The Practical Theology of Jean Vanier: Faith in a Vulnerable Community

The Practical Theology of Jean Vanier: Faith in a Vulnerable Community


MELINDA: This is the 24th Annual Pyne Memorial
Presentation, and we’re so grateful to the Pyne Endowment Trust for their generosity
and support in making this event possible. Professor Margaret Pyne, in whose memory this
lecture series is named, was a lifelong advocate for persons with disabilities. She served as Associate Dean for Special Education
at Lesley College, and she saw the need to educate theological students about ministry
for and with persons with disabilities. Thanks to the Pyne Endowment Trust, ministries
with personal—persons with disabilities is front and center of our roster of events
every year—and we’re deeply grateful for that. We have a special guest here this evening. Anne Berry Goodfellow is the trustee of the
Pyne Endowment Trust and knew Margaret Pyne personally and we’re grateful for the interest
she continues to have in this program. Anne, would you like to stand up, please? Thanks so much for being here and seeing Peg’s
vision lived into. And now, it’s my pleasure to invite Dr.
Andrew Davis to the podium to introduce our speaker. Dr. Davis joined the STM faculty in the fall
of 2014 as assistant professor of Old Testament. And you’ll be able to hear more from him
during the spring semester; he’ll be doing a public lecture for us on the psalms. Dr. Davis. DAVIS: Thank you, Melinda. Good evening. It’s my honor tonight to introduce the Rev.
Dr. David O. Jenkins. He’s ordained in the United Methodist Church,
and serves as associate professor in the practice of practical theology at the Candler School
of Theology, at Emory University, in Atlanta. His expertise in practical theology includes
extensive personal experience with L’Arche and with the work of Jean Vanier. Dr. Jenkins’s introduction to L’Arche
came while he was in seminary at Yale, where he was a student of Henri Nouwen. After serving as a pastor of a Methodist congregation
in North Carolina, he lived in L’Arche Lambeth in London, serving as a house leader. He holds a Ph.D. in moral and systematic theology
from Duke University, where he also served as a campus minister for 11 years. In 1997, Dr. Jenkins moved to Atlanta where
he served as executive director of the Christian Council. He also served on the national board of directors
of L’Arche USA, on the L’Arche Interna—L’arche International Board of Directors, and he led
the first national capital campaign for L’Arche in the U.S. In 2005, he became President of L’Arche
USA. Shortly after his relocation to Atlanta, Dr.—David
invited Jean Vanier to lead a retreat there as a way of initiating a founding committee
that could start L’Arche community in Atlants. With the inspiration of Jean Vanier and under
David’s leadership, L’Arche Atlanta opened its doors in 2012. Currently he chairs the Task Force on Spirituality
for L’Arche USA. Dr. Jenkins has been teaching at Candler School
of Theology since 2000. His teaching integrates classroom theories
with practical experience, and includes courses on the church and disabilities. He also trains students for roles in community
leadership, international development, non-profit management, immigration policy, and racial
reconciliation. He was named Outstanding Faculty Person at
Candler in 2004 and ‘05. We are honored this evening to have Dr. Jenkins
with us—a minister, teacher, scholar, dedicated man of the church, and a person who cares
deeply about the L’Arche community and the legacy of Jean Vanier. Please join me in welcoming Rev. Dr. David
Jenkins as this year’s Pyne lecturer. DR. JENKINS: Thank you, Andrew, very much, and
thank you to everyone. I’m grateful and humbled to be here at Boston
College School of Theology. Turning our attention to those with disabilities—in
our congregations, families, neighborhoods, schools and seminaries—is a sacred act. Some in the disabilities community call it
“reforming our gaze,” an academic way of talking about conversion, personal and
systemic transformation. The family of Professor Margaret Pyne, trustees
of the Pyne Endowment, and leadership here at the Boston [College] School of Theology
[and Ministry], sustain this sacred activity through this lectureship and through their
ongoing commitments to the full inclusion of people with disabilities in the life of
the church and in theological studies. Thank you, Deans Stegman and Bader, Jane Regan,
Director of the Office of Continuing Education, and especially Melinda Donovan who has offered
generous hospitality, careful attention to detail, and kindness throughout our year-long
communication. My heartfelt thanks, as well, to all those
who cleaned this auditorium, advertised and promoted the event, welcomed us here tonight
through their labor. And I’m grateful to all those who live in
L’Arche for coming tonight. Would members of L’Arche Boston North in
Haverhill, anyone who’s affiliated with L’Arche or with Faith and Light, please
stand now? Welcome, friends. You are the real experts on the theology of
Jean Vanier, so I hope my remarks tonight honor your lives. Jean Vanier, approaching 88 years old, is
the author of thirty books, and is the recent recipient of the Templeton Prize. He was friends with Mother Teresa of Calcutta,
Brother Roger of Taizé, and was the one who called Henri Nouwen into L’Arche where Henri
spent the last ten years of his life in a Canadian L’Arche community called Daybreak. At the invitation of Pope John Paul II, Jean
participated in the Synod of the Laity in Rome. He’s addressed the World Council of Churches
in Geneva and the Anglican Lambeth Conference in Canterbury. Yet the relationships that continue to shape
Jean’s theology, his faith and his heart, are the day-to-day friendships with the women
and men with intellectual disabilities—and their assistants—who share community with
him in L’Arche. Jean has lived in the same L’Arche community
in France for more than fifty years. Born in 1928 to Pauline and George Vanier,
the Governor General of Canada and Canadian ambassador to France, Jean’s early life
was privileged. Then at age 13, Jean asked his parents for
permission to join the Royal Navy College, embarking on a career in the military during
World War II. Jean writes about that moment:
