where we have learnt that we have to struggle -- that compulsive movement to move up -- and then to discover something very different in community -- it is not a place for competition but it is a body -- everybody has a place in the the body -- so that is a completely new ball game. Each of us only has a certain amount of energy. Where do we put our energy, into excellence? Or into unity, into accepting difference into trying to integrate minorities? We are not a hierarchy, but a body. We all have the same salary -- we are convinced that the high divergence of salaries creates some of the anguish. The other thing we find important in our communities is that there are no privileges. Someone can be the leader of a community for three years and then go and work in the workshops. It is a big change when you come into the community from a world of competition to discover collaboration, working together, body. It takes a time, because there is a lot of anguish in all of us; the need to prove that I AM, that CAN, I am admirable. To change this to cooperation, to listening -- that takes time and is painful. At first you see people are saints, then the next month that they are devils, then next month that they are neither -- they are people who have hope, whoare prepared to build something. Then there is a source of hope and peace for those who come to it.

You will know that the journey is painful; we are with people we did not know; someone marries a happy man and he goes into a depression -- they did not marry him but are covenanted to it. We are all hurt people, we have all been trodden on and we all tread on people, we are hurt; I know I have hurt people because I haven't taken the time to listen, I was so caught up in the project of building l'Arche that I hurt people. But now I've learnt. Now I find that community is built on forgiveness -- that is what Jesus has given to our world. It is the opposite of separation -- ``just buzz off and I can forget you'' that is the opposite of forgiveness; forgiveness is saying ``you can live, you can have your place -- even if I don't like you -- for the moment I love you, I can accept that you can live and can grow -- perhaps someday I will like you. I don't want you to disappear.''

Forgiveness is a beautiful thing -- at the heart of the message of the Gospels is the impossibility ``love your enemy, do good to those who hurt you, speak well of those who speak evil of you''. Frequently in retreats I lead, I tell people to ``identify your enemy''; (someone close to you who blocks you -- whose ideas are not your ideas, who scares you) -- for example a girl's father who came home to his study and never spoke to her; or a woman on a retreat who identified her husband who never listened to her -- a lot of anger coming up inside her that she doesn't know what to do with. So there is the person that we cannot stand -- Jesus says love that person -- then there is the anger -- NO that person has hurt me too much, has blocked me too much; Yes that person has done that; He says, ``Do you want me to help you?'' It will take time, I can plant the seed of the spirit in the earth of your flesh -- that is the fundamental revelation that Jesus brings -- to accept difference. Friendship can quickly become the club of the flatterers -- ``we are the ones who are good'' -- but to open up the doors, let others in, opens up the rejections of childhood; that triggers things deep inside, going further back -- to open up, to forgive. To see in the assistant's feared father, to see that the father was fragile and hurt by the grandfather and so hurt him -- to see maybe he too has been hurt; to forgive him.

I know when I speak in prison, and I mention Helen, they see it in themselves; but someone said: ``You don't know what I've been through: if another man comes in here and speaks of love I'll kick his head in''. I remembered Jesus saying don't worry what to say, the Spirit will speak for you -- I said to Jesus ``This is your big chance!'' I said ``It is true I don't know what you're living in the prison -- all I know is that people judge you wrongly -- they do not know what you have lived.'' Then he said ``You can tell this story'', and communication was built. Then when I mentioned his wife; he began to cry -- he hadn't seen her for two years, she was in a wheelchair -- then I saw a little child crying for tenderness, for love. I realized I could have judged that man for a violent man, but really he was a little child. It is to discover that if people are angry, if they cannot work with us, it is because of a wound. We must learn to transform the fear into acceptance and compassion. I don't know if you can discover that alone, you CAN discover it in community. Forgiveness is that little flower that grows from the seed of the Spirit, so we can begin to accept people as they are -- so they don't threaten me -- and it is to understand where people are coming from, where their fears are coming from; then we can grow together, listen, understand. All relationships are based on forgiveness: friendship, marriage, community -- try to accept people as they are, enter into forgiveness, acceptance.

