Jean Vanier

I first met Jean Vanier in the mid 1990’s, only I didn’t know it yet. There was just this person, described by Henri Nouwen in The Return of the Prodigal Son:

91xRVY7jPjLI have a friend who is so deeply connected with God that he can see joy where I expect only sadness. He travels much and meets countless people. When he returns home, I always expect him to tell me about the difficult economic situation of the countries he visited, about the great injustices he heard about, and the pain he has seen. But even though he is very aware of the great upheaval of the world, he seldom speaks of it. When he shares his experiences, he tells about the hidden joys he has discovered. He tells about a man, a woman, or a child who brought him hope and peace. He tells about little groups of people who are faithful to each other in the midst of all the turmoil. He tells about the small wonders of God. At times I realize that I am disappointed because I want to hear “newspaper news,” exciting and exhilarating stories that can be talked about among friends. But he never responds to my need for sensationalism. He keeps saying: “I saw something very small and very beautiful, something that gave me much joy.”

 

At the time, I had no idea who Nouwen might be talking about. I could not imagine what kind of person would be able to travel the world and not inclined to talk about the ‘newspaper news’, as Nouwen puts it, but I admired his friend. My new, nameless hero took up residence in my soul, pointing the direction to hope and wholeness.

51mfeXxsRzL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_About twenty years later, I received Jean Vanier’s memoir, Our Life Together, a volume comprised of his letters to the growing network of L’Arche communities and the friends of L’Arche. As I read the unfolding story of L’Arche, the ‘little groups of people who are faithful to each other’ came into focus: L’Arche communities–especially those in regions torn apart by violence and the threat of war. From Tegucigalpa to Belfast to the West Bank, Vanier traveled, giving retreats and meeting people. He never makes the retreats central to the letters, though; rather he tells just the sorts of stories Nouwen reported. The letters are not about Jean. They are about Lita and Marcia, Rafaelito and Aravindo. He writes about spending time with people who are learning to love each other, to be family. Here is the man that Nouwen held up as an example of becoming like the Father.

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Not long after I read the memoir and connected the dots, I found myself in Trosly, at La Ferme.

A group of academics (myself among them) were wrapping up a three-day conference with a visit to the heart of L’Arche, where we would have the opportunity to meet Jean Vanier. I couldn’t resist asking him whether the passage in Nouwen’s book was about him. Of course he wouldn’t admit it, and I wondered whether maybe Nouwen had someone else in mind. But there he is, smiling, like he knows how gullible I am, and he’s made me doubt!

 

A few years later, on my second retreat at La Ferme, I was asked to give a word of thanks at our final meal together with Jean. But I didn’t just thank him for the retreat; I thanked him for being that nameless hero I’d found in Nouwen’s book all those years ago. I was certain it was he, and he couldn’t deny it. Everybody knew that Nouwen was writing about Jean. I will always be grateful for that chance: it was the last time I saw Jean.

There have been tributes and obituaries (in the New York Times and in The Tablet already), and there will be more: his story will be told, and I am glad. He finished the race well. His own courage and peace in the face of death should come as no surprise. He concluded Our Life Together with a reflection on death and life:

The poet Tagore said that “Death is not a lamp that is extinguished; it is the coming of dawn.” Weakness, crises and death are never an end but are new beginnings. L’Arche and Faith and Light were founded on weakness, they will continue to grow in their mission in and through their fragility, and God will continue to be present. God works through our communities, and I am happy to see it. Life continues to flow.

Indeed, ‘life continues to flow’–and our lives are so much richer for having been touched by Jean’s extraordinary vision, courage, and love. Thank you, Jean. Rest in peace.

Deo gratias.

 

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The chapel at La Ferme, Trosly

 

*The obituaries keep appearing. Even before I finished this post, there were many more than I was able to mention. Here are the celebrations of Jean’s life and work that I have encountered so far (please let me know about those I have surely missed):

L’Arche UK (and see the L’Arche website)

BBC (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-48186136)

The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/may/07/jean-vanier-obituary)

Catholic News Agency (https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/jean-vanier-friend-of-the-intellectually-disabled-and-founder-of-larche-dies-at-90-67007)

Christian Century (https://www.christiancentury.org/article/people/jean-vanier-and-gift-l-arche)

Religion News Service (https://religionnews.com/2019/05/07/jean-vanier-catholic-hero-to-developmentally-disabled-dies/)

Faith and Leadership (Stanley Hauerwas remembers Jean Vanier: https://www.faithandleadership.com/stanley-hauerwas-jean-vanier-was-dear-friend-me-and-many-others?fbclid=IwAR19KvQSiP7H-Lm1nBha_5f1eTifAZTZWA1neO-lLn5_w-DW30xEeAWPps8)

 

 

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on prayer

Forgive the long hiatus, if you’ve noticed it. Maybe if I added a category–‘what I’m writing’–I would return here more often, and sketch some of the work I’ve been doing. At present, I am writing a chapter entitled ‘The Lord’s Prayer in the Life and Liturgy of the Church,’ for a handbook on prayer. In the course of my reading, I came across a passage too beautiful not to share.