when…I told my father that I wanted to cross the U-boat filled ocean again to join the
Royal Navy College in blitzed southern England, his answer to me was ‘I trust you. If that is what you want to do, you must do
it.’ My father’s trust in me confirmed my trust
in myself. When he said, ‘I trust you,’ he gave me
life; he gave me permission to trust my intuitions to do just what seemed right. I knew that if he trusted me, I could trust
myself and others to do what was right. After leaving the Royal Navy in 1950, Jean
joined Eau Vive (Living Water), the French Roman Catholic lay institute of theology and
spirituality founded by a Dominican priest named Father Philippe Thomas. This marked a transformative turn in Jean’s
life. It was Jean’s mother who introduced him
to Father Thomas who introduced Jean to Aristotle and later to the institutionalized men who
would be co-founders of L’Arche with him. Staying in France after the war, Jean completed
a Ph.D. in philosophy at the Institut Catholique, focusing on Aristotelian ethics. Forty years later in 2001, Jean returned to
Aristotle in his book, Made for Happiness: Discovering the Meaning of Life with Aristotle. We, too, will return to the formative influence
of Aristotle on the theology of Vanier. As one might already have observed, there
are elements of a familiar archetype in Jean’s life, the downward movement from the princely
palace to the forest with a beggar’s bowl, a move from the center to the margins. This downward movement expresses what John
Swinton calls “the great reversal that is the gospel,” [2] a human reflection of the
incarnation, and the embodiment of Jesus’s story of the banquet feast in Luke 14, one
of Jean’s favorite Gospel analogies for L’Arche. In that familiar Gospel story, Jesus encouraged
His followers to forgo the head of the table at the wedding banquet for the lesser seats. Then in the narrative immediately following,
he commands his disciples to go out into the streets and invite to his banquet the poor
and those with disabilities—not the CEOs, no Red Sox outfielders , no mayors or governors,
no university faculty, no graduate students. This banquet table looks quite different. It is also a story of our invitation to God
incarnate in the poor. When the table is set for Christ by those
who inhabit the margins of our culture and of our parishes, the joy at this banquet table,
at every L’Arche dinner table, and every altar, wells up from a different place in
God’s commonwealth, a different location in our faith. Through Father Thomas, Jean was introduced
to the residents of an institution for men with intellectual disabilities in the rural
village of Trosly-Breuil, the town near Paris where Jean still lives. On another visit to a large psychiatric hospital,
he met Raphaël, Philippe, and Dany, then soon thereafter invited them to share his
home in Trosly, a modest cottage without indoor plumbing or electricity. L’Arche (the ark) was born of these unlikely
friendships. Because of his anguish and the way the prison-like
mental institution had forged his life, Dany was unable to live in that fledgling community
for more than a few days, and was asked to leave; a painful bit of the founding story
of L’Arche. Jean reflected on that first year in community
with Raphaël and Philippe: “Essentially, they wanted a friend, “Jean said. “They were not very interested in my knowledge
or my ability to do things, but rather they needed my heart and my being. What was clear … from the very beginning
was the aspect of ‘living with’ people who have [intellectual disabilities], a desire
to create family with them,” he wrote. Ian Brown, a journalist with The Globe, interviewed
Jean last year about the founding of L’Arche. The conversation went like this:
“I asked Jean why he thought he could care for two disabled men on his own, with no training
to speak of.” “’I thought we might have fun,’ [Jean]
said.” “’And how did you plan to do that?’ I asked him.” Jean replied “’Well, I had a little car,
one of those two-horsepower Citroens. I thought we could go for drives.’” Hello, Aristotle: made for happiness in the
French countryside. As former students and friends of Jean visited
Raphaël, Jean, and Philippe in their home, many were inspired—called—to extend this
vision. When L’Arche expanded to India and Canada,
its Christian foundation was contextualized in Hindu and Muslim neighborhoods; its Catholic
spirituality, even daily rule, took root in ecumenical Christian contexts and interfaith
landscapes. L’Arche now finds a home in 147 communities
in 35 countries, 18 of which are here in the U.S. During Holy Week, 1971, Vanier helped organize
a pilgrimage to Lourdes with Marie-Helene Mathieu, who at the time was the General Secretary
of the French office for those with intellectual disabilities. 12,000 people attended, and from that first
gathering of pilgrims with and without disabilities, Faith and Light was born. Faith and Light brings together those with
disabilities and their extended communities of family and friends in fellowship, mutual
support, and celebration. Today there are 1500 Faith and Light communities
in 81 countries. This brief history of L’Arche already communicates
some of Jean’s fundamental theological categories: transformative friendships and vulnerability
within communities of faith and celebration where marginalized people not only find not
only their place of belonging, but a seat at the head of the table. Because I claimed this talk tonight would
focus on Jean’s practical theology, that is, the theological reflections about communal
practices of contextualized faith and action, I turn to one communal practice we could find
in any L’Arche home around the world tonight: the evening meal. Jean claimed that “meals are the daily celebrations
where we meet each other around the table to be nourished and share in joy.”[3]
This dinner-time story come from when I lived in L’Arche in London, but it’s primarily
the story of Stephen, one of our community members with multiple disabilities who had
lived much of his life in anguish. Each evening all of us had a simple meal together. There were 18 of us who lived in this house
together, called The Vine, our L’Arche home in a working class neighborhood of south London—
a mix of women and men, those with intellectual disabilities referred to as our Core Members
