“The Paradox of Disability (3):”

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

Hans S. Reinders, editor. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI / 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. 

Responses from the Social Scientists

Steven G. Post wrote “Drawing Closer: Preserving Love in the face of hypercognitive values.” He contrasts a culture where the stress is utilitarian, in which rationality, efficiency, and the resulting material abundance reign, with the communities of love which Jean Vanier and Thomas Kitwood have cultivated, places where caregivers and those cared for both give and receive love, leading to healing growth for all.

Christine M Pulchalski’s “Dementia: A Spiritual Journey for the Patient” is a meditation on relating to a person with dementia (her mother), who lives in the present. Social status and accomplishment are forgotten; the essence of a person is his spirit. She quotes Mother Teresa concerning the value of silence. diminishment and the release of control lead to purification, and the regaining of simple trust. Crucial for caring for a person with dementia: patience, gentleness, kindness, and presence. And one may use moments to remind the person of what they have been.

Roy F. Baumeister’s “Effects of social exclusion and interpersonal rejection: An Overview with Implications for Human Disability” details experiments involving exclusion, and the results showed that exclusion leads not to acute pain but numbness (emotionally and to physical pain), loss of emotional sensitivity and empathy, increased aggression and self-defeating behaviors,   decreased helpfulness, as well as a reluctance to expose oneself to further rejection. People who have experienced significant rejection will respond to other’s initiatives, but lack to the basic trust to initiate relationships. Also, rejection has been revealed to lead to a temporary drop in IQ, comprehension, and rote memory. Since persons with disability frequently experience rejection, the success of L’Arche’s approach, involving persistent initiation of kind acts and words, meshes well with the findings of research into exclusion.

Kevin S. Reimer’s “Moral Transformation in L’Arche Communities for People with Developmental Disabilities” surveys the means whereby L’Arche’s approach sees shame transformed into other-oriented moral maturity. It is process that happens through interactions in mundane everyday experience. Both caregiver (assistant) and the cared for (core members) ultimately both give and receive, and for the ones that can see through this admittedly difficult process (which can only be done with the help of the Holy Spirit) there is progress toward “the consolidated self,” all of which is, in Orthodox Christian terms, growth into the likeness of Christ, toward theosis.  

Pamela Cushing”s “Disability, Attitudes, Cultural Conditions, and the Moral Imagination” laments the failure of western society as a whole  to exercise its collective moral imagination and see the value of people with developmental disabilities. She blames ethnocentricity, fear of the different, the stranger. Cushing details how L’Arche transforms people’s moral imagination and the means by which this is done. Patience, presence, receptivity, authenticity, and other-orientation are the personal fruits of this transformation. Cushing urges a wider circulation of L’Arche’s story, for the good of society as a whole.

Xavier Le Pichon’s “The Sign of Contradiction” is a paraphrase by Pope John Paul II of Symeon’s “a sign that will be spoken against,”  which he gave to the Virgin Mary, as recorded in St. Luke”s Gospel, chapter two.  Jesus, the eternal Word of God, becomes a baby, and is finally condemned and executed. This is the supreme contradiction in which the very young (including the unborn) and the very old, in their vulnerability and suffering, participate. Le Pichon, quoting Fr. Thomas Philippe, Vanier’s mentor, proclaims these times of personal weakness the golden ages of human life, times in which the Holy Spirit especially acts. Persons with significant disabilities belong to both of these ages. Yet modern secular society devalues persons in these categories. For example, genetic counsellors present genetic facts in ways that subtly encourage parents to abort genetically defective unborn babies. Le Pichon also relates an archaeological find of a seriously disabled Neanderthal man buried with honor, an expression of the dignity, meaning and value of all life in a primitive tribe that modern society is losing sight of, to its peril. Again citing Fr. Philippe that communion is in easier reach with vulnerable people, he proclaims that vulnerability and fragility are two essential components of humanity, in that vulnerability becomes a common ground for authentic relationships, the kind that transform the participants. As St. Paul writes, “When we are weak, we are strong.”  The denial of these “signs of contraction” by modern western society leads to a deadly hardening, impoverishment, and decline, which may be averted only by heeding the sign.  

All of this would support the Orthodox Christian contention that the West has gone astray on the basis of “relying on their own insights,” (Proverbs 3:5) in other words, on their limited human logic, rather than recognizing how much Divine mystery is inherent to the life in Christ.

This had its beginning late in the first millenium after Christ as the Western Church began to allow theology to be addressed apart from its ecclesiastical (Church) context in academic, scholarly settings, blending theology and philosophy in ways that violated the apophatic character of our knowledge of God. In other words, there were illegitimate attempts to probe into the mysteries of God that call for our awe and worship rather than our comprehension. The Eastern Church may have used words from Greek philosophy, but they re-defined and used them according to the apophatic Way. 

This is why the Orthodox Church communes infants, and the western church bodies do not. And this extends to persons with developmental disabilities as well. For even if the mind is not yet able to grasp doctrines, the heart is able to receive and give love, and to worship. Consider how St. John the Baptist leapt in the womb of Elizabeth as the Most Holy Theotokos, the Virgin Mary, pregnant with our Lord Jesus Christ, came near. (St. Luke 1) 

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