For real absolute waste of time you have to go to prayer. I reckon that more than 80 per cent of our reluctance to pray consists precisely in our dim recognition of this and our neurotic fear of wasting time, of spending part of our life in something that in the end gets you nowhere, something that is not merely  non-productive, non-money-making, but is even non-creative, it doesn’t even have the justification of art and poetry. It is an absolute waste of time, it is a sharing into the waste of time which is the interior life of the Godhead. God is not in himself productive or creative. Sure he takes time to throw off a creation, to make something, to achieve something, but the real interior life of the Godhead is not in creation, it is in the life of love which is the Trinity, the procession of Son from Father and of the Spirit from this exchange. God is not first of all our creator or any kind of maker, he is love, and his life is not like the life of the worker or artist but of lovers wasting time with each other uselessly. It is into this worthless activity that we enter in prayer. This, in the end, is what makes sense of it. 

Herbert McCabe, ‘Prayer’ in God Matters, p. 225.

Notes on a death

I arrived late to the funeral. It was already the homily, which I didn’t really catch. But I stood at the back of church and looked out over the heads of all the parishioners who were present. Sitting in the back row was a friend, just in front of me–a friend who had survived breast cancer several years ago.

I wondered what on earth you’d think if you’d beaten cancer and then watched someone you’d known for twenty years succumb to it. ‘But for the grace of God, there go I’? No. As soon as the sentence occurred to me, I rejected it. Was the grace of God not present with S. ? Was God’s grace not attending her every step along the way? From the diagnosis through the treatment, during her reprieve and in hospice, there can be no doubt that the grace of God was constantly present with her.

Twice I went to the hospice: once to say the rosary with S. and the others from the rosary group (plus a few), and once to visit her, taking along a cake for her husband’s birthday. On both occasions, the peacefulness of the place, and of S.’s countenance, struck me. Even though she never woke during my second visit, I was very glad to have seen her. She seemed completely at peace. And I said goodbye.

I suspected it might be the last goodbye, and so it was. The next week, before I had a chance to get back to the hospice, she died. Her family were all around her. And I have no doubt about God’s presence, God’s peace and grace, being there with her.

Being nearby, but not very close, I am not at all certain what it is really like to accompany someone through their last weeks and days. The romantic part of me likes to think it is as CS Lewis describes the easternmost part of the voyage of the Dawn Treader, as they approach the end of the world. The seawater has become fresh and sweet–and so nourishing that food is no longer required. What’s more, the dazzling brightness of the sun increases day by day. Only the richness of the water strengthens the travelers enough to bear its overwhelming light. As they near the end, the world’s end, they are being fortified. The crew of the Dawn Treader are not going to the world’s end to stay, however. They are all accompanying Reepicheep, who is going to the end and not returning to Narnia. Reepicheep was bound for Aslan’s country. So only he was really going to the end (though, as it happened, Lucy, Edmund, and Eustace also departed back to England at the end of the world), yet all those accompanying them share in the water and the light that prepares them to meet the end when they reach it.

I do not know, but I hope and pray that S.’s family had some experience of that journey, which despite being deeply sad may also somehow be full of grace. From a little ways off, it seemed to me that the light shone brightly, despite being difficult to bear. The few times I saw S. and spoke to her in the final few months, I found her matter-of-fact attitude bracing. When I asked about how she was doing in the longer term, she discussed going back to work (her health had improved that much). But when I sounded too hopeful, she reminded me: ‘I still have terminal cancer’, as matter-of-factly as if she were talking about plans for the next summer holidays. Her concern was for the family.

Always, she bore it well. And she carried on doing things for the family and in the community for as long as she possibly could. How could anyone say anything other than that the grace of God remained with her through the illness and in the moment of her death? Death cannot separate us from God’s grace. Cancer cannot separate us from God’s grace.

If anything, I ought to have looked at her coffin on the day of her funeral and thought, one day, by the grace of God, there go I.

Deo gratias.

these awful #MeToo days

A few months ago, something came to mind I hadn’t thought about much in a good while. A Not Nice Thing. A thing that happened to me when I was a girl, about the age my little girl is now. And I realised something then, something that had never occurred to me before.