(those at the heart), and those of us who shared community with them, called assistants. The meals were planned and prepared by two
people—one of the assistants and one core member. Our dining table was large enough to accommodate
all 18 of us, so you can image that there were a number of small conversations going
on at any given time around the table. In good English tradition, supper was followed
by tea. And just as tea was served, whoever was leading
the table would light a candle, then ask a question, sometimes as ordinary as how was
your day? The goal was to bring us together as a community
into one shared conversation before we began evening prayers and closed with a song. Katherine [who] was one of the long-term assistants,
happened to be leading the table that night. She asked us “What does God look like?” What does God look like? Nick was the first to respond. Nick was the patriarch of the house, a gentle
man with Down syndrome. He was the subject of a book by Jean’s sister,
Thérèse Vanier, a biography called Nick: Man of the Heart. He was also a proud Englishman, and an active
member of his local parish. In response to the question, What do you think
God looks like? Nick replied in his thoughtful, deliberate
manner: “Well,” he began. “I think God looks like an old man, in a
long white robe, who sits on a throne. He has a long white beard and his hat always
matches his purse.” You see, Nick loved the Queen Mother. Though the royal family is notorious for not
touching their loyal subjects, the Queen Mother once spotted Nick at a charity event for those
with disabilities, saw Nick along that velvet rope that separated the common folk from her
entourage, and she walked right up to Nick, accepted the little bouquet of wildflowers
he had picked for her, and gave him a hug. It made the evening news (!) and Nick never
forgot that royal gesture of kindness. What does God look like?—the wise old man
and the Queen Mother picking Nick out of a crowd to receive a royal embrace. Sylvia was anxious to reply. “Brown hair, green dress, glasses.” Another image of a monarch, we wondered?—until
Katherine asked, “Do you mean God looks like the photograph of your mother, Sylvia,
that hangs over your bed?” “Yes He does. Yes He does,” Sylvia happily proclaimed. Sylvia’s mum died when she was only a child. Shortly after her mother’s death, Sylvia’s
father gave Sylvia away to a large mental hospital where she lived for over 20 years
until she came to L’Arche. For Sylvia, God looked like the one who made
a home for her, who set a place at the table for her. Now it was Stephen’s turn, and we all got
a bit nervous. Stephen hated the spotlight, perhaps because
he was nonverbal, so a question such as “What does God like” was actually unfair to him,
put him on the spot. Stephen carried a high level of anxiety that
sometimes resulted in violence. He was known to hit, scratch, and bite those
around him—whether family, strangers, friends or housemates. Stephen attended a large Anglican church in
his neighborhood. The imposing Gothic sanctuary was built in
a time when Britain was overwhelmingly religious and church attendance was the norm. Now it echoed like an empty cave. The elderly congregants sat scattered about
the church, bundled in their beige London Fogs, as the priest delivered his homily and
celebrated the Eucharist. Stephen couldn’t sit still, so he stood
in the back—swaying, fidgeting . . . anxious. Before the priest had said the last words
of consecration and invited the congregants to come forward to receive the elements, Stephen
had raced down the aisle—sometimes stumbling—and had grabbed the host from the priest’s hands. Then—imitating the priest—Stephen broke
his little wafer in two, and gave the priest half of his Host. He didn’t wait for an invitation to the
table, nor did he wait for a dismissal or blessing or closing hymn, but he stumbled
out of the church, and headed home for lunch. Can you imagine how that young priest might
have reacted on his first Sunday at St. Michael’s Parish? So here we are back at the supper table in
L’Arche, with the question “What does God look like?” directed to Stephen. As expected, he left the table, bolted upstairs
to his bedroom. This was the routine. We thought he might reappear for dessert,
so we kept the question “What does God look like? going around the table until we heard
a heavy, unbalanced gait on the stairs. In Stephen’s hands was this crucifix that
he had made in the L’Arche workshop—a sand and binder composition poured into a
mold made for one of us by one of the Little Brothers of Jesus who accompany our community. In response to the question “What does God
look like?,” Stephen set this crucifix in the center of the table. Then he disappeared again, this time to the
kitchen, where he retrieved a crusty loaf of bread. He stumbled around the table breaking off
a huge portion for each person, and put it in our hands. Then he made the way around the table again,
leaning, off-balanced, into each of us—including those he had hit, bitten, and frightened—to
deliver a wet, uncomfortable, slobbery kiss. Relieved, he took his seat and reached for
the tea. What did God look like that night in L’Arche? A crucified Christ at the table of a community
of vulnerable people, breaking bread from a wounded body, a kiss of peace among unlikely
friends. This story also illustrates Jean’s response
to Aristotle concerning the notion of friendship. In the cultural context of Aristotle, genuine
friendships, as he defined them, required the sort of mutuality that was contingent
upon equal social status. Reciprocity and mutuality, hallmarks of friendship
for Aristotle, meant, for instance, that masters and slaves could not be friends. In fact, given the political and social standing
of women compared to land-owning, voting men, even women and men faced obstacles to authentic
friendship. Vanier, however, was not only shaped by the
claim that God had befriended humanity in Jesus Christ (“No longer do I call you slaves,
but now I call you friends”), but Vanier had experienced in L’Arche the moral capacities
of those with intellectual disabilities to befriend him, and had experienced his own
growing capacity to befriend those quite unlike himself. He wrote, “Friendship between unequals,
for example, between a rich person and a poor person, is considered by Aristotle only from
