Sr. Mary Ann, O.P., holds a doctorate in systematic theology from the Catholic University of America and chairs the Religious Studies Department of Ohio Dominican College.
IN Man and Woman He Made Them, a book Henri Nouwen calls “inspired;” Jean Vanier reflects on the meaning of our human hunger for intimacy.(1) Based on his experience as founder of l’Arche, a community for the mentally handicapped, Vanier meditates on what the disabled among us teach us about the ache for love at the heart of all of us. The Gospel proclaims joy to the poor, Vanier writes, precisely because it announces the true meaning of the poor. And though the wounds of only some of us are readily apparent, we are, all of us, handicapped, weak, poor. Our bodies need food, clothing, shelter. Lacking these, we are poor. But our souls, too, need food; our hearts, also, need a home. Lacking these, we are poor in a far deeper way. “I see with more and more clarity that the greatest human suffering is isolation,” Vanier writes. Deeper than any other desire is our heart’s cry for the “bonds of friendship” (pp. 113, 83).
This is why those of us who think we are well can be mysteriously healed by contact with those of us who are obviously disabled. In drawing near to the neediness in others, we draw near to our own helplessness. Yet at the same time we also discover our own capacity to love and be loved. The longing of the disabled for friendship cannot help unveiling the cry for relationship in all of us. Vanier himself found that after he stopped running from his own weakness he could experience God’s compassion and show it to others. “Only when I had touched my own misery… [was I] able to be touched by the mercy of God.” In his reflections, Vanier thus probes not only the meaning of our human poverty in its most intimate dimensions, but also the mystery we celebrate this season, the good news which only the poor can receive: “Jesus, gentle healer of hearts and saviour of our brokenness” (p. 173).
RUNNING FROM OUR WEAKNESS
“The more I experience my own humanity and that of other,” Vanier writes, “the more I am aware of the depth of the wound which lives in the heart of each human being …. We are wounded by hate and fear, by the inability to forgive and the experience of rejection which makes us in turn reject …. We are wounded by our own unfaithfulness and sin.” (p. 175). Carl Jung once remarked that he could not understand how Christians can see Jesus in the poor around them, but not in their own poverty. In response, Vanier comments that no one of us finds it easy to admit our poverty. In our own ways we each avoid coming face to face with our weakness. “We prefer to live in the illusions of our perfection …. We always want to appear good and perfect.” We want others to think that all is light and goodness within us, that evil thoughts or deeds have never seen the doorstep of our hearts. But “healing cannot take place until our illusions have been exposed and we acknowledge our human reality” (p. 173).
Vanier recounts his own experience as a naval officer. In the days of his youth he seemed to have had more “will-power,” more “virtue.” But, he adds, “I was not vulnerable. I had hidden myself behind a facade of strength.” Now that he is older, he finds himself full of weakness. “The anguish I experience when I am alone, isolated, and vulnerable sometimes… so impoverishes me that I realize that, without God’s protection, Satan would provoke me to do the most foolish things” (p. 110). Vanier’s experience of living in community with the handicapped at l’Arche, however, taught him that he didn’t need to bear the burden of his weakness alone. With the love and support of the community, he no longer found it necessary to pretend, even to himself, that all was light within him.
Vanier discovered that our lies and hiding make us distrust one another. But if we take the risk, we find that we can have confidence in each other, we can trust the love and compassion of a community centered on Jesus. Vanier’s experience of living in such a community has taught him the meaning of Paul’s words, “My power is made perfect in weakness. I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Cor. 12:9). Community enables us to live in the truth and freedom which can elude us when we are cut off from others. Without community, Vanier writes, “I am too close to anguish.” But loving relationships, especially with the weak and disabled, have taught Vanier to be at home with his own helplessness. No longer needing to protect himself from people with mental, physical, or emotional handicaps, he no longer needs to run from his own poverty. “I feel at home with weak and vulnerable people, like myself” (p. 110).
