The Ark of Jean Vanier: A Christian fundamentalist (aka fundamental Christian) view of mental disability and the love of God

I know a man who used to visit the mentally and physically disabled. When a person is physically disabled, he (or she) is usually disturbed as well. When, however, a person is mentally disabled, it’s often unclear whether he is also disturbed, especially when he appears to express little emotion. Here is the man’s story.

I was attending church, loved reading my Bible, studying theology and listening to recorded sermons. I kept on thinking of Jesus’ love for the sick and the poor. I had to do something, so I became a “friend” of a local “frail care” centre. I got my pastor to write me a letter saying that I represented his church, which was true. I went to the “centre” every Friday afternoon.

The first person I visited was Siyabonga (Zulu for “thank you”), a young weak wisp of a man on a lung machine. Nothing wrong with his mind, though. He told me about all the things he wanted to do when he got better – study at university, fix machines. I visited him for an hour every Friday for a few months. One Friday, I walked into his room clutching a packet of goodies and was just about to flourish him a smile; the bed was made and his lung machine wasn’t there anymore . He had died a few days earlier.
There was Jeannie, in her late twenties, who was blind, deaf and dumb from birth confined to a cot. She was semi-paralyzed as well and had to be turned regularly. I read the psalms to her. She rolled her big eyes and grunted with delight. Sometimes, when I passed her room on my way to visit someone else, I heard her groaning. I looked in. She was struggling under thick blankets too warm for her. I turned one up and she calmed down.

There was the young woman who, when her parents were leaving after a visit, clutched the security railings that enclosed the front porch, grimacing in despair. I feel deep sadness thinking about her.

Bob was a tall bony young man. He had been in a motor bike accident several years earlier. He suffered massive brain damage. He was curled up like a fetus, couldn’t speak and could only move his right hand, which he swiveled towards his open mouth in a lame gesture: “eat eat.” That was his entire repertoire.

It’s hard to tell whether people like Jeannie and Bob were tormented. (This point is important when we come to Jean Vanier‘s work with the handicapped).

There was also James, an Afrikaner. He was close to his 90th birthday and his wife was about 80. She had Alzeimer’s. When she was young, she was a beauty queen in Johannesburg. Let me tell you how I first met them. I was walking down the passage peeping into rooms saying a little greeting here and there when down the passage comes James. He and his wife had been admitted a day or two earlier. He pulls me into his room where his wife is sleeping on one of the two beds. “My son tried to kill me. I had an accident. One of the wheels on my car was loose. He did it. He wants my money. Call the police. I shouldn’t be here. I want to lay a charge.”

I couldn’t bear his frenzy; yet all the other “inmates” around were very subdued. I hurried off leaving him whimpering at the staff desk in the corridor. For the next few Fridays, whenever I caught a glimpse of him in the corridor– often with his wife in tow, who was fast deteriorating– I made my escape. I felt terribly bad. The following week I went to visit him in his room. His wife was in the double bed next to him. She smiled and lay quietly. He told me his story:

“When I was a younger, I was one of the few who stood up to the Nats [the Nationalist Apartheid Government]. I built and ran a college for blacks where they did all sorts of courses. [This was in 1950-60s]. The Nats called me in and said I should stop doing what I was doing, but I refused; I carried on. And for years afterwards I had black people coming up to me to thank me for what I had done for them.” Every visit he would cry and repeat the same story.

On the wall was a picture of his horse. After the college story came the horse story: “I loved him (pointing to the photo of his horse on the wall). I used to take some nice hay and put my hand right down his throat. My whole arm was wet, and he didn’t do anything but just sucked at my hand.”

One visit, there was a giant birthday card with a big “90” stuck on his wall above his bed. I tried to speak to his wife next to him. She smiled. On one visit, I noticed his wife wasn’t with him anymore. They had taken her to a more secure section of the centre to prevent her from wandering. Usually it was another “inmate” who led her back to her room. James missed his wife and took to wandering himself. A few Fridays later, James wasn’t in his room; the beds were made. Siyabonga again! No, he had been taken to the secure section. I entered his new “lodgings,” a giant cot, lying on his side, staring between the railings. He sat up quickly, “Look where they’ve put me; I want to go back to my room.” I felt angry and helpless. The following Friday, I went to visit him again. He wasn’t in his cot. Siyabonga? Yes – he died during the week. I went to visit his wife. She was sitting with a large roomful of others on chairs against the wall. She was bent over double. I knelt down and raised her face. She smiled and sank down. On subsequent visits to her, I would stop in front of her sunken frame, pray briefly and sweep around the room to greet the others.

I always left when when the bell rang for supper. Sometimes on my way out, I would enter the little dining hall and spend a few brief moments at some of the tables. Everything was hushed; everyone was occupied. They seemed to enjoy their simple meals. It seemed so peaceful. Or was it rather the absence of the communicative spirit and tensions normally present among the healthy.