a perspective that is almost mercantile. For him, the rich, magnanimous person is happy
because he can give. Receiving implies a lack of autonomy, inferiority. Aristotle does not see what they can bring
one another, not merely in terms of their capacities, but also in terms of their love. While [Aristotle] does not despise the weak
or slaves, he did not waste his time on them,” Jean observes. “Aristotle could not conceive of the fact
that weak people might be able to help a [person] to become more human, to grow in humanity.” End quote. [4]
Diversity is essential to the transformative friendships that characterize L’Arche, and
also essential to the nature and mission of the church. Jean states “The mystery of L’Arche is
a mystery of personal relationships: covenant relationships between people who are very
different.” [5]
“Communities,” claims Jean, “are truly communities when they are open to others,
when they remain vulnerable and humble, when their members grow in love, compassion and
humility. To experience the community is to let go of
the boundaries, to welcome difference.”[6] Diversity then, including disability, is the
norm, the intended order of creation reflected in the diversity of the church. I Corinthians 12—Paul’s image of the diversity
of the human body with its many different, interdependent members—precedes I Corinthians
13, the famous chapter on love, for this reason. Who we are called to love and who we are enabled
to love are not only the ones like ourselves, but precisely the radical Other, on whom our
wholeness, belonging, and self-understanding depend. Our formation in divine love is contingent
upon our membership in a diverse community of interdependent members. In this regard, L’Arche is another sign
of God’s hopeful commonwealth in a broken, segregated world. Now here I refer to segregation of many kinds:
black from white, rich from poor, those with disabilities from those currently living without
disabilities, liberals from conservatives, refugees and immigrants from those born in
the U.S. In his book, Becoming Human, Jean reflected
on a reality all of us in this room have experienced. “Human nature,” he said, “is to want
to belong to groups of like-minded creatures, to those of the same culture or who have the
same goals and interests. We feel safer together. Those who are different disturb us….And
while most of us can find it stimulating or at least interesting to meet a stranger for
a short while, it is a very different thing to truly open up and allow a stranger to become
a friend . . .” “If we start to see people at the bottom
as friends,” writes Jean, “as people with gifts to bring to others, then the social
pyramid—with the powerful, knowledgeable, and wealthy on top—becomes a place where
each person finds a place and where we can live in mutual trust. Is this a utopian vision?” Jean asks. “If it is lived at the grassroots level,
in families, communities, and other places of belonging, this vision,” he writes “gradually
permeates our societies and humanizes us.” [7] “…The renewal of the Church and the
unity of the followers of Jesus,” Jean declares, “will come as we serve and befriend those
who appear to us as ‘strange,’ ‘different,’ the unwanted and the lonely of our societies
and as we learn to befriend our own poverty, the ‘strange’ and the lonely within us.” [8]
“We build walls around our group and cultivate our certitude,” Jean observes. [9] However, “if this fundamental communion
and friendship [with the Other] no longer exist, then we risk becoming only good managers
seeking security in rules, regulations, and good educational principles,” [10]—another
form of the institutional life Raphaël and Philippe experienced before moving in with
Jean. The banquet table at the wedding feast is
but an icon of divine friendship, a model for L’Arche of how the sacred diversity,
created as good, comes together in joyful celebration of the diversity found in the
Holy Trinity and throughout creation. What does God look like? A shared meal among a diverse, broken community
of friends being transformed through their friendships with the radical Other who is
sometimes God with Us. To build on Jean’s convictions about diversity,
friendship, and segregation, I turn to Mary McClintock Fulkerson, a liberal, white, Protestant,
systematic theologian at Duke University whose ethnography set in a Durham congregation resulted
in her book, Places of Redemption: Theology for a Worldly Church. I’m quoting the account of her first encounter
with Good Samaritan United Methodist Church. She writes:
I parked amidst the other cars and walk to the door of the white converted garage/sanctuary. Inside, the room is rather plain, but sounds
of boisterous piano playing fill the small space. People greet one another as they move around
finding seats among the rows of metal folding chairs. Some cheery, felt banners hang on the wall,
but the rug is a drab green. In an odd contrast with the metal folding
chairs and cheap décor are the carved heavy wooden pulpit and communion table which look
like contraband from an old Methodist church—formal in the style of southern Protestant churches
of the 1930s and 1940s. While I am expecting a mixed-race group, I
am surprised at my own response to all the dark skin in the room. A black woman approaches me. Extending her hand with a bulletin, she introduces
herself and welcomes me warmly. I find myself aware of the paleness of my
skin as I respond, trying to hide any signs that I am not used to worshipping with more
than a few token black people. The over eager sound of my voice tells me
I am probably failing. A good three-fourths of the people gathering
to worship are black, or ebony, or dark tan, bronze, and shades of color for which I have
no names. Next I notice a thin white man sitting twisted
in a wheelchair, parked next to a short man who looks like he has Down syndrome. As I approach the man in the wheelchair, my
body feels suddenly awkward and unnatural. When I get in his immediate vicinity, I realize
I don’t know where to place myself. My height feels excessive and ungainly. I tower over this pale man strapped in the
wheelchair. Do I kneel down? Bend down to be face level with him? Speaking to him from above feels patronizing. Or is it the crouching down that would be
patronizing? My hand moves to touch his shoulder and to