At l’Arche, Vanier began to experience the truth which everything in him resisted believing, “that we are beloved by God in [our] very poverty” (p. 173). In the recently translated second volume of Therese of Lisieux’s letters, an illuminating correspondence between Therese and the young missionary to whom she became close, Maurice Barthelemy-Belliere, illustrates the struggle which Vanier describes, a struggle familiar in some way to each of us. Two weeks before her death, Belliere described Therese as a “dear Saint;’ “an angel who has nothing human about her.”(2) After nearly a year of close correspondence with Therese, the young priest had not learned what she had tried so hard to have him believe, that the only saints are human saints, that our only path to God is our human weakness. Belliere had written to Therese of his fear that she would be shocked by his past. Therese responded immediately. She recalls Magdalen whose heart understood the abyss of Jesus’ tenderness and closeness. “Do not think you frighten me by speaking about your beautiful wasted years.” Therese confesses that the thought of her own sins, far from discouraging her or locking her in the prison of her own weakness, lifts her heart instead to Jesus’ infinite mercy and love. “The remembrance of my faults humbles me, draws me never to depend on my strength which is only weakness, but this remembrance speaks to me of mercy and love even more.”(3)
Belliere wasn’t satisfied. Learning of Therese’s approaching death, he wrote to her about his fear. In heaven she will surely learn about even his most shameful sins from the very lips of Jesus. “If you only knew how miserable I am! If this has to be, at His first words close His lips.”(4) What holds him back, Belliere confesses, is his own shame. “Instead of throwing myself into the arms of this Friend, I hardly dare drag myself to His feet. Often a first inspiration draws me into His arms, but I stop suddenly at the sight of my wretchedness, and I do not dare.”(5)
Therese’s response was full of tenderness. “You must know me only imperfectly to fear that a detailed account of your faults may diminish the tenderness I have for your soul. . .! Believe it, I shall have no need ‘to place my hand on the lips of Jesus.’ He has forgotten your infidelities now for a long time …. I beg you, do not drag yourself any longer to His feet; follow that ‘first impulse that draws you into His arms.’ That is where your place is.”(6)
Again, Belliere resisted. Little more than a week later, he wrote to Therese again. He knows she would never think less of him if all of his sins were revealed to her here on earth. “But in heaven sharing in the Divinity, you will acquire its prerogatives of justice, sanctity. . . and every stain will have to become an object of horror to you. That is why I was afraid.”(7)
Therese was growing weaker each day. Yet she answered Belliere yet another time. Their ideas of heaven are very different, she writes. The saints, far from being shocked by our sins, “have great compassion on our miseries, they remember, being weak and mortal like us, they committed the same faults, sustained the same combats.” Belliere thinks that Therese will share in God’s justice and holiness and so will be unable as on earth to excuse her friend’s faults. “Are you forgetting, then,” she writes, “that I shall be sharing also in the infinite mercy of the Lord?”(8)
FLEEING OUR ANGUISH
When Thomas Aquinas considers the meaning of the Incarnation, he contemplates the incomprehensible mercy and compassion, the intimate familiarity of a God who would become flesh for us and with us.(9) As Vanier reflects on what it means for us to be persons of flesh and blood, he stresses that the desires of our hearts cannot be separated from the mystery of our human sexuality (p. 70). God made us to be loved, and to be assured of this love in our very flesh. “A healthy child senses itself as the cause of joy and the center of delighted attention, one whom everyone wants to touch, to hug and to hold” (p. 12).
But no parents are entirely healed of their own wounds. And so we feel not only the security of being loved, but also the anguish of not being loved in the way we deserve. This anguish brings an “unbearable pain” (p. 17), since it is the ache of our hearts for what we most need and want: to be loved. Deep within us this ache eventually becomes “division… fear… fragility… flight from pain… a defense system” (pp. 17-18). And because living close to our hearts means living close to our anguish, “contact with the deepest feelings of the heart is often an almost unbearable experience.” We learn to build barriers around our hearts to keep away the pain. Cut off in this way from our hearts’ feelings, we find ways to escape the pain. We use addictions to work, chemicals, people, sex to compensate for our unmet needs (pp. 47, 14).
But the pleasure of these addictions is a “very ambiguous reality.” We all have enjoyed good, life-giving pleasures. But we have also experienced illusory pleasures which only deceive and destroy us because they mask our own and others’ truest needs. Sexual pleasure, divorced from the intimate communion of marriage, is such an illusion which ultimately deepens our anguish because it can never satisfy the ache of our heart for love (pp. 156-57).
Perhaps in no other dimension of our existence do we experience more keenly our vulnerability and need than in his struggle to become whole in our human sexuality. For this reason, Vanier stresses that we need to uncover the true meaning of sexual difficulties: they are “directly related to the anguish of an unfilled hunger to be loved” (p. 67). When we “ignore our heart,” sexual drives especially “tend to mount to the surface to remind us that we are not disembodied spirits” (p. 78). Vanier’s experience at l’Arche has convinced him that beneath sexual struggles is a “longing to be loved… to be… touched with tenderness by another” (pp. 70, 61-66). “The sexual drive;” Vanier writes, “is more often a cry for relationship than a cry for pleasure. Often it erupts when someone feels “alone and anguished.” “But more deeply, the person is crying out for friendship (p. 96). Thus, when we build walls around our heart, we cut ourselves off from “all that is most profound and intimate within, from the very source of life and love” (p. 47).
Yet even when we are not cut off from our heart, the very nature of our human life entails a certain emptiness and pain. Those of us called to the celibate life, for example, experience the pain which comes from “the absence of a more total intimacy with another.” And yet inherent in this sacrifice is the realization that we cannot live “fully and in all truth the demands… necessarily involved in the total gift of one person to another.” Married people, too, suffer their own pain. There are secret places inside us which not even the persons who love us most can enter, even if we or they long for this. “Here we touch the deep mystery of the human heart… its thirst for infinity,” Vanier comments, for no human person can be God for us (p. 102).
