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Jean Vanier

"Seeing God in Others"

Program #3901
First air date October 1 , 1995

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In 1964, Jean Vanier, the son of a former Governor General of Canada, was teaching philosophy at the
University of Toronto when he visited the chaplain of a small residence for handicapped people. That
visit was a turning point in Jean Vanier's life and it became clear to him that God was calling him to
something new. Soon after, in a small town outside of Paris, he invited two handicapped men from a
nearby institution to come live with him. In time, others joined them, until the community grew to over
400 people. Their success in ministering to the handicapped in a radically new waya way inspired by
Jesusgradually spread until today, more than 80 L'Arche communities exist around the world.
[Biographical information is correct as of the broadcast date noted above.]

"Seeing God in Others"

What I discover today is every time I see a man or a woman with a severe mental handicap - the
incredible cry that is coming from them - what I would call the primal cry - which is, "Do you love me?" a very deep cry. And you find with people with mental handicaps that this is their - "Do you love me?",
"Why have I been abandoned?" or "Has my life any value?"
Somewhere this cry of, "Do you want to be my friend?" touched me. I began visiting asylums, hospitals,
different institutions, families, and I discovered an immense world of pain which I never, never could
have imagined. I had been schooled in the Navy and in a world of efficiency. I'd then been schooled in
the world of philosophy and theology. Suddenly to discover these big hospitals with hundreds sometimes thousands - of mentally handicapped people living in obvious pain. And from their being
came immense cries of violence, of auto-mutilation - hitting their heads. So I discovered all this world
which I hadn't even imagined existed. I met parents - the pain of parents.
And it seemed very clear to me that Jesus was asking me just to take one or two men and to start living
together. So I was able to buy a small, broken-down house and I welcomed two men, Raphael and
Philippe, from an institution. Raphael had had meningitis. He couldn't walk very well, he couldn't speak
very well. Philippe had had encephalitis - one arm paralyzed, one leg paralyzed - living in a world of
dream, but also with quite a severe mental handicap.
We began to live together. I did the cooking, so we didn't eat very well! We did everything together. We
cooked, we worked in the garden together, we fought together, we prayed together, we forgave each
other. And so, a whole sort of journey began. I began by thinking that I could do good for them, but then
as the days and then the months moved on I began to discover, little by little, what they were doing for
me - transforming me, changing me. I thought I was going to teach them something and suddenly I was
discovering that they were teaching me quite a bit.
When Jesus says, "Whoever welcomes one of these little ones in my name welcomes me, and
whoever welcomes me welcomes the Father," or "the one who sent me" - when Jesus says, "I was in
prison and you visited me, I was sick and you visited me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was
hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, I was a stranger, I was strange, I
was different, and you welcomed me" - it's really true. I never knew this. I mean, I'd read it in the
gospels but I didn't know what it meant and I'm not sure that I really believed it. I'm beginning to realize
that if Christians believed in Jesus hidden in the poor the world would change.