The 2 poles of community are to forgive and to celebrate. To celebrate is to bring together all that is human; to say on someone's birthday that ``You are the gift'' (but WE can also give). To rest, to celebrate, to come together, to become really human. Assistants who have just joined us don't know how to rest, they come back form holiday pooped; we learn to let out the pain, to laugh from the belly rather than from the head, to become a people who celebrate our hope -- not to be a humanity locked in depression -- but we can only celebrate when we have come together -- to celebrate is to give thanks because God has brought us together -- to be a place of hope for those who are fragile -- and for those who have discovered the gift of the poor. At the heart of all the communities is a beautiful commandment of Jesus: ``When you give a meal, don't invite rich neighbours, friends how will invite you in return; invite the poor, the lame, the blind, the crippled -- you will be blessed -- God will be with you'' -- to eat at the same table as those who are weak. To eat together is the sign that we want to be together -- that we don't want some to be handicapped and put into institutions and others in the world of excellence. We can't change the world but we can take people in -- to show that the world can become a community, a place of peace.

Questions, day 3

Q: Do people humour each other?

A: visitors often do..

Q: You mention that carers sometimes stay for only a few years. How does that affect handicapped people?

A: it depends on the proportion of permanent people and others. There is a wealth in people who come for just a few months -- they ask the right questions to prevent us becoming stuffy -- they are new friends. Even better is when they come back for a weekend after they have left! But people with handicaps may attach themselves, and then there is pain when they leave. It is a challenge to find the right way of life for carers, to attract them to stay.

Q: I have made a commitment to live in community, and a lot of what you said has given me a fresh start. You have talked about innocent rejection, when people have experienced rejection for no reason of their own; but for a lot us we have earned rejection, we have sinned. What advice can you give in that situation, how do we cope with that?

A: I think of a saying of Mary of Magdala in the zefirelli film: ``He looked at me as no man has ever looked at me.'' And she was an expert in the eyes of men -- of their fear of their sexuality, their wounds. And when you know you have hurt someone, there is a place of innocence in them, but they don't know this. Who will look at them at to show them this? When you see a child lying with face empty, and you pick them up, the face lights up. I saw a child with a huge head and tiny body; I felt difficult; a nurse put my hand on his head and said ``Don't you see his beauty?'' The fundamental problem is that so many people have lost trust in themselves because of what they have done -- what they need is someone who can see the beauty in them and reveal that to them. I talked to Real, a man condemned for shooting a policeman; there was a lot of child in him: adults were frightened of him but his niece gave him a tooth!! and another (condemned for 7 killings), glassy eyes, layer upon layer of defence mechanisms, I could see his story; it was hard to see the innocent child in him, to get through to him. Sometimes we need someone to place our hand and say ``Don't you see he's beautiful.'' Sometimes we need the eyes of Jesus, to see there is life in them, to believe in them. Then they may have a deep experience of God; there was one girl who had been depressed after rejection by her family; walking in a forest, she sat under a tree and suddenly felt ``I know I am loved by God''; something had happened suddenly after NO experience of love in her past.

Q: Are you saying that whatever it looks like on the outside, if you dig down deep enough there is innocence -- original blessing rather than original sin?

A: I believe that the most fundamental longing, even in the womb, is for communion. Right when the child is born, there is a moment of ecstasy when the child is taken in the arms of the mother (but for some this does not happen) -- for most there is this but then it is covered up because the child is wounded; so inside the longing for communion, but then the wound and the fear of communion or manipulation of possession -- but underneath there is that moment of ecstasy. On TV I saw a premature child -- the eyes were opened and the eyes of the child and the eyes of the mother met, and the commentator said ``Now he knows he is loved.'' All our pain afterwards is a comparison with that original ecstasy that we have never found since; we live in frustration but that innocent mark is waiting to be fulfilled. So what happens if the mother is angry because of the child -- does every child in the womb have some sort of moment imprinted in the flesh, that is of peacefulness of ecstasy? I would say that there is and that is fortified when the child is being fed in the arms of the mother -- that is easily and deeply damaged.

Q: Many people cannot form a relationship except through a dog. Do you find the presence of dogs vital in community?

A: They haven't played too much part -- little Charlie is a pain in the neck. Perhaps we could have done more, but our experience is small -- but for some I am sure that could help.

Q: do you ever take in children who are emotionally but neither physically nor mentally handicapped, or are there communities who do?

