Wednesday, January 28, 2015
The back cover of this book summarizes this author, his thinking, and his short (89 pages) book --- and in it I see all that is so wonderful about the book, and so troubling. I am not sure I have ever so marked up, underlined, and written comments, questions, and exclamation points in the margins of a single book. I found myself saying aloud: “Yes, you’ve got it!” one minute, and “Oh come on now; you CAN”T DO THAT!!!” the next. I argued often with the author, and then thinking on it more, felt as if I were arguing with Jesus. Unlike another book I recently reviewed, Jean Vanier’s looks at the world and does see hope, and his hope lies in a transformation of the Church, and in you and me. I pray we are up to the challenge.
On the back cover is written:
“Jean Vanier is a Canadian Catholic philosopher, humanitarian, and the founder of L’Arche, an international organization that creates communities where people with intellectual disabilities and those who assist them share life together.” … “Jean Vanier’s Signs is essential reading for all seeking to bring that sense of hope and renewal into their own lives. Vanier identifies seven words representing the seven paths of transformation of the heart of L’Arche philosophy: from humiliation to humility, from normalization to the awakening of conscience, from exclusion to encounter, from power to authority, from isolation to community, from strength to vulnerability, and from secret to mystery. The same paths should be heeded by the Church if we are to rediscover that vision of a society that grows outward from the poor and disadvantaged.”
The book’s Introduction summarizes how and why the Church and all people need to change. “L’Arche and Faith and Light have led us to discover something wonderful: when we enter into a real relationship with people with an intellectual disability, we are transformed. … If we ‘lower’ ourselves to be with the weakest among us, then we meet the One who humbled Himself for us all.”
In his chapter on Humiliations, Vanier gives examples of forced humiliations of institutions and people. He talks of humiliation leading to victimization, or possibly “a true encounter with the other as an equal … and in mutual respect for difference,” whether that difference be mental or physical, or even difference of religion. He greatly admires the movie Of God’s and Men and its true story of the brothers who were warned to leave Algeria in advance of the marching terrorists, but chose to stay “because they were living a deep and true encounter with their Muslim neighbors.” And they were horribly slaughtered, but “this could be what we Christians are called to now: to live true encounters.” He notes: “We aren’t here either to change or to convert the other. That is the work of Jesus, … we are here to encounter others in humility.”
Vanier’s chapter on Awakening talks about various humiliations as awakening our need to change. He says the Church fears humiliation, and thinks it knows a superior truth. He talks about parents teaching children to encounter the weak, and form personal consciences about them. “It is my personal conscience to tell me how to live … the concrete situations of my everyday life. The Magisterium doesn’t have anything to say about the person in front of me now.” Vanier focuses on the poor and disabled he sees at L’Arche to generalize: “It isn’t a matter of willingly doing good, but also of helping the other to discover his or her personal value, and in working with him or her to create a more just and loving world.”
And I found myself saying: “And if all the rich work with all the poor, soon all the world will be poor,” and remembering the words: “The poor will always be with you.” Is the change he speaks of for everyone, I wonder?
There are so many more things I could write about this book, so many challenging examples, so many simplifications on how to live a humble life --- or are they a reality we fear to face? I hope this book will be discussed by our Bible Study Group in the near future. In the interim, all its words about humility and focusing on our neighbor deeply resonate within me.