Of course, the great pain of the world - people sometimes talk about "the pain of handicapped people"
and "the pain of the poor" and it's true there is an immense, immense, immense world of suffering
everywhere. Immense world of suffering. But what I am discovering is that the greatest suffering is not
that man with the handicap, not that boy who is blind, who is deaf and severely brain damaged, but the
greatest pain is in those who reject them. The greatest pain, without any doubt, is in the rich. There I'm
seeing how people can lock themselves up behind prisons. We can call these prisons the prisons of
comfort, the prison of security, but it's a terrible prison, because we lock ourselves away from humanity.
You see, the whole mystery of Jesus is that he came to bring peace and our world is a world of
immense conflict.
And I am beginning to see how fundamentally so many people are ridden with guilt - ridden with quilt.
And the great mystery that Jesus came to announce, and there I see that with clear evidence every
day, is that Jesus came to take away from our shoulders the yoke of guilt. People are ridden with guilt.
People have the sort of feeling that "nobody can love me." I see this with our handicapped people, but I
see it also with everybody - the feeling that "nobody can love me, I'm no good and I've hurt people." I
see parents ridden with guilt because they feel they've hurt their child. I see husbands ridden with guilt
because they haven't been able to correspond to the cry of their wives. I see women ridden with guilt
because they cannot, they don't know how to correspond to their husbands. Covenants have been
broken. I see Christians ridden with guilt because when they read the gospels it doesn't correspond to
what they're living.
Jesus says, "Leave everything you have and follow me and give it to the poor." But they know they can't
do it, they don't do it, and when they see the poor they see the poor as a nuisance and they see the
poor as people who disturb them. They don't see the face of Christ in the poor because somewhere
they are ridden with guilt.
The whole of the mystery of Christ is that he came to take away guilt. He came to forgive and to teach
people to forgive. It's something really as simple as that. It doesn't have to be done in a big way, but it's
to learn to live with each other.
I must say that what I've learned from people like Eric is that what is important in human relationships is
to discover that God has led us together. I feel that very clearly for myself - that it was Jesus who
brought me to handicapped people. And I know the day that I welcomed Raphael and Philippe I knew and I know it today - that it was an irreversible act, that in welcoming Raphael and Philippe it was a
covenant that I was entering into. And therefore, if this was given to me by Jesus, well then he had
given me this strength and we'd live something together.
So I'm beginning to discover something which is really important about the vision of Jesus for our world:
that Jesus wants our world to be a body and not a hierarchy. What do I mean by this? I mean that he
wants humanity, each one, to find his or her place. And in the body, everyone or every member of that
body has a place and the poorest and the weakest have a place. But somewhere we have transformed
this world into a hierarchy, where everybody is struggling to win, where everybody wants to climb the
ladder, where everybody is in rivalry and competition one with another. Where in some way we are in
sort of "survival of the fittest". We must rise up to the top or else we die, we're no good, we're nothing.
And yet, Jesus came to create a body and in that body to respect difference, to respect the other
person as different, to welcome each person into that body and to give space. That's what St. Paul says
when he talks about the church, that the church is a body. And he says that the weakest members of
the body, the most indecent, are necessary to the body and - then a little further on - should be
honored. The great mystery of Jesus is that he has come to totally change the vision of the world.
The vision of the world is a vision based on hierarchy. At the top there is success, there is power,
privilege and prestige. That's what everybody is striving for. Jesus came to change all that - to create a
body where there's no more rivalry, but where there's forgiveness. And where each one can find their
place. Where we work together in a body.

