Real growth begins when we accept our weaknesses.
– Jean Vanier
Jean Vanier is a Canadian philosopher, theologian and religious leader, and he is the founder of the L’Arche communities. These are communities which provide a home, care and love, for people with disabilities. Having become aware of the plight of so many people with developmental disabilities who were institutionalized, in 1964 he invited two men, Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux to leave the institutions they were living in and live with him in Trosly-Breuil in France. This was the beginning of the first L’Arche community and since that time he has helped develop such communities in other parts of the world. Vanier has written and spoken much about what he has learned living with people with disabilities. They have taught him how to live in community, how to be truly present to one another and how to love. I had the privilege of attending one of his talks many years ago when he visited Sydney, and just sitting in the audience, listening to him speak, I was aware of being in the presence of a truly holy man, a man whose inner being and life have taken a holy shape. But Vanier’s life and his message are counter-cultural in many ways. In his book, The Broken Body, he speaks of going down the ladder of success. Weakness and brokenness, he points out, are not to be feared or shunned. Rather we need to embrace them and welcome them, for recognizing our own weaknesses, our own imperfections and limitations will bring us into community with others. Embracing our weaknesses will also become a channel of grace.
“The vision that each person is precious is at the origin of L’Arche”, he writes. “And yet, in this era, one can forget why each person is precious: not on account of their personal success but by reason of their relationships of communion with others; we need other people in order to be truly human. In order for each person to become responsible and to open themselves up to others in a friendly relationship, they need to know how to live with others, in a family or in a community. A community is not a group of people shut in on themselves, in the belief that they are the best. It is a group of men and women who want to learn to love and to open their hearts to others”. If, as Vanier says, we are to open our hearts to others, we need to do that with some honesty. That means a communion of our whole self, ‘warts and all’. The tone of our world certainly does not lend itself to admissions of weakness. It’s a very competitive world, our world of selfies and ceaseless communication where we are constantly ‘showing off’, parading our successes, our ‘perfect lives’. In such a space weakness is not welcome. But while we may not show the less glossy side of ourselves and our lives to others, the fact is, it is there. “We are born in extreme fragility, and we die in extreme fragility,” he says. “Throughout our lives we remain vulnerable and at risk of being wounded”. Yet this very human characteristic is something we are afraid of. We are afraid of being wounded and so we hide our vulnerability. We may hide it from others, and we may hide it from ourselves, for a while anyway, but we cannot escape it. We begin to live a lie and this impacts on our ability to relate with others. Through his experience in the L’Arche communities, living in communion with those who do not hide their weakness and vulnerability, Vanier has written much about the blunt and beautiful honesty of these people who have taught him so much. It’s a disarmingly simple truth that they speak. There is no pretense or place to hide. The honesty of these people taught Vanier to love.
What might it be about acknowledging and accepting our weaknesses that can lead to growth? There is much reference in Scripture to what is referred to as a humble heart, or a humble spirit. And similarly there is much reference to the dangers of a proud spirit. The words arrogant, proud and haughty are mentioned numerous times. A proud spirit in this sense is self-sufficient, turns away from community, acknowledges no need, and certainly does not acknowledge weakness. And the resounding affirmation throughout Scripture is, as we find for example in the Book of Proverbs, that “All those who are arrogant are an abomination to the Lord”. There are two Greek forms of the word arrogance which are used in the New Testament: one is huperogkos which means ‘swelling’ or ‘extravagance’, as in using arrogant words; the other is phusiosis meaning ‘puffing up of the soul’. This expression reminds me of those wonderful Irish nuns who taught me at school in South Africa with their to-the-point turn of phrase, admonishing us to ‘not get above ourselves’! And while we did like to have a bit of a laugh at the quaintness of their words there is something of a wonderfully down to earth and very biblical spirituality in them.
Ms Kerry McCullough
Dean of Mission