On a warm June afternoon, I stepped into the cavernous Saint Eustache Church in Paris, France. Organ music was bouncing off the 110-foot ceiling, filling the 345-foot-long 15th-Century Gothic structure. Walking toward the sound, I saw a petite Asian woman sitting at the keyboard. A flyer said the pipe organ at St. Eustache is the largest working pipe organ in France.
As I sat taking it in, I thought about walking the streets of Paris earlier in the day. I had passed several individuals with disabilities, some pushed in wheelchairs, others holding onto a caregiver’s arm. Just weeks earlier a great champion of the disabled had died in Paris. On May 7, Jean Vanier died at age 90. A week before Vanier’s death, Pope Francis called the Canadian Catholic philosopher and humanitarian to thank him for his service among the disabled the world over.
In 1942, Jean Vanier traveled from Canada to England and enrolled in the Royal Navel College. After serving in the Royal Navy for eight years, Vanier discovered a small Christian community near Paris in 1950, where he studied philosophy and theology. In Paris, Vanier met a priest who was a chaplain at a facility for people with intellectual disabilities.
“There I discovered the plight of thousands of men and women who had been put aside, looked down upon, sometimes laughed at or scorned,” writes Vanier in his book, “Becoming Human.” So deeply affected by the way these individuals were treated as misfits of society, Vanier bought a house near Paris, where he soon welcomed two men with significant physical and mental disabilities. When Vanier met the men, their families had abandoned them to an abject existence in a dismal institution.
What began in a small house 60 years ago on the outskirts of Paris is today a worldwide ministry. Nearly 150 nonprofit L’Arche Communities (larche.org) exist to help thousands suffering with intellectual disabilities. The L’Arche model — L’Arche is the French word for ark — centers on those with disabilities and their caregivers living in homes together, sharing life with one another and building a community as responsible adults.
I first heard of the L’Arche communities through the writings of Dutch priest and spiritual writer Henri Nouwen. In 1990, Nouwen left the academic life as a Harvard professor and moved to Toronto, Canada, where he became a member of the L’Arche Daybreak community. For the six years before his death, Nouwen lived in the Daybreak community, sharing life with the residents and in particular focusing on a man named Adam. Adam, 25 when Nouwen met him, could not speak or care for any of his needs. Suffering from severe epilepsy, and heavily medicated, there were few days Adam did not experience grand mal seizures. For years, Nouwen clothed him, changed him, bathed him, shaved him, gave him his medication and fed him. Getting Adam ready every morning took Nouwen an hour-and-a-half.
Two of Nouwen’s books about his years living in the L’Arche Daybreak community — “The Road to Daybreak: a spiritual journey” and “Adam: God’s beloved” — gave shape to how I view those living with severe disabilities.
L’Arche community founder Vanier says that to ignore or deny weakness as a part of life is to deny death, because weakness speaks to us of the ultimate powerlessness, of death itself. Living for decades with the mentally disabled helped Vanier realize that if we want to be powerful and always strong, we live with an illusion and deny a part of our being. “To be human is to accept who we are, this mixture of strength and weakness. We do not discover who we are, we do not reach true humanness, in a solitary state; we discover it through mutual dependency, in weakness, in learning through belonging.”
Sitting in St. Eustache on that mid-June afternoon, I thought of Vanier’s words and how they parallel the words of Psalm 139 that say every person is mysteriously knit together in her mother’s womb. Vanier says, “All humans are sacred, whatever their culture, race, or religion, whatever their capacities or incapacities, and whatever their weaknesses or strengths may be. Each of us has an instrument to bring to the vast orchestra of humanity, and each of us needs help to become all that we might be.”
Before leaving St. Eustache and stepping back into the Paris sunlight, I stood looking at a gold cross high in the nave. At that moment, I felt God’s love, in spite of all my weaknesses and vulnerabilities. And I knew that God’s kingdom comes as these words of Jesus are taken to heart: “Whatever you have done to the least of these brothers and sisters, you have done it to me.”
Don Follis counsels pastors, directs retreats and consults with a wide array of churches, helping them clarify issues related to conflict. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter