L’Arche and Being Human
For the last five years, I have taught an introduction to humanities course at a local community college. Each semester I begin and end the semester with the same question, “What makes us human?” I ask students to think about a pet dog or higher primate like the gorilla. Certainly, we have some characteristics in common with other members of the animal kingdom. Yet, in spite of these similarities, our human intuition imagines that there is something fundamentally different about being human; something that separates us from all other living organisms. When students think about this question, their answers naturally tend toward the intellectual capacities of humans–our brains are bigger and capable of complex thought. While this statement is true from a biological standpoint, something about defining our humanity in relation to our brains rings hollow for me. If we define humanness primarily in this fashion, how then do we make sense of people born with severe intellectual disabilities? Are they “less” human? What of people born with gifted minds and high levels of intellectual aptitude? Are they “more” human? Few people would want to agree with these statements. So this pushes us to consider another way of understanding what it means to be human. To challenge my students to think in new ways, I show a series of videos about Jean Vanier and the L’Arche homes he founded for people with physical and intellectual disabilities to live in a community of spirituality and mutual friendship.
The Story of L’Arche
In 1964, Jean Vanier, a professor of philosophy, made the radical decision to purchase a home in Trosly, France and invite two men with disabilities to live in Christian community with him. As he lived alongside these men, Vanier made an important discovery about people with disabilities. He realized that “their needs were exactly the same as mine: to be loved and to love, to make choices and to develop their abilities” (The Heart of L’Arche 29). In spite of the great intellectual gap between Vanier and his new housemates, he discovered a common humanity. Humans are created for mutual relationship–to give and to receive. In a L’Arche community, members live with a spirit of interdependency. The able-bodied do not simply care for the disabled-bodied. There is a reciprocal arrangement that honors the dignity and worth of each person and the desire of each person to become a free moral agent.
The more time Jean Vanier spent living with people with disabilities, the more he understood a profound truth about himself: “Little by little, the weak and the powerless helped me to accept my own poverty, become more fully human and grow in inner wholeness” (35). In Western culture, we have a historical tendency to isolate the weak–the poor, the elderly, the sick, the young, the disabled. This tendency protects us from encountering weakness on a regular basis. We live in a world where everyone is strong, capable, and independent. Yet, our so-called strength is often only a facade. The gift of the disabled is that they reveal our own weaknesses in profound ways. None of us is as strong or as capable as we think. All of us are only an illness away from being completely dependent on others for our daily existence. I suppose parents learn a similar lesson. Living with little children is a revelatory experience as well.
In the 50 years since L’Arche first began, communities have spread all around the world. Today, L’Arche communities include people from a whole range of cultures and spiritual beliefs. Yet, when Jean Vanier first began L’Arche, he founded the community on the basis of Christian spirituality. Specifically, he was moved by Jesus’ instructions to invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” when you give a dinner party (Lk 14:12-14). Jesus promises that those who eat with the poor will be blessed at the resurrection because then God will repay them for their kindness. Yet, eating with the poor does not only hold a blessing for the future. An encounter with the poor and disabled creates an opportunity to see our common humanity in new ways.
The People of L’Arche
Reading Jean Vanier’s books or listening to him talk about L’Arche, one cannot help but be struck by his significant intellectual gifts, combined with his spirituality and compassion. Understandably, Vanier’s voice frequently becomes the public voice of L’Arche. Yet, to only listen to his perspective, that of the theologian and philosopher, is to miss the richness of L’Arche. On their YouTube channel, L’Arche Internationale has released a documentary series called “As I Am.” Each short video features the story of person living in a L’Arche community around the world. The videos are beautifully produced and offer unique perspectives into being human. They all end with the line, “Imagine the world differently.” After I introduce my students to Jean Vanier, I like to play some of these videos and have an open dialogue about what it means to be human.
Episode 4 tells the story of Raffaella who lives in Bologna, Italy. She is a woman with deep spiritual beliefs and an intimate friendship with her father. The two of them are avid fans of the Italian football club in Bologna. Yet, her father is growing old and needs to use a wheelchair due to his declining health. Raffaella struggles to see her father become disabled in his old age and she grapples with the realization that one day he will die.
Episode 2, which leaves many of my students visibly moved, focuses on a travel writer with cerebral palsy named Musa. He lives in Kenya but visits the “poor” people of Paris, France during the video. Musa’s story shows human curiosity, wonder, and awe and the common desire to see and experience new things. Some of these experiences make him afraid and some challenge him to grow in new ways. At the end of his trip, he returns home to a spiritual community where he is loved and valued.
Lastly, I play the story of Mateusz from Poland, a young man with severe intellectual disabilities who has a limited capacity to communicate through complex, spoken language. Mateusz loves music and listening to cassette tapes. One day, though, his favorite cassette tape breaks. In the moment, Mateusz decides to turn the broken cassette into a work of art. He then gives the cassette away. Every day since, he has repeated the process. He intentionally breaks a cassette tape, decorates it, and then gives it away. He does this because he loves to give gifts.
The reflections of Jean Vanier and the stories of Raffaella, Musa, and Mateusz offer an opportunity to reimagine what it means to be human. Putting these stories together, patterns emerge–community, relationship, emotions, loving, being loved, creativity, curiosity, awareness of death, compassion, communication, generosity, and spirituality. While a human body needs a brain in order to function, these characteristics are clearly independent of the intellectual capacity of the brain.
In his book, The Heart of L’Arche, Jean Vanier offers the following reflection that challenges my own understanding of God, being human, and spirituality. He says, “People suffering from intellectual disabilities do not know God in an intellectual, abstract way, but they can sense when they are loved” (38). He elaborates further a few paragraphs later: “People who have highly developed intellects often try to reach God through their minds and thoughts. People who have limited intelligence are more open to a simple presence, a heart-to-heart relationship of communion and love” (39).
As I suggested at the beginning of the article, I have observed that we have a tendency to understand our basic humanity in terms of our intellectual capabilities. While there is a clear biological truth to this way of understanding ourselves, this sense of being human can have negative impacts on our capacity for relationship with others and fellowship with God. If I am primarily an intellectual being, then friendships become nothing more than a forum for the exchange of ideas and information. Worse yet, if my sense of self is primarily tied to my brain, then my relationship with God risks becoming nothing more than an academic exercise.
The people of L’Arche offer us the opportunity to imagine the world and ourselves differently. Instead of seeing our basic human nature as intellectual, they challenge us to see ourselves as relational beings. This truth, revealed by the disabled, takes us back to the heart of creation. In the second chapter of Genesis, when Adam was created before Eve, God observed a single man and made the following statement, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen 2:18). Prior to this point in the story, everything has been declared good by God. This is the first moment we hear that something is not good. From the beginning, humans have been relational beings, created to love and be loved, to give and to receive, to know and be known. One day God will complete this work of creation and humans will simply dwell in the presence of God for all time.
Featured image of the very first L’Arche house from Flickr user Christopher Bemrose. Used under creative commons license.