What the Mentally Handicapped Can Teach Us

According to Jean Vanier, Founder of L’Arche Communities

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BARCELONA, Spain, JAN. 26, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Jean Vanier believes he has learned a lot from the poor and the mentally handicapped.

«The poor, the mentally handicapped reveal to me my own poverty and when I discover my poverty, I have greater need of God,» the founder of L’Arche Communities told a retreat last weekend in the Seminary of Vic, in Barcelona.

Vanier founded L’Arche in 1964, which now comprises more than 100 homes, with workshops, in 30 countries. The homes offer the mentally handicapped a chance to work and live in community.

«When I started them,» Vanier recalled, «I wanted to show the poor how important they were by living with them.»

«Then I discovered that that was a way of the Gospel, because the poor make us live in truth,» he said. «We are all poor and condemned to death; we are all fragile, we all want to show that we are better than others. Thus, we are always fleeing from what is most important about us and we really don’t know who we are.

«Mentally handicapped people show me what my handicap is. Their violence reveals my violence. We begin to discover the truth about our inner self and then we also begin to discover the truth about God.»

«The handicapped person who accepts his handicap shows me the difficulty I have in accepting my own weaknesses, in a similar way as people who are dying, who accept their death, reveal to those who are looking after them their own fear of dying,» Vanier said.

«This is why L’Arche is a way to God — a way of the poor, because to accept Jesus we must be poor,» he continued. «He himself, who is the beauty of the Word of God, is a great poor one, but a great poor one who accepts the strength of God. There is no Christianity if we do not discover our poverty.»

Vanier shared an observation about the recent Asian disaster.

«The collection of such a great amount of money for the tsunami victims shows us many things about solidarity, about the capacity of compassion of the human heart, but also about guilt,» he contended.

«As we live so well and have so many things, we cannot watch on television people who have lost everything,» the L’Arche Communities founder said. «There is in the human being a desire to help, which is also shown toward handicapped people, but at the same time the latter confront us with our desire to be rid of such different people.

«It is undeniable that the person who is different bothers us, and many handle this by putting such people in institutions or killing them before they are born.»

To break the prejudices in regard to handicapped people, Vanier suggested that we «really meet them» and discover what they reveal to us about ourselves and about the presence of God in them.

Vanier recommends not spending too much time wondering about them or engaging in theological disputes, but to spend more time accepting and helping them.

«What is important is not to wonder why there is suffering, but to decide to alleviate it,» he said. «What is important is not to wonder about death, but to support people who are dying.»

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