“The Paradox of Disability (1):”

Responses to Jean Vanier and L’Arche Communities from Theology and the Sciences

Hans S. Reinders, editor. William B. Erdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan / Cambridge, U.K., 2010. 183 pp.

This book is a series of articles by participants in the Humble Approach Initiative sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation, who gathered at a conference in Trosly-Breiul, France in March 2007, hosted by the L’Arche community there, exploring the subject of what one can learn from persons with disabilities.

Jean Vanier, who with the encouragement and support of others, founded L’Arche, wrote one of the articles: “What have people with disabilities taught me?

He mentions the elements – professional, spiritual, and ecclesiastical that undergird L’Arche communities, and a vision concerning education (in regard to the people involved in L’Arche): not just autonomy, but maturity. [italics added] He discusses a common disposition of many persons with developmental disability who come to L’Arche: a wound, a sense of shame, which they intuitively gathered from their parents who in their hearts were disappointed that they were not “normal” children who would grow up to be independent and achieve “success” in this world. At L’Arche, as “core members,” they begin the process of healing through a combination of professional help and by being nurtured, valued, loved. But ultimately these core members and the assistants who care for them reciprocally deal with wounds and brokenness, in relationship with one another which are characterized by mutual support and communion rather than control by the staff.

Some of the core members communicate by physical gestures rather than verbally. Days at L’Arche include work, interesting activities, and celebration, of both life (such as birthdays) as well as death.

In answer to the title question, Vanier and assistants at L’Arche have found that  relationships with persons with developmental disabilities are a purifying fire in which their own difficulties with relationships, their dark thoughts (including violent ones), anguish, and fears are revealed – brought into the Light – to be healed by the only One Who can- God.

Vanier sees a path to large scale peace in the dynamics of this kind of community, when the rich and powerful enter into authentic relationship with the vulnerable and helpless. The message of humility and love people with disabilities have given Jean Vanier has drawn him closer to Jesus, the enfleshed Word, Who Himself became vulnerable and little.

Jean Vanier has a big heart. Like the Athonite Monk St. Silouan, he would like to extend the love of God which he has found (for Vanier, in his relationships with persons with developmental disabilities) to all. If only it were contagious, and could be caught! But the free will of man comes into play, and as Jesus said, many take the broad way that leads away from life.  But the witness of Jean Vanier will endure.

May all our Orthodox Christian parishes discover this dynamic he shares in this book. And as we grow, local parishes can work together to create more Orthodox Christian communities for the disabled like St. Matthew’s House in Columbia, Maryland and Hellenos House on Long Island. For Orthodox Christians, the place where such things start is the place where we worship.

Information concerning the book:




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