by Lowell Bliss
A man passed away yesterday whom we should likely acknowledge as the greatest creation care advocate of our time. You may think it an unlikely honor to bestow on him when you learn to whom I’m referring, but Jean Vanier taught us to love most deeply that part of creation which is simultaneously our most cherished inheritance and our greatest suffering. Jean Vanier taught us to love the human bodies among us, including those bodies which most confront us with how broken in beauty, and how beautiful in brokenness, we and all of God’s creation truly are.
Jean Vanier passed away yesterday in Paris following the suffering attendant to thyroid cancer. He was 90 years old. A theologian, Aristotelian philosopher, and former Naval officer, Vanier was the founder of the L’Arche communities in which the spiritually disabled and the physically disabled lived together and found. . . love. As reported by the BBC: “There are now 147 L'Arche centres in 35 countries, where people with and without disabilities live together as equals. There are a further 1,800 Faith and Light support groups, for people with special needs and their families and friends, across 80 nations.”
I was first exposed to L’Arche through the writing of Catholic priest Henri Nouwen, who lived at the Daybreak Community in Toronto for the ten years until his death. I’ve long since misplaced my copy of Nouwen’s book Adam: God’s Beloved where he introduced us to his companion Adam Arnett. Adam could not speak nor could he move without assistance. Here’s the one thing I remember from the book: Adam had one job and one job only. Adam’s job was to be loved by God.
In the book For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care, Steven Bouma-Prediger said something about God’s various creation which Vanier seemed to know intuitively and what Nouwen came to learn through much personal anguish: "We care for only what we love. We love only what we know. We truly know only what we experience." I have not had a great deal of experience with people with disabilities—which is the nomenclature that Vanier used—so the main way I enter into Vanier’s and Nouwen’s stories is through creation care. I’m not a utilitarian, a resource extractor who might stand before a West Virginia mountainside and demand that its coal seams contribute something useful to society. But I am a "One" on the Enneagram—if you are familiar with this typing—and so I have had to learn how to simply “be present” in the face of the imperfect. A One is a reformer. A One is a perfectionist. I have a constant voice in my head of how I can improve myself, and how I can improve what lies before my eyes. But those who write about the Enneagram say that Ones, in particular, find being out in nature therapeutic. To be out in the woods, I am surrounded by the imperfect—by the decaying and the dead, by the broken branches, by the unstraightened deer trail, by last year’s messy leaf-strewn floor. Nature is broken, and it is beautiful. The thought of trying to "reform" it doesn't even enter my head. It is perfect in its imperfection. It demands nothing of me except that I be fully present to it, that I love it.
When I first step into the woods, I often have my camera out. I’m determined to chronicle my hike, as if I were carving my initials into the scene. I’m determined to acquire something to aid my unreliable long-term memory. I might even rehearse what I’m going to write about the photos when I get “back home to Facebook.” At some point—and it happens quicker and quicker now that I am older—I realize that I have taken enough pictures and that none of them satisfyingly captured the joy of this moment. I put my camera away and I just stand there and try to soak it all in. I try to be present. And I’m present in my body, in the very same substance that I see laid out gloriously before me. I love. I imagine that Nouwen had many such moments with Adam: the bath is over, the dishes washed and put away, nothing (and everything!) to do but just sit there and hold Adam’s hand.
Two weeks ago, I was listening to an episode of Krista Tippet’s podcast On Being where she replayed an interview with Jean Vanier from 2007. In the story of one long-time resident at L’Arche, I heard how I want to form my own heart toward God’s creation. “But L’Arche is based on body and on suffering bodies,” Vanier says.
“They are seen as useless, and so we welcome those who apparently are useless. It’s a suffering body which brings us together. It’s our attention to the body. When somebody comes to our community and is quite severely handicapped, what is important is to see that the body is well. Bathing, helping people dress, to eat: It’s to communicate to them through the body. And then, as the body can become comfortable, then the spirit can rise up. There’s a recognition. There’s a contact. There’s a relationship.
We see this with some of our people, like Françoise. Françoise came to our community in 1978 very severely handicapped. She couldn’t speak; she could walk a bit; she couldn’t dress herself; she was incontinent; and she couldn’t eat by herself. Today, she is nearly 30 years older — she has become blind and — a beautiful person.
There was somebody who came to our community not too long ago who saw Françoise, and the reaction was, “Oh, what is the point of keeping Françoise alive?” The leader of the little house said, “But madam, I love her.” It’s as if you come in to a home and grandma is in the home and she has Alzheimer’s, and you say, “What is — ” But she’s my grandmother. So it’s based on the body, and then from the body, relationship grows.”