A few weeks later, the centre changed management. The freedom I had to wander around the centre was to be no more. Worse, I had to report to the desk and say which person I wanted to visit. “Whoever seems to be in need, silly,” I thought. I stopped going. I often think of James’ wife, bent over double lounging in her chair. Was she smiling?
That is the end of the story. This story reminds me of Jean Vanier, the Catholic philosopher and founder of “L’Arche” (The Ark), a group of homes for the mentally handicapped. The source for the following information about Vanier is his book “Plus Jamais seul” (No longer alone). All quotations from the book are my translations from the original French.

Jean Vanier

Vanier studied philosophy and not long after obtaining his doctorate was appointed in 1964 to a philosophy post at the University of Toronto. At about that time his spiritual mentor, Father Thomas, was appointed chaplain (aumônier) of a small centre in the Val Fleuri at Trosly-Breuil, in the Oise, which cared for thirty mentally handicapped men, many of whom were long-term patients of the psychiatric hospital of Clermont. Father Thomas invited Vanier to meet these men who “had suffered from the absence of their families and society.”
Father Thomas told Vanier that such marginalized people reveal to us more than anything the meaning of human life (“Ce sont des personnes marginales et écartées de la vie d’une société qui peuvent le mieux nous révéler le sens de la vie humaine”).

Vanier was afraid. How even to begin to talk with such people? What could he talk about? Vanier says “my anxiety changed quickly to astonishment when I felt in each of them the cry for friendship: ‘Are you going to come back to see us?’ Their cry for companionship touched me deeply.” I’m not sure whether ‘Are you going to come back to see us?’ were the actual words they spoke or whether it was the feeling Vanier saw in their eyes. Many mentally handicapped people don’t appear to have such thoughts or feelings. How would we ever know if all we’ve got to go on are their eyes; what we think to be expressed through their eyes might exist only in our own eyes.

Vanier cites Psalm 113:7-8: He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the dung hill that he may set him among princes (“Dieu relève l’humilié de la poussière et retire le pauvre du fumier pour l’asseoir au rang des princes”). He then refers to the Apostle Paul: “Paul revealed to us that God has chosen the mad and the weak, and what is most scorned in the world.” Paul, alas, is talking about Christians (mad or sane, strong or weak, rich or poor) who have been rejected by the world, and not about the mad, the weak and the scorned in general. Here is Paul in context:

1 Corinthians 1
17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” 20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

A great influence on Vanier was Charles de Foucauld (1858– 1916), a French Catholic priest living among the Tuareg in the Sahara. He was murdered outside the door of the fort he built for the Tuareg’s protection. Like de Foucauld, Vanier wanted to live close to the poor. To be a Christian, for Vanier, is to stand by their side. You don’t, of course, have to be a Christian or even believe in a personal God to agree, for “love your neighbour” is a law like do not murder, do not steal, honour your parents, written on men’s hearts. Being a law, of course, does not mean that man in his fallen state – having lost the sense of his essence – obeys it. To preach the “Good News” to the poor, Vanier continues, does not only consist in telling someone that God loves him but “rather” (plutôt) ‘I love you and I want to become part of you life in the name of Jesus.’ (“Pour moi, être chrétien, c’est se mettre du côté des faibles et des pauvres. Annoncer la Bonne Nouvelle aux pauvres ne consiste pas seulement à dire Dieu t’aime mais plutôt moi je ‘t’aime je m’engage envers toi au nom de Jésus”).

That kind of talking, if followed by walking , could, on condition that you either ignore or are ignorant of the foundational truths of the Gospel, earn you a Noble Peace prize. Why do I imply that Vanier ignores or is ignorant of the foundational truths of the Gospel? It’s that word “rather” and much much more. With regard to “rather”:

Assume that it is true that “God loves you.” Is this truth insignificant – which is what “rather” conveys – compared to “I love you” (by becoming part of your life and helping you wherever I can – which God can’t do as well as I can?). With regard to “(the Gospel is) much much more”:

In my city, some Christians are sending out “God’s love letter to you.” This is a sentimental travesty of the Gospel. Briefly, the Gospel consists of both Bad News and Good News. Tell a politician, a Muslim, a Buddhist an atheist, a layabout – the “Good News” that “God loves you,” and it’s all smiles. Break the bad news first and don’t expect to be invited to tea: “You’re a sinner and under the wrath of God, and unless you repent and believe in Christ as the propitiation of your sins and the one who puts you right with God, you will be cast into eternal darkness.” So, the Gospel is about both the wrath and the love God.

With regard to the mentally handicapped, many have been so radically affected that they are unable to understand much about moral or religious issues, or, if they do understand, they cannot communicate this fact. Yet, in spite of their mental imbalance, says Vanier, many of them retain an equanimity often unequalled among the “wise.”

I see this equanimity as a gift of God. There are, alas, some who suffer deep anguish like one of Vanier’s charges, Dany, who ran wildly all over the place waving frantically and screaming. Being in the presence of such behaviour would generally be distressing for the advantaged like you and me, but the mentally disadvantaged generally seem to take it well in their stride, like good – unremunerated – psychologists.