It wasn’t my fault.

This was a pretty big realisation for me. And I was helped immensely by an acquaintance who posted on his facebook wall, at the height of the #MeToo movement, ‘I believe you.’ I cried when I saw that post, relieved and grateful.

But now I sometimes wish the whole world hadn’t risen up in support of sexual assault survivors. Not because it isn’t a good thing for men to believe women. That is a good thing. It’s just that it would be a lot better thing if I weren’t one of Those Women.

I had those Bad Experiences (three very bad experiences) all packaged up in the box labelled, ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself.’ My fault, I have to live with the consequences: hurt and shame. Somehow that was easier. It was painful, sure, but it was tidy. I did stupid things, and I suffered as a result. Very, very neat.

Now the news, twitter, and facebook all keep throwing things at me, things that take my little snow-globe of a life and shake it. Hard. And all that hurt and I-don’t-know-what starts swirling around again, and I am in a blizzard. A white-out of anger and pain and feelings I can’t put a name to.

This was 30 years ago, I think to myself. And here it feels like it was only yesterday. I see images of Dr Blasey Ford, and I wonder what I would do if Tony Bell or Brian Kehe were nominated to the Supreme Court. Yes, those are real names, and Brian did want to be a lawyer. I don’t know if he did…we sort of lost touch after That Night. I can’t even imagine how I would feel, much less what I would do. I doubt I would have the courage to come forward, even though I was stone cold sober on both occasions and remember exactly where and about when these awful incidents took place.

After long weeks of wandering in decades-old memory, I finally came to a realisation. Although these things happened all those years ago, I didn’t know what to call them. I didn’t know, really, what had happened to me. Now, I interpret those experiences differently: I was in the wrong place, yes. I chose to be with the wrong guys at the wrong time for the wrong reasons. But that doesn’t mean I deserved what happened to me.

And that is not as easy a realisation to come to as you might think. Because years ago I was stupid, and I let those things happen to me. I was asking for it, and I got what was coming to me. It was all my own fault. Nice, self-enclosed system. Calling those experiences ‘sexual assault’ blows the idyllic snow-globe picture to smithereens. I have to accept a new identity, in a way. Although I was assaulted a long, long time ago, I have only just become ‘a survivor of sexual assault’. So, in a sense, it is like it just happened.

But there isn’t anyone to tell, really. No justice will be done. It’s all just been stirred up again to no particularly good effect. Actually, it’s been stirred up to a bad effect: my family are all watching a film, and I’m sitting here, because of the white-out. I can’t see the TV.

I’ll tell you what, though. I finally understand why nobody who was around when I was a small girl wanted to tell my father. (He had been two states away at the time.) I thought it was to protect me–after all, I was told I ought to be ashamed of myself. My father would have been angry, true. But I lived for 40 years under the false impression that he would have been angry at ME. No. I realize the truth now, as the parent of a small girl. Nobody wanted to tell my dad because they were afraid he might shoot the guy. But because I thought I’d be in big trouble, I didn’t say anything. Not when I was a child, and not when I was a teenager.

And I grieve, because I wonder how things might have been different for me if I had been comforted rather than blamed. At the end of the day, I have to be grateful for #MeToo, no matter how much it hurts to have all my memories shaken up and set down in a different light. It’s too late for me: I’ll never know how things might have been.

Sorry, no happy ending this time. Sometimes there just isn’t one.

 

Becoming a ‘motherist’

The new academic year is underway, and today I am introducing a group of second year students to Christian ethics. What on earth do I mean by that? I am hoping to persuade them that one of the most important things that ‘Christian’ does in modifying ‘ethics’ is locating practitioners. We cannot pretend we have a view from nowhere.

Where do I stand, I wondered. How can I explain to them what it is that shapes the person before them and guides my own practice of this academic discipline? I describe myself as a Catholic moral theologian, but that has to be qualified. I used to qualify it by saying that I was a feminist. That no longer seems to fit, for a variety of reasons.

The most important reason, especially for the purpose of teaching an ethics class, is that the word ‘feminist’ generally conjures up the notion of ‘women’s rights’. I’ve nothing against women having equal rights. Access to the same legal protections as men is essential for women. It is especially so now, when women suffer sexual violence routinely in spite of broad public support for the #MeToo movement.

My concern with rights-language, in this context, is two-fold. The first concern is that it is insufficient. Necessary, but not up to the task of reforming relations between men and women. And that is what is required: not more laws, but a conversion of more hearts.

