Back home

The retreat at La Ferme was every bit as good, and as challenging, as I had anticipated, and much could be said about it…and will, eventually. At the moment we are in the process of moving, which means not a lot of desk time. Tomorrow I think my desk will go into storage, so no desk time at all for several weeks.
 
To begin at the end of the retreat weekend, though: I discovered, during my stopover at Minster Abbey on Monday, a gem of a book. Written by someone identified only as ‘a monk’ (a Cistercian, if you want to know), it is entitled, The Hermitage Within. Pushed well back between two books on the shelf, its title was hardly visible, but it caught my attention anyway. When I opened it, I found an invitation: ‘[God] is calling you to live on friendly terms with him: to nothing else.’ In light of the message of the retreat, which focused on Jesus’ care for the poor and humble, and his own poverty and humility, this struck me as the logical follow-up. (There is more to it than that, of course–on which more later.) The invitation came with a caveat, though: ‘You must be content to lose yourself entirely. If you secretly desire to be or to become “somebody”, you are doomed to failure. The desert is pitiless; it infallibly rejects all self-seekers’ (p 10).
A hard word in an age of self-promotion. A hard word for a person who has always struggled with the desire to be ‘somebody’–both in the struggle for recognition and coping with obscurity, and the struggle to overcome the desire itself. What amazes me about Jean Vanier is his ability to be somebody without desiring to be somebody. He holds it so lightly, and always looks in the same direction: away from himself, and constantly toward Jesus. One of my very favourite moments in the retreat was Jean concluding one of his talks by saying, almost offhandedly, ‘He’s quite extraordinary, Jesus. It’s important that we get to know him.’ Indeed so, Jean, indeed so. Thanks for helping us with that.
 
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slowly and gently

I can account for the hiatus in posts: last week I was in London for a day exploring the theology and practice of accompanying people with intellectual disabilities through experiences of loss, especially the death of loved ones. Although this isn’t one of my areas of experience or study, I was interested in the journey of accompaniment. What I found was that, like any other interpersonal adventure, the way forward requires less map-and-compass skills, and more listening and patience. Good navigational skills are necessary, but not sufficient, for walking with someone through the valley of the shadow of death–whether the death in question is their own or another’s.

In doing things with my young children, I frequently find myself repeating “slowly and gently”–it started with stirring cake batter. “Slowly and gently.” Then, as my youngest started trying to descend the stairs: “Slowly and gently.” This has never been my strong suit. Doing things slowly and gently and attending to the details requires time (of which I seem always to be in want) and patience (ditto). As I listened to the speakers throughout the day, this phrase came back to me. The journey of accompaniment, at any stage of life, is about going slowly and gently.

Slowly and gently becomes not only advice for toddlers learning to stir; it changes the way I approach theological questions. Attending to the person with me, the person with an intellectual disability, impresses on me the reality of each person’s creation in the image of God. What is it to be human? It is to be in relationship with God, and that relationship originates with God and not with us. Ours is the capacity to receive the relationship God offers us continuously. The question for theological anthropology then becomes, ‘What does the disabled body (including the disabled mind) reveal to us about God?’ If what obscures the image of God in the first place is sin, then intellectual disability is not necessarily something that obscures the image of God. In and through that disability, God is revealing himself, revealing transcendence, divinity.

Because this is so, there are two important features of spiritual friendship with a person with an intellectual disability. First, the relationship that person has with God is no more or less than ours, though it will be expressed differently and experienced differently by us. The obstacles we encounter in relationship with people with intellectual disabilities are not obstacles for God. Relationship with God is not impaired by cognitive impairment. (Sin does that.) The second feature of that friendship is that the revelation of the divine through the divine image is not a one-way street, from those of us who are aware of being made in the image of God to those who are not. We ought to be looking for God’s image in the faces of those with intellectual disabilities, and expecting to find God’s self-revelation there.

But we will only see it if we go slowly–slowly and gently.