communicate, ‘I care about you, despite your mildly frightening, contorted body and
guttural gurgling sounds.’ But I withdraw my hand quickly, wondering
if this, too, would be a sign of condescension. What was it like to be unable to command a
safe space with your presence, to be vulnerable to the groping of other people’s hands? [11] End quote. What Mary discovers is that although her liberal
Christian self would enthusiastically endorse all kinds of public statements about the rights
of those with disabilities, about the evils of racial segregation, about the divine nature
of the church as a diverse body of believers, about the ongoing, redeeming work of reconciliation,
Mary admitted that conflicting convictions were lodged in her uncomfortable body—a
white, intellectual, abled body that was not only segregated from black and brown bodies,
but also segregated from disabled and poor bodies at home, at work, in her neighborhood,
and at church. Her discomfort at being a minority in the
room, at being so near to a disabled body, reminded Mary that she had the social, economic,
and political status to remain segregated and oblivious to persons of color, oblivious
to those with physical and intellectual disabilities, segregated from almost everyone who was different. The congregation she had attended for years
only reinforced those convictions lodged in her body, even while signing onto the most
progressive social statements devised by her denominational spokespersons. As Mary states, “My conscious commitments
to inclusiveness were not completely correlated with my habituated sense of the normal.” [12] This personal, social, systemic oblivion
creates a wound, and, as Mary suggests, “wounds generate not only new ways of thinking, but
also inspire a theological response.”[13] L’Arche, as we know, was born as much from
wounds as from hope and vision, so it is not unreasonable to suggest that L’Arche itself
is a theological response to a wound. L’Arche is a theology. Jean, too, had been oblivious most of his
life been to those with disabilities. On his first day sharing a home with Dany,
Raphaël, and Philippe, he encountered the deep pain in the other, encountered the wounds
that resulted from having been disabled by institutions where they were segregated from
family and friends and the church; disabled by public policy, architecture and structures;
disabled by poverty and racism; disabled by medical diagnoses; and disabled by bad theology. Their pain-filled vulnerability would touch
his own human vulnerability, his own fear of loneliness and isolation—the wound that
led him to intimate friendships in L’Arche with the Other and with God. This kind of friendship is the gift, he claims,
we have been given to stem the floods of isolation and loneliness, the gift that enables us to
experience the Imago Dei in the other, the radical Other, and in ourselves. Yet that experience comes with the hard work
of conversion. Our explicit faith claims are challenged in
these relationships, in these friendships, in ways that demand new ways of imagining
and embodying faith itself. In her encounter with the man in the wheel
chair and his friend with Down syndrome, Mary rediscovered that faith itself is not always
lodged in our creeds or our brains. It is lodged in our physical and communal
bodies, the way music becomes lodged in the fingers of a pianist or guitarist, the way
a Brahms symphony becomes lodged in the orchestra, as well as in the concert hall and in the
bodies of the audience who are moved to tears or delight. Faith is lodged the way kindness, love, courage,
and friendship are lodged in our embodied actions, in our communities that birth and
nurture kindness, love, courage, friendship and faith. When we cling to Enlightenment theories of
human identity that locate faith in our rational minds—that is, in the mentalist activity
that results in intellectual examinations of our orthodox understanding of doctrine—then
we have once more disabled all of our core members in L’Arche, and disabled most of
us here tonight. How is it we support young adults with profound
intellectual disabilities through the confirmation, first communion, and church membership process? We surround them with faith, don’t we? We say, “We have faith in you!” We draw them into faithful communities. Then we hope that our communal vision has
been shaped such that we see in the Other the Imago Dei; planted there, watered there,
by our gracious God incarnate in the vulnerable body of Jesus Christ, in the vulnerable body
of the church. Think about it this way… I’d like for you to name, to yourself, a
place that is your hometown. When you think, my hometown, name it for yourself. In the same way “hometown” is not just
a place on the map, but layers of meaning, faith, too, becomes that complex landscape
in which we live. Faith, according to Mary, is a place-world
that just might resemble the L’Arche community gathered in the dining room when Stephen came
back down the stairs with this crucifix. I insert Mary’s practical theology in a
reflection about Jean Vanier’s theology for these reasons: she reminds us that our
true convictions—that is, our authentic beliefs about God, other people, and ourselves—are
often revealed in our bodies, not in our denominational statements, creeds and doctrine. And what transforms those deeply-held embodied
convictions is breaking through the many forms of segregation that keep us from the authentic,
intimate, transformative friendships with the Other. This is why L’Arche communities—broken
and vulnerable as they are—have the power to transform our embodied faith, because our
bodies are actually brought close enough to one another in the way Mary’s white and
abled body got uncomfortably close to black and immigrant and disabled bodies in Good
Samaritan United Methodist Church in Durham. In L’Arche, those of us with physical and
intellectual disabilities are no longer segregated from those of us currently living without
those disabilities. Men and women, black and white and Hispanic,
wealthy and poor, those who believe, those who cannot believe, share daily meals, clean
toilets and mow the yard together, visit one another’s families, work together in the
workshop making bird houses and stone crosses, celebrate birthdays and holidays, fight and
