“The Paradox of Disability (4):”

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. 

Theological Reflections

William A Gaventa’s “Learning from People with Disabilities: How to Ask the Right Question” addresses the importance of identifying worthy goals in one’s service to people with disabilities; they are not there so that we can work out our personal issues. Their purpose is not to enlighten us. And how we identify them is also important; strengths and gifts, likes and dislikes are constructive categories; labels are not. In his many years of interacting with people with disabilities, he sees three major areas that constitute the interests and desires of people with disabilities: a place to call home, a valued occupation, and someone to love who will love them. At the heart of love is mutual growth.

Stanley Hauerwas’ “L’Arche as a Peace Movement” calls for a reaffirmation of the mystery of suffering. Western society since the Enlightenment has seen many reform movements in which sympathy has been taken to the unrealistic conclusion that suffering can be removed from human experience. From this, we have seen the emergence of mercy killing. In response, he quotes Jean Vanier: “Every pain, every hurt we experience can become an offering, a source of life for others in and through Jesus’ offering of love to the Father.” Vanier also relates how the screams of a core member brought hateful, even violent thoughts to his heart, a violence he confronted, a violence we all must confront.

At L’Arche communities one encounters a slowing down, dispositions trained in patience, long-term commitments, trust, routine and celebration. And, at times, a reaching out to other faiths. The violence of speed is dispelled. Again, a quote from Vanier: “What matters is being truthful.” L’Arche’s animating center: Faith in Jesus as the One Who has redeemed time.

Brian Brock’s “Superogation and the Risk of Human Vulnerability” confronts the values of western society, which has come to “live by the numbers,” specifically in the expectations of genetic counselors who present their facts and statistics to expectant parents who have an unborn child with defects. The expectation is that a decision will be made to remove the burden from society.

To such values he contrasts the L’Arche communities, which, he says, are a school for relationships. L’Arche is a witness, a word from outside and above, about the necessity of listening to those who challenge our presuppositions by wishing to bear and live with the most vulnerable of humans.

John Swinton’s “Known by God” distinguishes knowing about God  and knowing God, and holds for the Scriptural declaration that  faith is a gift of God. Swinton cites the apophatic way which hold forth the reality that God transcends human intellect and human language fails when seeking to express Who He Is. But the Lord can be embraced by love. All we know of Him we know from what He has bestowed upon us. “As you did it to the least of these, you did it to Me.” (St. Matthew 25) The central gestures of love – laughter, touch, embrace, friendship, encounter – take on the shape of God.

Christopher Newell’s “On the Importance of Suffering: the Paradox of Disability” offered the perspective of one who is himself disabled. He admitted he sometimes feels that the struggle is unbearable and he wishes to die. He critiques the project of modernity, which avoids and seeks to deny human finiteness and mortality. In a world where intellect is all, mental illness and retardation are threatening.

The conference at the L’Arche provided community, relationship, and dignity. Christopher wept. He noted that Churches fight euthanasia but do not provide community for people with disabilities, without which many want to die. In that Jesus willingly suffered, the avoidance of suffering is a questionable pursuit; the healing through brokenness in community that L’Arche communities exemplify sets forth a wondrous paradox.

Christopher Newell’s challenge is one every Orthodox Christian parish must grapple with. Right worship and right belief must be incarnated in the local Orthodox Christian parish according to St. Paul’s explanation of the workings of the body in his first letter to the Corinthians chapter twelve. For we are the Body of Christ.

. . .  now indeed there are many members, yet one body. 21 And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary. . . .

God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it, 25 that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another.

1 Cor. 12:20b-22, 24b-25, NKJV, http://www.biblegateway.com/ 

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