The other concern is more complex and more controversial. I have long had a niggling sense that something wasn’t right about the way we women got our rights. Something had to give–something always does in order for such radical change to happen.

What gave? Something intangible, and something that cannot be recovered. I am not ever going to be one to advise turning back the clock: the young Sean Connery as James Bond convinced me there was no going back. The cultural milieu that made his interactions with women ‘normal’ had to change (and hasn’t yet changed enough).

I agree with early feminists about the ‘problem with no name’. I’m just not certain that the diagnosis and treatment of the problem was thorough enough. On the one hand, women who wanted (or needed) to work outside the home should have had equal access to the training and positions. On that score, I think we have not done too badly. I’m sitting in an office in an academic building, about to go and lecture in a university that admits at least as many women as men each year. The women now studying will have the same career opportunities, legally, as their male colleagues.

On the other hand, though, there is still ‘women’s work’ to be done. And, though some may find it unimaginable, there are still women (and not only women, I hope) who want to do that work. The problem is that that work does not have equal status in the eyes of our achievement-oriented culture. The equal rights taken up by women in the workplace ought to be matched by an equal respect for those who (whether women or men, mothers or not) who take up the hard and thankless work of mother-craft.

By mother-craft, I simply mean the kind of work that more than 50 years ago would have been thought of as stuff women did. Not just doing housework, but teaching children to tie their shoes, cross roads safely, and take their responsibilities seriously at home and school. Parenting requires attention and discipline. More than that, the hardest part is the constant self-giving involved.

The essence of mother-craft, as I see it, is teaching our young that life is not only meant to be lived, it is meant to be given. We all live our lives, and we are careful about how we do that (at least that’s what I’ll be insisting in my ethics class). But also, and perhaps more importantly, we all give our lives. That is worth repeating: we all give our lives. Not only mothers and heroes die. We all spend our lives. We give them away in projects and various pursuits.

Motherhood, the biological kind, makes a nice figure for this. The body is given in pregnancy. Ask anyone who has carried a child. The mother’s body is no longer just her own; it is given for the needs of the child. Mother-craft is the art of co-operating with the body’s work of giving. It continues through the whole of life, as the mother (as was) spends her life for those in her care. The most important moment in my life as a mother and as a scholar came one day when, completely spent and frustrated at my inability to be the mother I wanted to be and have the career I wanted to have, I sat down and wondered what life was for. ‘It’s for giving away,’ I thought.

It hasn’t made me a great mother. And it certainly hasn’t helped my career. But it has made me something beyond a feminist. It has made me a ‘motherist’: someone who believes the equal rights of women should include equal respect for what used to be regarded as ‘women’s work’. The work involved in mother-craft deserves our respect. No matter who did it for us, and no matter whether they did it brilliantly or not-so-well, we wouldn’t be here without it.

Thanks, Mom.

when reasons fail

Reasons fail spectacularly when the subject is depression. Last week, a well-meaning journalist or two (no, I can’t remember which) offered Kate Spade’s separation from her husband as a ‘reason’ for her mental health struggles.

It would be great if depression and anxiety worked that way. Find the cause, fix the problem, job done. But they don’t work that way. Depression is depression and not just a grumpy mood (sort of like mine today), because it doesn’t obey reason. By that, I just mean that depression happens whether or not it’s warranted. I remember reading somewhere that suicides are more common in spring (no, again, I don’t remember: humour me, I’m having a bad day). Why? Because the new life that comes in spring is so incongruous with the cold, dark winter inside that it pushes people over the edge. The world looks beautiful, and that makes everything feel worse. See how that doesn’t make sense? (That is, unless you’re depressed. If you’re depressed, I am sorry; I know you understand this all too well.) Anxiety, though that’s not the main demon that haunts me, also eludes logic. We’re all anxious from time to time, about stuff that seems anxiety-producing for most people. That’s not disordered anxiety–it’s typical. So we might be tempted to think that an anxiety disorder is just like that, only worse. I suspect, however, that it is not only different in intensity but also in form. And although I don’t suffer from an anxiety disorder, I’m pretty sure that logic doesn’t cure it.

That’s not to say that bad things, painful things, frightening things, that happen in our lives do not contribute to depression (and anxiety and the rest). I’m a pretty functional person most days. By that, I mean that I can do the usual sorts of daily tasks at home and at work with the same amount of cheerfulness and grumbling as the average person. I try to be cheerful more than I grumble; sometimes I fail. This basically even keel is thanks in large part to some chemical help my brain gets so that it can stay focused on the task in hand. When things go wrong (sometimes even small things), though, distraction increases and despair looms. Then I don’t move between cheerfulness and grumbling: I go straight to complete despondency. Everything is going wrong, I am a total and complete failure, and the world would be a better place without me in it.