forgive, bless and curse, share wounds, anguish and delightful secrets . . . eat dinner together
around a candle and a question, What does God look like? Faith resides in that hometown. What does God look like in L’Arche? I think Stephen’s crucifix gives us another
clue. Nancy Eiesland, a former faculty colleague
of mine at Candler School of Theology, was physically disabled. She became a theologian and sociologist of
religion, yet even before finishing her Ph.D., Nancy wrote her most famous book, The Disabled
God. As we picture Stephen’s handmade crucifix
in the center of our table, I invite you to hear Nancy’s liberation theology of disability:
“At the resurrection,” Nancy observes, the disciples understood the person of Jesus
for who he really was. Only through the lens of resurrection could
they understand the meaning and significance of the life of Jesus on earth. In the resurrected Jesus Christ, they saw
not the suffering servant for whom the last and most important word was tragedy and sin,
but the disabled God who embodied both the impaired hands and feet and pierced side and
the Imago Dei. Paradoxically, in the very act commonly understood
as the transcendence of physical life, God is revealed as tangible, bearing the representation
of the body reshaped by injustice and sin into the fullness of the Godhead. Here is the resurrected Christ making good
on the incarnational proclamation that God would be with us, embodied as we are, incorporating
the fullness of human contingency and ordinary life into God. In presenting impaired hands and feet to his
startled friends, the resurrected Jesus is revealed as the disabled God. Jesus, the resurrected Savior, calls for his
frightened companions to recognize in the marks of impairment their own connection with
God, their own salvation. In doing so, this disabled God is not only
the One from heaven but the revelation of true personhood, underscoring the reality
that full personhood is fully compatible with the experience of disability. [14]
We do not have to wait for the appearance of the resurrected Jesus—marked with the
physical impairments of the crucifixion—to encounter a radical image of God in the incarnation. From the moment of his birth, we know the
incarnate God in Jesus Christ to be sharing our embodied life, experiencing our vulnerability
and disabilities. What infant isn’t completely vulnerable? And as we look at the realities of this infant’s
particular history and context – born in a barn, in ancient Palestine, a Jew during
Roman rule, poor, into a family who became refugees—we rediscover that God incarnate
experienced the fragility—the vulnerability—of being human from the moment of His birth,
decades before we witness his betrayal, arrest, tortured and disabled body on the cross, and
death. As Thomas Reynolds observes, “Jesus is the
icon of a vulnerable God.”[15] “To exist as a finite creature is to be
contingent and vulnerable,” writes Reynolds, author of Vulnerable Communion. This means that we are beings that face limitations
and are capable of suffering from a range of impairments. . . . It is such vulnerability that God embraces
in Christ, entering fully into the fragility of the human condition, even unto tragic death. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. Sharing the divine self in this way sends
a distinct message: God is in solidarity with humanity at its most fundamental level, in
weakness and brokenness. This is not to romanticize weakness. Rather here God reveals the divine nature
as compassion not only by undergoing or suffering with human vulnerability, but also by raising
it up into God’s own being. [16]
Connecting disability with vulnerability sounds new theological possibilities.” It moves the discussion about disability from
a minor to a major key. That is, it helps us understand disability
not as a human deficiency or tragedy to be pitied, but as a way of living life’s possibilities
vulnerably with others and in God. [17] End quote. What does God look like? A vulnerable communion of people with and
without disabilities, gathered at a banquet table, surrounding the cross of a Christ who
bore signs of disability, who lived a vulnerable life as all of us do every day and will do
until our death. What does God look like? A community that reveals to us and to the
world that our vulnerability and disabilities are marks of the divine, are essential characteristics
of the Imago Dei that draw us deeper into mutually transforming friendships with the
Other and with God. In his book, The Heart of L’Arche: A Spirituality
for Every Day, Jean Vanier wrote: L’Arche communities reveal the paradox presented
by weakness and poverty. That which we reject and push aside can become
a means of grace, unity, freedom and peace… The Word was made flesh. He hid the glory of his divinity and became
one of us. He shared with us his needs, particularly
his need for love, and he shared his sufferings. He became poor. He took the downward path and emptied himself
to show us a way of communion and love. . . . As we [in L’Arche] continue on our
road, we will discover and live other aspects of this mystery, the mystery of Jesus’s
incarnation, and of the communion we live with him through his hidden presence in the
poor. [18]
“…There is the eternal wedding feast,” writes Jean, “the great celebration of life
with God. It is the sign that there is a personal meeting
which will fulfill us, that our thirst for the infinite will be [satisfied] and that
the wound of our loneliness will be healed. Our journey together, our pilgrimage, is worthwhile. There is hope.”[19]
There is hope. Thank you. Thank you very much. I think I understand a bit about the tradition
of this gathering, and that there is a time afterwards before we start a shared conversation
and questions for people to turn to their neighbors—someone nearby or a couple of
people nearby—to share something that might have arisen for you in this talk, something
that inspired a question or was a concern, or something that you simply want to remember. So I encourage you, before we open the floor
for questions, just to turn to the people near you and say something—if I’m getting
the tradition right—to say something about the learning, the questions, the interest
that this might have provoked. So I look forward now to response and some
conversation. Again, I’m not a resident expert in the
