“In this communion, we discover the deepest part of our being: the need to be loved and to have someone who trusts and appreciates us and who cares least of all about our capacity to work or to be clever and interesting.”

The desire to belong

Jean Vanier is a theologian. But he is an unusual theologian. As one reads through his life and work one rarely finds extensive referencing or boasts of great intellectual knowledge of academic philosophy, current debates on the epistemology and ontology of God.

By John Swinton

Instead one discovers a gentle presence that speaks in stories, and aphorisms which offer nuggets of wisdom about the beauty of disabled lives, the meaning of human relationships in community and the love of a God who values vulnerability and weakness.

Theology has not simply to do with words; it has to do with the ways in which words, particularly the words of Jesus, find flesh within communities where able bodied and disabled people live together, not as carer and cared for but as friends; bound together in the spirit of friendship that is given as a Divine present to those who care to accept it.

A desire to belong

At the heart of Vanier’s theology is the human desire to belong. Human beings are made for deep relationships; they are made for community. As he puts it: “The longer we journey on the road to inner healing and wholeness, the more the sense of belonging grows and deepens. The sense is not just one of belonging to others and to a community. It is a sense of belonging to the universe, to the earth, to the air, to the water, to everything that lives, to all humanity.” In order to belong somewhere, a person has to be missed when they are not there. Vanier’s theology of community and belonging requires that those whom we have chosen to name “disabled”, should have a place of belonging within the community of the friends of Jesus. If they are not missed they do not belong; if they do not belong there is no community.

Strength in weakness

Vanier believes that the great reversal that is the gospel is lived out in the lives of people with intellectual disabilities. Here we see clearly that the weak become strong and that the foolishness of this world turns out to be the glory of God. In Jesus, Vanier sees a paradigm of strength in weakness: “Jesus is the starving, the parched, the prisoner, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the dying. Jesus is the oppressed, the poor. To live with Jesus is to live with the poor. To live with the poor is to live with Jesus.” In the weakness and vulnerability of the profoundly intellectually disabled Vanier discovers Jesus. If such lives are truly fully human, then “being human” can no longer be understood in terms of power, strength, intellect and ability. To be with the intellectually disabled is to realize what it means to be human. “Growth begins when we begin to accept our own weakness.”

The way of the heart

The way of the heart is a way of putting people first; of moving beyond the boundaries of the label of “intellectual disability” and seeing the person as a person. The “way of the heart” is a way of encountering people; a way of being with and learning from people with intellectual disabilities. As Vanier says: “Power and cleverness call forth admiration but also a certain separation, a sense of distance; we are reminded of who we are not, of what we cannot do. On the other hand, sharing weaknesses and needs calls us together into ‘oneness.’ We welcome into our heart those who love us. In this communion, we discover the deepest part of our being: the need to be loved and to have someone who trusts and appreciates us and who cares least of all about our capacity to work or to be clever and interesting. When we discover we are loved in this way, the masks or barriers behind which we hide are dropped; new life flows. We no longer have to prove our worth; we are free to be ourselves. We find a new wholeness, a new inner unity.” The way of the heart is the embodiment of the Spirit of God’s love.

God takes time for the trivial

Vanier’s embodied theology requires that we see time differently. We are tempted to treat time as we do other commodities. We waste time, we spend time, we lose time and we make time. Vanier asks us to look at time differently; to become friends of time. In his words: “The friend of time doesn’t spend all day saying: ‘I haven’t got time.’ He doesn’t fight with time. He accepts it and cherishes it.” Vanier reminds us that in God’s time, those people whom the world refuses to spend time with become the very focus of attention. God, as Stanley Hauerwas has put it, “takes time for the trivial,” and those who follow Jesus, God incarnate, are expected to do the same. There are no lesser lives in the Kingdom of God. Spending time doing what the world assumes to be trivial is the essence of the way of the heart and the spirituality of L’Arche.

A spirituality of friendship

All this adds up to what we might describe as a spirituality of friendship. By the term “spirituality” I simply mean the outworking of a person’s beliefs in the day-to-day life experience of believers. Vanier’s spirituality of friendship seeks after community within which people are made to feel that they belong. Within such a spirituality, those whom society considers weak are seen to be strong; those who are considered vulnerable are respected and protected. Their voices are closely listened to as their hearts are embraced and loved through friendships that are quite literally inspired by the Spirit of Jesus. Vanier’s spirituality of friendship reminds us that friends take time to be with one another; not just in terms of physical presence but in heart-to-heart relationships within which disability exists, but it really doesn’t matter. Learning how to live in such ways is Vanier’s witness and his gift to theology, church and society.

John Swinton is chair in Divinity and Religious Studies and professor of practical theology and pastoral care at the University of Aberdeen. He is also honorary professor of nursing at the Centre for Advanced Studies in Nursing at the University of Aberdeen where he teaches the role of the humanities and healthcare, nursing ethics and qualitative research.