A: we only welcome children with mental handicaps, because the needs are very different. There are very good places for children with deep emotional disturbances.

Q: A lot of your views are concurrent with humanistic views. For those who are new to Christianity, what do your views have that have an advantage over this?

A: Since the Word was made flesh, the beauty of the Word was revealed, to teach us to be compassionate; ``Do not judge and you will not be judged, do not condemn''. The truth is that there are so many damages that we need a power, we need the Spirit of Jesus, that is somehow going to free us from this terrible fear of humanity. The face of a rejected man, a crucified man, a compassionate man -- a God who is not spying on us, but says ``Go and sin no more -- go and never leave me.'' So for me what is important is the discovery that the spirit of God comes to complete my humanity -- to teach us to be human beings -- to teach us that through the flesh of Christ we can be in communion with God.

Q: How are the carers trained -- locally, in community, centralized?

A: They will be put into a home where there will be some experienced carers, to learn by modelling -- to start with just being a friend. If people stay for longer, there are schools for formation, one week a month. Good psychiatrists and psychologists work with us on the spot.

Q: Is it not easier in the l'Arche communities, that they are separate from outside society?

A: Yes and no. In Paris we have 5 families, in houses and apartments. People go to state workshops. But for some people it is difficult -- some do get a bit disturbed by a whole world of relationships that is a bit painful. But the quality of life in the home -- if we have friends we can go to -- it is OK. In our village it is easier; but it is OK.

Q: With our western materialism, we want beautiful things that are expensive and impoverish others?

A: It is what is important to you -- how can that bring you to open to others, it is more important? You might find you lock yourself up with your beautiful things.

Q: Merchant banks promise huge salaries but you have to sacrifice everything else in life.

A: You have to do what you want -- if you want to kill yourself with 110 hours a week.

Q: Will there be a time when you won't need communities like l'Arche -- where there really will be real care in the community -- is care in the community a realistic possibility, or will it always be care in communities?

A: All I know is that we need them today! I think we have to work so that the community becomes caring, and that there are caring communities. And it is important to help families to keep their children for longer.

Q: Why did you call your communities l'Arche?

A: It comes from the word ``Ark''. I was looking for a biblical name that spoke of warmth; someone read out a list of biblical names and at ``l'Arche'' I said ``That was it'' -- and it turned out to be appropriate. And the ``arch'' as well, building bridges.

Q: Do you need a place for the carers to have space for themselves?

A: Yes this is our challenge, to care for the carers. If a carer really feels cared for they will care; a caring community needs them to feel cared for. Carers need a place for rest.

Q: How do your helpers come to you in the first place?

A: Last year I gave a mission in Oxford... someone came through that... they come through a variety of ways. We have to assure them that that is the right place for them and us. There has to be a preparedness to accept difference, including cultural differences.

Q: You talk of community and how we experience God in each other. What about people who live alone, such as hermits -- what of their spiritual life?

A: If you read any of the spirituality of the hermits, you find they meet their demons, some inside themselves, some in community ; many of them need someone who's going to help them, to introduce them to the heremitical life... people with that maturity will confront pain inside themselves that others meet in community.

Q: It sounds attractive and challenging. What would you say to someone who wants to join in?

A: Come! come and see, spend a week, a month -- but don't idealize us. The signs are: that they really feel at home; that they feel they are growing, seeking the truth, seeking compassion -- these are the signs for any vocation. There are some who come needing the community for themselves, rather than for being prepared for being with people.

Q: You mention workshops -- where does the funding come from for l'Arche?

A: It varies between countries, in France 100% from the state and in the UK but we have to raise capital costs; in India making candles for US brings 60% ; in the Ivory Coast 2000 chickens working for us! Government sources do not exist in Africa, Poland, others. So, many sources. Fundraising; twinning of communities: for example communities in France give money to those in India/Africa; 42% to India, Ivory Coast from European community -- in each country we find what sources we can.

Q: You have become a citizen of the world. How do you feel about being Canadian?

A: I feel ok wherever I am -- I am quite laid back; wherever I am, I am ok.

Q: What christian communities have influenced you?

A: Friendship House of Baroness de Hueck; Charles de Foucauld.

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Last modified: Thu Dec 16 14:53:28 GMT 2004