Saturday, July 4, 2015

Review: The Miracle, The Message, The Story

The ‘rich’ look upon the ‘poor’ and weak as problems
to be resolved, according to their own vision, refusing
to enter into a dialogue of trust with those who are
oppressed and in distress.  They will not listen to them.
So begins this book of Jean Vanier’s life, and his respect for people with disabilities.
In 1964 Jean began the first l’Arche (the Ark) home just north of Paris.  He invited three rejected people to leave the institution “where they had been living in disgrace and make their home with him.”  Wanting to do good, “he had no idea at the time that those people would ‘do good’ to him.”
One of the unique elements of l’Arche communities is that administrators there are not employees, working 8-hour shifts to care for those in need; the administrators live with them, becoming family with them.  In living with them, they see not just their limitations, but their value and contributions to the community.  They come not just to care for them, but to love and be loved.  Henri Nouwen spent 11 years in l’Arche; his books reflect what he learned living there:  in providing a home for the developmentally disabled, he found a home for himself.
Today, through hundreds of Faith and Light and l’Arche communities around the world, Jean noted that “thousands of mothers and fathers were beginning to dance and laugh with their children.”  These were the children who were once laughed at by their peers, and then hidden from the world’s cruelties by their parents.  They once had lived sad, lonely lives.  Now, in these communities they really come alive.  (I recently joined the board of an organization which helps the developmentally disabled live in homes, in community.  And I attended the organization’s 50th anniversary celebration, and yes, I saw the disabled and their parents laugh and sing and dance --- it was a most beautiful, blessed thing to behold.)
The Miracle, The Message, The Story goes into great depth in describing the problems Vanier faced in different cities, in different countries, in different religions, and in different cultures.  There were starts, stumbles, and even some failures.  The work of love is not an easy thing.  Some might read this book and become bored with the seemingly endless problems --- but it is not a book only celebrating success, but celebrating too of the work required to get there.
I had read and reviewed the much shorter book, Signs, which spoke to the message Vanier discerned from his life’s work:  we will find Jesus and His message more in the poor and the marginalized than we will in the rich and cultured.  In reading Signs, it seemed a hard message to accept.  This book seems to indicate that “yes, it IS a hard message --- you have to work hard to get it.”  It is a life’s work.
When I read Signs I asked myself:  “Who can live this way?”  When I read The Miracle, The Message, The Story I recalled:  “And the gate is narrow…”      


  1. I haven't read these books, but I was struck by your final question, "Who can live this way?" And in my mind I asked, "How can anyone live any other way?"

    When people are able and talented and successful, that is a very good thing, but sometimes they begin to be very self satisfied, and forget about the times they we not able (dis-abled?) and needed help (say, when they were toddlers, or even struggling students) and by help from God and others, they made it through. And because they are talented and able, they find ways to acquire what they want. And they begin to think it is themselves that made things go right, and they ignore the help of God's Providence and even the generosity they received from others. There were many "yes's" for them, many doors flung open to allow them inside. But the doors remain shut and barred for those without talents and abilities.

    God gives us gifts and talents not so much to fill ourselves with good things and only associate with others who have acquired good things too, but so that we would be able to associate and dispense those good things to those without the talents to acquire them for themselves. We're to be stewards of our gifts and talents.

    I am not talking about having to give away our worldly goods to those who are without, as a sort of socialism. I am talking about understanding how, if we can walk, we help someone who cannot walk. Maybe we want to run, to dance, to play sports, and if we instead help the person who cannot walk, we have to slow down and not run, or dance, or play sports. So we choose. Do we help someone because we have an ability they do not? Or do we abandon them and do as we wish with our own talents and abilities, enjoying them, but not sharing them?

    It really is up to us. But every day is a test. And in the end, Our Lord will say, 'come and join me, because when I was hungry you gave me to eat, when I was thirsty, naked, or sick, or in a prison...' and we'll say, 'when did we see you hungry, thirsty, naked, sick or in a prison (or with Down's syndrome, or without legs, or autistic...)?

    I am not saying all this to lecture you, but to help you to see how people like Vanier see themselves and others and the work of life. The world needs able and talented people to build and create good places to live and work. You are lucky to have had a role in God's plan for that. But now perhaps God has another work for you. You seem to be working hard at trying to change your heart, but it is God who changes hearts. I am glad you have taken this project on, because it seems God is using your talents and abilities in a very good way, leading you to the Kingdom of Heaven where He resides.

    God bless you. Fran

  2. Thank you, Fran, for your insights and wisdom. And no, I would never view your comments and assume I am being lectured to. You're just someone God puts in my path to be an instrument of His peace --- not a roadblock.

    Yes, I believe I am being changed, through things I read, through prayers answered (sometimes in ways I don't yet understand), through people who God puts in my life, and through His mysterious graces. I've made no boasting here, but I've documented some of the wonderful things He has done for me, and through me. It's His work, and I am open to the paths on which He leads me.

    Vanier's lifework IS different than mine, but the attitudes he describes toward the poor, "different," and perhaps even toward those who just disagree with us, is not a typical attitude in our culture, or in the world. When I reviewed Signs I mentioned that I found myself disputing some things Jean said, putting forth a "you've got to live in this imperfect world as best you can" attitude. But Jean seemed to say: "no, you've got to live as Jesus lived, as best you can." He seemed to say you don't start with the world as it is, and accommodate from there. He said you start as Jesus is, and accommodate from there. His focus on the marginalized was an attempt to see and act as Jesus did.

    I learn about who Jesus was and is from my readings and my prayer life. Jean seems to say you can learn more as you live your life --- if you focus on those Jesus focused on. As I noted when I reviewed Signs, I found myself discussing/arguing things with Vanier's worldview, but when I took those same arguments to prayer, I felt as if I were arguing with Jesus. And I didn't feel comfortable in my thinking. Vanier's books, if nothing else, very much make me think ---- and make me think about how very much I don't know.

    (Oh, and I don't think it a coincidence that God put these books in my hands, even as I was asked to join the board of an organization caring for the very same people which Vanier cared for.)

    God bless you, Fran, and thank you for taking the time to consider, reflect, and provide me insights.