But the body is not everybody the same because the eye is very different from the ear or the foot.
Somewhere the principle of the body is a covenant and then to respect the other one as different - man
to respect woman as different.
Love is not fusion because fusion is quickly confusion. Love is not you and I losing our identity. To love
is "I am I and you are you. And we come together - you are different from me and we can love each
other and we can be one body in one family." So in a community, a parish, a church to discover the
mystery that we are called to welcome people as different, because they are different. Not because
they are the same but because they are different. And precisely because they are different then we
grow together.
It's more beautiful, it's like a bouquet of flowers - not all just violets or roses. And that is our universe.
The universe is an incredible difference and yet each one of us is seen as unique.
So handicapped people have been teaching me about living in the body. They've been teaching me that
what is important is not to climb up the ladder, not to speak on television, but to go down the ladder and
there to meet people and celebrate with people, communicate with people; to escape from our
loneliness through covenant, to escape from our loneliness through communication and there to
discover that we can love each other, that we can accept each other as different.
The handicapped person - Eric - is very different from myself. Eric with his blindness, with his deafness,
with his brokenness, and yet Eric has something to tell me. Though he can't speak his body can speak.
Somewhere to discover what non-verbal language is, to discover body language, and then to discover
that Eric is very like myself and I am like him. We are different in many ways, because he cannot speak
and his capacity of reasoning is very limited and so on; but yet, he is revealing to me that his heart is
like my heart. He wants to be loved and I want to be loved and that's what both of us need.
Love is not just to do something for someone - love is not a sort of sentimentality and kissing each
other and so on. Love is to enter into covenant - to know that you accept me as I am, that you see my
gift, but also that you see my wound. That you won't abandon me when you see my wound, that you
won't just flatter me when you see my gift. But you accept me as I am with all that is fragile, all that is
broken, all that is beautiful, too.
Then to discover that we can do this - not just you and I - but in a community where we accept each
other as we are. Then the extraordinary thing is we can let down barriers, we don't have to prove, I
don't have to pretend I'm better than you are, I'm allowed to be myself. I'm allowed to be myself
because you love me.
And then to discover that in your love you are liberating me, in your love there is a presence of Christ.
That Jesus is present, and that he's truly present, and your love is also a sign of the presence of God.
And that you love me not because I am going to give you something, that you love me not because you
put me on the pedestal, but because in some way we're the same humanity, we belong to the same
humanity, we are brothers, we are brothers and sisters together and we've been joined by Christ.
Because the whole of the mystery of Jesus is to bring people together. The work of the evil one, Satan,
is to divide, to put frontiers up between people, to create a world where there are goodies and badies,
and where we judge and where we condemn.
The whole of the mystery of Christ is in those words that Jesus says in the Gospel of St. Luke: "Be
compassionate as the Father is compassionate. Don't judge and you won't be judged, don't condemn
and you won't be condemned, forgive and you'll be forgiven, give and in the measure that you give you
will receive." That's the whole message of Jesus. "Love your enemies, I say to you love your enemies,
love those that hate you, criticize you, pray for those that persecute you." And he goes on...It's easy to
love those in the same club. It's easy to love those that love you. I mean, anybody without God can do
that. That's not the problem. It's easy to lend to someone when you know that if you're in need they'll
lend to you. "But I say," says Jesus, "Love your enemies." That's to say, love those who in some way

are a threat to you.

Of course, the incredible thing with Jesus is that these words "love your enemies" are a commandment
- it's not an option. But before being a commandment it is a promise because he is saying: I'll teach
you, I'll change your heart of stone and I'll put my spirit in you.
The whole of the mystery of Christ is to change us so that we become the face of Jesus, we become
the hands of Jesus, that we become the heart of Jesus, that our body becomes the body of Christ, that
our words become the words of Christ. That's the mystery - that he gives us his Spirit so we can
continue this work of peacemaking, so we can be Jesus to reconcile others to this world. And
reconciliation begins as we welcome those that are different, as we welcome the person who has
leprosy, as we welcome the person who is mentally sick, as we welcome into our homes the old.
But our world has been created in such a way, our culture, where we reject the useless - what we see
as useless. And in point of fact, those we reject are those that Jesus wants as the foundation stone of
the new society. And the foundation stone of the new society of those who believe in Christ are the
poor, the weak, the old, the little - those who in some mysterious way prolong the mystery of the
You know the whole mystery of Christ - we don't like to talk about this too much - is that Jesus disturbed
people because his vision was too beautiful, his vision was too demanding, because his vision is a
vision of love which is in direct conflict with all the powers of egocentrism. Jesus is calling people to
love. And because he called people to love, to give their lives, to give their riches, to become poor, then
he was rejected - they didn't want him so they killed him and put him aside.
Today this is continuing. The poor are crying out for love. The weak, the handicapped people, the
physically handicapped people, they are all crying out for love. They are all saying, "Do you want to be
my friend?" Just as Jesus is saying, "Do you want to be my friend?" But then they are trodden upon,
they are put aside, they are aborted, they are not wanted - rejected.
So we find the prisons are full, the young people don't find hope, they are going into a world of drugs
and so on, because they don't see love, they don't see sharing. They see a world where there is terrific
hypocrisy - people saying one thing and doing another - people "fooling around" with other people. But
it's not love, it's not a gift to themselves. So many people are in despair, many young people are in
despair because this world is so broken and so little and so, so weak.

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