On Wednesday night a group of us from Novalis were invited to a film screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, hosted by the Jesuit community in Toronto. There was good wine, beef and shrimp sliders (for us), popcorn (not for us), jokes and book bags under our seats. But more than anything else, there was a profound sense of warmth. The Jesuit fathers I met were welcoming and attentive, easy to chat with and intelligent. When a teenage boy from a local Catholic high school got up to speak on the stage—he was serious and awkwardly earnest, tripping over his words—everyone gathered around him as our host immediately went into teacher mode. The feeling of community and belonging was everywhere.
The film we watched was The Mission (1986), with Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro. It tells the story of the Jesuit missions in Paraguay in the 1750s, when the Spanish and Portuguese were using powder, shot and parchment to divide up South America. Jeremy Irons plays Father Gabriel, who struggles to keep the Guaraní away from the nets of Portuguese slavers. During one scene, he is touring a busy plantation with Cardinal Altamirano and a sleazy Portuguese emissary. The Guaraní are hard at work in the summer heat, hauling bundles and cutting sheaves in their loose homespun clothing. “Perhaps I’m missing something,” the Portuguese emissary muses aloud: “I can’t see any difference between this plantation and my own.”
“That is the difference,” returns Father Gabriel. “This plantation is theirs.”
Jean Vanier opens his new book, Signs: Seven Words of Hope, with the following words:
The Church is a body. It needs its weakest members and they should be honoured. … L’Arche’s vocation was to stand solid with [the least powerful], which is why it wasn’t simply a question of welcoming people with a disability. It was a question of living together with them in the joy of helping each person, whether defined as handicapped or not, to grow in the true love that is rooted in wisdom.
Throughout Signs, Vanier emphasizes again and again how people with intellectual disabilities have an absolute right to personal autonomy and dignity. “We aren’t here either to change or convert the other,” he writes in his chapter on humiliation. “That is the work of Jesus, because faith is a gift of God and not an expression of power or superiority. We are here to encounter others in humility, to respect them, and to reveal their individual value.” Later on, he discusses the difference between power and authority. Power comes from the top down, suppressing and restricting, while authority comes up from within—from personal growth, experiences and talents.
The L’Arche communities around the world are founded on principles of authority rather than power. Vanier demonstrates the contrast between them and a cult: a cult is founded on power and the fear it creates, power around a central ‘guru’ figure and the fear of losing one’s friends, family and personal identity. By comparison, the L’Arche communities are balanced between “freedom and belonging,” as he puts it:
In our L’Arche and Faith and Light communities, we try to keep a balance between freedom and belonging. A place of belonging enables people to feel safe and supported, and to live in harmony with their brothers and sisters; the community’s rituals and celebrations express and strengthen this feeling of security. But too much emphasis on belonging can stifle freedom, just as too much freedom can lead to insecurity and anguish. Belonging should allow people to become themselves, and to grow in freedom and human maturity.
This philosophy is not just a template for L’Arche, but the Church itself. Vanier talks candidly about the Church’s failures: the violence of the Crusades, the brutality of Western colonization, the persecution of the Jewish people and the recent scandals around pedophilia. He recounts the struggles of people with intellectual disabilities, who have fought to live on their own terms free from discrimination and institutionalization. What Vanier proposes in Signs—and, indeed, in his life’s work—is a new way forward: not one leading or imposing on the other, but both walking hand-in-hand.
Signs: Seven Words of Hope is an inspiring book. It is honest and perceptive, and unexpectedly, uniquely moving. While it concludes with a quote from Revelations—“Behold, I have made all things new” (Rev. 21:5)—it could just have easily ended with the same quote that ends The Mission: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
-Gillian Robinson, Sales and Marketing Assistant
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