Hey, presto. I am no longer that even-keeled, basically functioning person. Now I am languishing under the boulder of depression, completely paralysed emotionally and psychologically. And I cannot shift that boulder, no matter how much I try to convince myself that there is no reason that it should be there. Reason has left me, and I am bereft. As long as the boulder sits there, I’m not going to get anything done. (Okay, sometimes I can do laundry, but that doesn’t get my articles written or my teaching prepped.) And I know from others’ accounts of their experiences with the world-ending psychological catastrophe known as depression that mine is nowhere near as bad as it gets.

The thing is, it isn’t the stress that caused my depression. Well-managed depression is like  a fault line that runs through someone’s mind. (There’s a lot to be said about mind/body/soul in depression, and Kathryn Greene-McCreight treats the subject very well in Darkness Is My Only Companion.) Most days, the landscape looks like solid ground. But on some days a small bump can trigger a massive tectonic shift. Coping mechanisms crumble, and the mind comes crashing down. My mind comes crashing down. And in the rubble, it’s hard to tell whether there is even an ‘up’, never mind figuring out which way it is. There, in the rubble, it can seem like the world has already ended. Suicide just brings into force the perception that’s already there. That perception is depression’s doing, and reason doesn’t really come into it.

When I reflect on my own psychological earthquakes, I think the only reason I am still around is the psalms. I’m serious. When I was a teenager, my inner life was a mess. (My outer life, too, but that’s a different story.) I have no idea how I stumbled into the psalms. I wasn’t a pious person. But boy did the psalmists know how to lament. They could say, ‘life totally sucks’ (my teenage lament) in the most beautiful ways. So for years (no exaggeration), I would conclude every journal entry with one psalmist’s question to himself: ‘Why are you downcast, O my soul? And why so disquieted within me?’ And I would add his encouragement to that depressed self: ‘Hope in God, for again I shall praise him, the help of my countenance and my God.’ In the psalms, I found my ‘up’.

That’s not to say that religious practice can save everyone; on my worst days I would forget that there even were psalms. But for the most part, the psalmists have been my companions in despair: just the right company for my recurring misery. And I am very grateful for them.

Deo gratias.

 

 

 

Wonder Woman

rs-wonder-woman-dc030a5f-1b81-44bc-b7ca-ac7bab2ef991I’ve now watched this film three times: once on the big screen, and twice at home. Tonight, my 7-year-old daughter chose it. I know, it’s probably not ideal for her age group. But she has older siblings, and she’s seen it already. For at least a week after she first saw it, she pressed me to explain on a daily basis why I hadn’t named her Diana. And she’s not a girly girl: usually she wants to be Captain America. So I couldn’t say no.

It occurred to me this time through that the ‘wonder’ about Wonder Woman is twofold (at least). Of course, Diana is a wonder. She stops bullets and deflects bombs. She’s amazing with a sword. She vanquishes the god of war. And she does it all exquisitely: she’s stunningly beautiful. She’s wonderful.

She is also full of wonder. Little Diana is wide-eyed at the myths her mother tells her. She wants to fight like the rest of the Amazons, little knowing what will come of her training. When she sends Antiope flying across the field, she is amazed at her own strength. Even her meeting with Steve Trevor fresh from the healing pool is a scene in which she seems full of wonder. I could go on–so much about her time in London is characterised by wonder.

For Diana, the most unbelievable thing, it seems to me, is the way in which human beings are able to compartmentalise, to seal themselves off from the suffering of others far away, or to turn a blind eye to the wounded and needy right in front of them. She passes soldiers returning from battle–missing a leg, unable to walk, bleeding, staring vacantly past her. And all she can think is, ‘How can I make this stop?’ When she encounters the woman (totally out of place, of course) in the trench (really!), she cannot walk away. She cannot believe that anyone would–which is a different facet of that same wonder, I think. So she crosses no-man’s-land. (So much about this is a historian’s nightmare. I know, because I am married to one.) She saves a village and then has a fresh  experience of wonder when it starts to snow.

I know why I couldn’t say no to my 7-year-old when she suggested that we watch Wonder Woman. Like my 7-year-old, she is full of wonder; like my 11-year-old, she is sure that she can defeat the baddies–and so she does. But she does it without swagger. She does it because it needs doing. She does it with a sense of amazement and hope that I find refreshing. She never loses that sense of wonder. And maybe that–even more than an ass-kicking superhero–is what we most need from Wonder Woman. I know I do.