room who can answer your theological questions, but I’m really happy to entertain conversation
and turn to a variety of people here tonight who would be able to engage us together. So, I invite conversation now—response and
questions—and because we don’t have a lavalier mic or a hand mic to pass around,
I’ll repeat the question as it gets asked, or the comments, as best I can up here. Dr. Jenkins: Yes, thank you. So the question has been to say a bit more
about what Mary McClintock Fulkerson meant when she talked about faith as a place world,
and how communal practices that get displayed in this faith world can be helpful for us
as the object of our attention when there seems to be a lot of division in church and
culture. So, again Mary; what Mary’s trying to do
is relocate faith from how we normally think about it, that it’s the way we have normally
thought about faith, so much is what resides in our heads about our right convictions,
our right doctrine, our right creeds, being able to think about when any of us join the
church, had First Communion, all the questions that were asked of us, and the responses that
we had to give to that kind of show yes, we’re not just Christian, we’re clearly Roman
Catholic or Presbyterian or Lutheran or Methodist, by the way we answer these right questions. And we’re shaped at that time in our life,
as we prepare to join, to say the right thing to the right question, as if that’s what
faith is; as if any of us really knows exactly what redemption and justification and sanctification
look like and are displayed in the world. So she says faith is much bigger than that,
and faith is not just in my body. As she talked about having the discomfort
as she encountered the Other, she was saying, now, intellectually I would want to say I
believe these things, but I realized my body was uncomfortable in ways I had to acknowledge;
oh, my goodness, maybe my true convictions reside elsewhere than just in these claims. Then as she started to expand faith, she realized
that perhaps faith is not this thing that autonomous individuals capture, either intellectually
or physically. In other words, it’s not just embodied in
individuals, it’s embodied in communities in layers of meaning. So when you talk about that faithful community,
it’s very similar to the way we talk about hometown. Because hometown isn’t just, say, Las Cruces,
New Mexico. Las Cruces has all these other layers of meaning
to them that informed our emotional attachment to something called hometown. They have these complex layers of meaning
where hometown was always a complex place; we wanted to get away from it. We went away from our hometown because of
what it meant to us at age 17 or 18. Or we wanted to always come back to our hometown
when we left because it has this whole set of experiences and also value claims. This hometown was because . . . this hometown
was a great place to grow up because this hometown taught me X, Y, and Z that I really
want to overcome. This hometown, I really was formed to be the
adult I am in these beautiful but complex ways. She wants to talk about faith in that same
way, to move it out. One of the ways I’ve heard Mary informally
talk about it is when she looks at that line beginning in John’s Gospel, where Jesus
says, “abide in me and I abide”—this notion of abiding is what a fish does in water. So imagine that faith is the water in which
we swim. We breathe it in and we breathe it out. It’s life giving, it’s essential for who
we are. It holds life. It’s not just what a fish believes about
being a fish. It is this place that God has made, complex
and rich and life-giving, in which all of us abide. Dr. Jenkins: Yes, thank you. I don’t know how to summarize all that,
but I’d like to respond. Nancy Eiesland makes a move here that Thomas
Reynolds also picks up in his book, the Vulnerable Communion—it’s actually, as we know from—it’s
an Orthodox move. It’s what the Greek, Russian—it’s that
Orthodox move where in the fullness of the Incarnation, including the Crucifixion and
Resurrection, it wasn’t just God came down, as it were, and took on human flesh, but something
else about humanity was happening in the Incarnation and the fullness of that event that elevated
humanity into the divine. Part of what Nancy had lived, as someone with
a physical disability all her life, was the sense of you’re not fully human, you’ve
lost a perfect body, you’ve lost a normal body, you’ve lost a this and that, and if
only you could become whole again. She wanted to say, wait a minute, it’s in
the disability that we get the best glimpse of the divinity of Christ that also gives
us the best glimpse into the divinity of our lives. It isn’t one’s greater than, it’s look,
the disability is the insight into the Imago Dei. It’s not all the ways that we’re most
holy and most obedient and most courageous and most faithful, whatever that looks like. It’s also in the disability that gives us
our greatest connection, as it were, our greatest unity with the divine. Dr. Jenkins: Thank you. The observation was on the power of friendship
as not just a theological category, but friendship as a practice of ours. We heard about a father-in-law who is now
institutionalized because of his dementia, if I understood correctly. So there are several beautiful contributions
just made in that. One is the acknowledgement that all of us,
if we live long enough, will experience disability. We have been raised to often think about those
with disabilities—intellectual disabilities or physical disabilities—as the Other rather
than the norm. This is who we will all be. This is the reality for all of us. Now, of course, one of the things Thomas Reynolds
is trying to do is shift that just a little bit to the language of vulnerability so that
we can all understand, whether we are currently able-minded and able-bodied, that we’re
still contingent beings, we’re still vulnerable. We live vulnerably every day. So he wants to shift that a bit so that people
with intellectual and physical disabilities aren’t categorized as the Other, but we’re
all in the same ark, as it were. But the other thing, I’ve heard Jean talk
about the language that American churches use, of the shut-in, which would be your father-in-law,
for instance, or anybody who might be sick for a long time, or people who’ve broken