OUR NEED FOR GOD AND ONE ANOTHER
Through his experience at l’Arche, Vanier came to realize that one of the deepest healings we need is freedom to enter into relationships of friendship and communion. Rather than illusory pleasures, it’s precisely this communion that we most long for and need. And because psychology can only uncover our anguish rather than heal it, our ache to be loved finally turns us to God. “Jesus is the only hope in all these sufferings of the heart” (p. 23). We may secretly long to become a saint, to have a heart that lives for Jesus. But we find it hard to believe that the way to this surrender is the very path of our poverty. We resist believing that God loves what is truly ours — and nothing is more truly and intimately ours than our own weakness. Fear can drive us to hide and run from God who loves our weakness.
Vanier has learned to recognize when his activities become a form of anguished running from God. When he is “far removed from the spirit of prayer,” he becomes “too immersed in the daily concerns without sufficient recollection or inner resources” (p. 41). “If I do not remain in prayer and in contact with my own center and the presence of Jesus,” Vanier writes, “I experience a sense of tremendous vulnerability and fragility… of having neither the strength of will nor the virtue to protect myself… I experience a very great poverty” (p. 109).
It is precisely this experience of inner poverty that convinces Vanier of our need not only for God but also for one another. Someone has commented on John 8:32, “The truth does make us free. But first it makes us miserable.” Our growth into sexual wholeness, especially, is a difficult process, because sexual drives cannot be simply “smothered or mastered by will power” (p. 98). In order to gain true freedom of heart, we may need to touch the depth of our own weakness. As Vanier notes, it’s impossible for us “to grow to greater love if there is no space for error” (p. 33).
But we cannot break out of the prison of our fear and anguish alone, “I am more and more convinced that each human being needs to be supported and accompanied” in this venture, Vanier writes (p. 45). We need someone who will listen to the cry of our heart and with compassion help bear its pain. This is so because God’s personal love for us is revealed to us almost always “through a relationship with someone, and in the heart of a community” (p. 114).
Vanier stresses that the community life at l’Arche has led him and his brothers and sisters to “lower the walls” around their hearts, to be “open to the tenderness of relationships.” “We do not hide our hearts or protect them” (p. 108). “In the intensity of community life I have learned to let my barriers fall,” Vanier continues, “to be myself,.. to live with my vulnerability… to welcome the other and to show that I truly love him or her” (p. 109).
Sometimes, Vanier notes, God gives a special friendship to a man and woman not only in marriage but also in the celibate life. In the bonds of this love, the heart of each is awakened and protected by the other to live more deeply for God. “Many men and women I know in l’Arche have a secret in the depths of their hearts, a secret through which they are linked with someone of the other sex… [through] bonds of a secret and sacred tenderness” which inspire and give life to them (p. 111). “This special relationship… calls them to go even further in their gift to God and to the poor …. Such love is a free gift of God and, like all gifts, it implies sacrifice and renunciation” (p. 117).
Vanier realizes that others often look upon the community at l’Arche as “completely mad.” And yet, he comments, whether we realize it or not, we all have chosen between “two ways of being crazy”: the foolishness of the Gospel or the insanity of the world’s values. Vanier’s experience convinces him that it is almost impossible to resist the world’s insanity, the “seductions of riches or of power and all the superficial pleasures that are offered to distract us, if we do not share in a community of forgiveness and celebration, centered on the poor” (pp. 174-75).
“The race to climb the ladder of success, of power, and of possession” is the particular disease which Vanier finds in our civilization. This is also the disease which encourages us to live in isolation and competition with others. Should we not rather, Vanier asks, “reverse the race and rather encourage people to descend the ladder in order to meet those who are poorest and create relationship with them?” But who would have the needed authority and credibility to “reverse the course of history” in this way? (p. 174).
Vanier finds the answer in the poor we ourselves are: “Is it not up to each one of us?” Befriending our own weakness will free us to draw close to others’ wounds. “Then, all together, with the most poor at the heart of [the] community, we will celebrate our covenant” (p. 174). Deeper than the anguish and the fear, far deeper than the walls we have built around our wounds, Jesus is hidden in our hearts’ poverty. When we begin truly to believe this, “we discover that we are loved with an eternal love… [and] all becomes possible” (p. 114). It is then that we being to know the full power of the mystery we celebrate this season, the good news in person, whom only the poor can receive: “Jesus, gentle healer of hearts and saviour of our brokenness” (p. 173).
- Jean Vanier, Man and Woman He Made Them (Mahwah, NY: Paulist Press, 1985). Further page references will be included in parenthesis within the text. For an excellent study of Vanier, see also Michael Downey, A Blessed Weakness: The Spirit of Jean Vanier and l’Arche (Harper and Row, NY: 1986).
- Letters of St. Therese of Lisieux, trans. John Clarke, O.C.D. vol. 2 (Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1988), p. 1275.
- Ibid., p. 1133.
- Ibid., p. 1175.
- Missing note.
- Ibid., p. 1165.
- Ibid., p. 1171.
- Ibid., p. 1173.
- Summa Contra Gentiles IV, 54, 6, and Commentary on John 1, lect. 7.