The important thing for Vanier was to be joyful in the presence of these souls, to listen to them, to cook for them, to share meals with them and to be confident that his community (the “Ark” L’Arche) was the work of God and that Jesus would therefore help him. “I wanted to live the Gospel, says Vanier, and become a friend of the poor, which involves a certain amount of insecurity, an abandon to the present moment.” Deep in his heart there was great peace and relief. The Gospel was the source of his life. He saw Jesus in the poor whom God was using as the means to bring him closer to God. More than that; he believed that God, through the “Ark” (and his other organisation, “Faith and Light”), was doing something new in the world and in the (Catholic) Church, something that was, unexpectedly, to blossom into a world-wide movement for the handicapped, their families and their friends.

To live with the poor, says Vanier, is to live with Jesus. Yes, doing good for the poor or for anyone is the “very atmosphere in which we live” (Johan Wilhelm Herrmann, “Communion with God”), where duty is seen as a gift from God rather than as a burden. Don’t now get too sentimental about the poor, even the mentally poor; “poor” does not necessarily imply “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5 – the Beatitudes). Poverty – material or mental – in the Gospel does not equate with beatitude (blessedness). Jesus admonishes us to be kind to the poor but nowhere does he say that they are the way to the truth and the life, the way to God, the way to salvation. I am reminded of the incident described in Mark, Matthew and John, which, although mentioning specifically the materially poor, could also refer to the handicapped (the mentally poor):

The Woman at Bethany

While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you,[a] but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her” (Matthew 26:6-13).

Vanier says that living a simple life in communion with the handicapped is a “spiritualité,” is a life inspired by the words of Jesus. Even though “they have not acknowledged Jesus himself, it is him they serve without knowing it.” It’s difficult to tell who “they” is in the above sentence, that is, whether Vanier is referring to those who live in simple communion with the handicapped, or the handicapped themselves. It seems the former because many of the (mentally) handicapped do not appear to be in a position to understand the basics of communication, never mind to acknowledge Jesus, which is more than “Jesus (whoever he is) loves me.” Can they have the sense of being forgiven, or even the sense of sin? The irony, and perhaps also the mercy of God, is that without a sense of sin the mentally handicapped would not fall under God’s judgment.

Vanier, the philosophy teacher, felt he had to move from his brain to his heart. This route of the heart “chemin du coeur” consists, says Vanier, in “showing the humiliated and rejected their value as persons, who are also the messengers of light, of life, of God.” I must put my (funda)mental(ist) foot down. Granted, the world loves this kind of talk, but, in terms of the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles, it has little Christian substance, and that is why biblical Christianity is hated so much. The light and the life of the Gospel is the message of salvation – repent, believe in Christ’s atoning sacrifice, and be reconciled to God. It is only then that “Jesus shows us how to love everybody, especially the rejected and the poor.” Jésus nous conduit a aimer tous les autres, surtout les exclus et les plus pauvres (Vanier). Faith without love (for God and others) is indeed dead.

Vanier continues: “After having been regarded as a disappointment by their own parents, and humiliated for years, one needs much time to rediscover a meaning to life.” This is, of course, true for both the mentally healthy and the mentally handicapped. It seems to me, as I said earlier, that it is often difficult to know how a seriously mentally handicapped person feels about personal matters such as rejection, or even whether he understands what it means.

Vanier’s idea, expressed above, of Christianity seems no different from being good and kind, from God being good and kind and mainly (recall Vanier’s “rather” above) human beings being good and kind to one another: “I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty and you….” All philanthropists “lovers of mankind” (love – philos; man – anthropos), whether Christian or atheist, agree. Yet, Being good and kind, is not the Gospel but its fruit. The Christian does not live on fruit alone but on every word that is breathed out of the mouth of God. Christianity is mainly about what God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – is doing, not what we are doing.


One thought on “The Ark of Jean Vanier: A Christian fundamentalist (aka fundamental Christian) view of mental disability and the love of God

  1. Here is a comment that was emailed to me. The writer prefers to remain anonymous:

    I’ve just read your thoughts on Jean Vanier.  What is your point?  That Jean Vanier is not a real Christian?  That what Jean Vanier is doing is useless because the mentally disabled don’t know what’s going on?  That what Jean Vanier does is meaningless because the mentally disabled, who know nothing about sin, are outside God’s jurisdiction anyway, so why bother as they won’t be going to hell so it doesn’t matter if they’re comforted or not?

    It depends on how badly mentally impaired you are.  The boy who could only make slight movements with his hand gesturing towards his mouth understood that he was hungry and was able to communicate this.  That is not nothing.  Most mentally impaired people are not as badly off as that boy. . . A cat’s eyes don’t actually change expression but you and I know the cat’s moods and needs from its body language, its type of miouw, its hissing perhaps, its growling, its nuzzling, its purring.  OF COURSE one can communicate with the mentally disabled!

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