their hip and they’re hospitalized, or in recovery, or at home, and we think, oh, well,
we have the sacramental minister who’s going to go visit the shut-in. He’s saying what is it about our congregations
that have created obstacles to those people coming to us, being a regular part of congregational
life, even with advanced dementia, quadriplegia, all kinds of current intellectual and physical
disabilities? One of the first things that our congregations
and schools is to say, well, you go get yourself taken care of by professionals elsewhere rather
than stay a part of this communion of friendship where you will be continued to know that you
belong. To know that you belong. And it’s the disability that often, then,
shifts us out of belonging to a place of being cared for as a patient, as a client, as someone
other than a member of the body. So I’m really grateful for your observations
and our capacity to continue to befriend those when they may not have the capacity to befriend
us in the same ways. Thank you. Dr. Jenkins: Thank you. The question is to say a bit about Jean Vanier’s
notions of vulnerability and significance of vulnerability, both as individuals and
as communities. So I think Jean would say several things. One is, it’s not as if vulnerability is
just a gift, it’s the fact. It’s who we are as human beings. We are all vulnerable. Any of us tonight could get hit by a car,
any of us could contract a difficult disease, any of us tonight could get mugged on the
streets. There are a lot of things that could happen
to us that make us vulnerable, contingent human beings because we have bodies. That’s the starting place. We have bodies, it makes us vulnerable, we
all know that. But he says vulnerability is, the move from
where it’s a reality to where it’s a gift is because it’s when we acknowledge our
vulnerability, we acknowledge our need and interdependence for the Other. And it’s in that entering into mutual interdependence—that’s
redundant—but interdependence and a sense of belonging to one another and need for one
another, that we become more human, as it were, and we experience, then, all of the
gifts of the Other. As long as I believe myself to be fully autonomous
and not vulnerable and not needy, well, what do I care about your gifts and friendship
with you? I’m self-contained. I think that’s another consequence of the
Enlightenment that wanted us to be self-contained, autonomous, rational beings. It was pushing this notion that to be vulnerable
is not just our reality, it’s the gift of humanity that draws into community where we
are loved, where we are nurtured, where we find a place to belong. We have an Old Testament scholar in the house
who, I’m careful about saying this, but there is no biblical word for individual. There are plenty of ways of talking about
being a member of. I’m David, son of John, from the tribe of
X or Y. But there’s no sense of this autonomous
individuality in Scripture. People are always members of tribes and communities
and a place of belonging. They had no identity as individuals. I think Jean’s trying to reclaim some of
this notion of this is the way we were created to be in intimate relationship with the Other,
often with the enemy and the stranger. Because we hear if we love the enemy, this
is a real mark of some unique, divine love in the world. Dr. Jenkins: Thank you, it’s an interesting
question: when vulnerability becomes problematic rather than gift or simply an account of our
human existent. This is when Jean has received, for instance,
criticism from feminist theologians who would say, look, women have been accused of being
vulnerable or described as being vulnerable in ways that diminish women’s power. Because of the social construct of gender,
for instance, and is some of what I implied the social construct of disability—people
with disabilities, women, refugees, immigrants—anybody not in the center—become vulnerable to those
who’ve claimed the power and who want to resist living in the world as mutually interdependent
people. So you’re absolutely right, and I think
part of what is the gift for all of us is that to be able to say to those who want to
claim their power in a way that keeps other people vulnerable to economic systems, to
violence, to social policy, sometimes to bad theology in the church, is we’re always
going to be having both words. We’re going to be speaking truth to power,
that you, too, are also vulnerable, and that your liberation, as someone wanting to be
at the center, on top, with power, creating sustaining social systems that keep other
people vulnerable in a way that’s oppressive, your liberation is bound up also in your own
way of being vulnerable in the world, acknowledging that part of your human existence. As you do that, and as people who have been
made vulnerable by social systems claim together in community because they’re not alone,
and that’s part of what happens is social systems will isolate people so that as individuals
they have less power, but as communities belonging to one another their power is enhanced. To be vulnerable doesn’t mean to be powerless
at all. That’s not the claim. In fact, in L’Arche, as you’ll see, core
members really claim this head of the table around decisions, around culture in the house,
around relationships. I hope that says a bit. Thank you. Thank you very much. MELINDA: Thanks so much to Dr. Jenkins. [applause]
That was a wonderful, inspiring, eloquent, poetic presentation, as well as rich in theology. I, for one, am really happy that it was videotaped
so we can enjoy the richness again. As I mentioned earlier, that will be on the
website within about four weeks. The website is BC.edu/encore – E-N-C-O-R-E. I’d also like to let you know that there’s
a resource page that consists of a number of the videos of these Pyne lectures over
the years. There are presentations that range from autism
to bipolar disorder to physical disabilities. So if this is a topic of particular interest,
you might want to check out that resource page. It is also available at that same website,
BC.eduencore. Our student assistants have bookmarks with
the web address on your way out. Thanks for your participation, your comments,
and your questions, and I hope we’ll see you again soon. Thank you.

Author: Kennedi Daugherty

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