Towards Transformational Reading of Scripture
We must gradually live as Jesus lived, love as he loved, and choose to become little and humble as Jesus was.
by Jean Vanier for Comment Magazine
Before explaining how I approach the Gospel of John, I need to say something about how we are living in the communities of l'Arche, which now number 130 around the world.
We are communities where people with disabilities and people who have chosen to be with them share our lives together in a spirit of communion and friendship.
At the heart of our communities there is pain, weakness, and vulnerable bodies, hurt through sickness or some form of malformation but also through all the forms of rejection and even contempt that people with disabilities are so often subjected to.
Our communities seek to be places of healing and growth for all. Wounded hearts, which bring anguish, loneliness, and feelings of guilt or shame ("if I am not wanted or appreciated, it is because I am no good"), are gradually brought to healing through relationships. People with disabilities discover meaning to their lives and can develop their human and spiritual potential as they discover that they are loved, seen as unique and valuable.
Eric was born blind, deaf, and with severe autism. When we first met him he was in the local psychiatric hospital where he had been placed at the age of four. He was unable to walk or eat by himself. I do not think I had ever met anyone so filled with anguish and a desire to die. Living in l'Arche, he discovered he was loved and thus he was someone. He became more peaceful and learned to eat by himself and gradually to walk. His life was transformed little by little.
Our communities are places of transformation also for those who come to share their lives with those who have disabilities.
Ethel came to our community when she was thirty. She had decided as an adolescent to put all her energies into succeeding in school and at work; her parents had always lived in conflict and so she saw relationships as painful and dangerous. She built solid barriers around her heart and wore a mask to protect herself. These masks gradually caused a certain feeling of discomfort and dis-ease. It was really by chance that she "fell" into a community of l'Arche and discovered a love that was liberating and healing and that allowed her to grow and be herself.
A community is not just a group of people who come together through and for a common goal. People in community are bonded to one another in mutual respect, trust, and affection. Our communities are like "schools of transformation" where we learn to forgive, to accept each other as we are, and to free each other in order to be more truly ourselves. Assistants—as we call them—do not come just to be generous and competent and to do good things for people with disabilities; they come to live and grow in communion with them. In l'Arche generosity is called to lead to an encounter in friendship. We are all called to meet the other in his or her person, which is often hidden behind a very visible handicap or one's incapacity to accept others as they are, or behind other forms of handicap which may be less visible such as one's need for power.
Some assistants come for a short period of time—a few months. During that time, many live an experience of transformation as they begin to meet people as persons and discover their own inner person. But l'Arche can only continue to exist if some assistants stay and make their homes in the community and create covenant relationships with people with disabilities.
It is clear that l'Arche is counter-cultural. For many people in our rich societies, where one has to compete and be successful, to live with people who are weak and limited is foolish, even absurd. They are unable to accept the person behind the weakness. Yet the gospel message reveals that it is the so-called foolish and weak that God has chosen (1 Corinthians). It is those that society excludes who come to the wedding feast (Matthew 22; Luke 14). They have a special place in the heart of God. In all their weakness they can lead us to Jesus.
And so it is that the Gospel of John has helped me to give meaning to the "foolishness" of our lives. We need spirituality, spirit, priorities, motivation, and nourishment in order to live every day what appears to many as meaningless. We need also an anthropology and a theology which put words on what we are living. It is never easy to be constantly close to people who are weak and in pain, whose limits and handicaps are irremediable, and to be with them as friends. Assistants in l'Arche soon discover their own limits, vulnerability, and weaknesses, the places of violence, of fear, and of anguish within themselves. The Word of God in John allows them and helps them to enter the places of darkness and anguish within themselves so that they may enter into transformation. Maybe it is not possible to really enter into the full meaning of the Word of God without living anguish and yearning for transformation through the Spirit of God.
What does John tell us in his Gospel?
He tells us about the Word of God, who is God, who became flesh, became one of us; he pitched his tent amongst us, to enter into a relationship of trust with people. He came to seek people out, to meet them personally, to enter into a dialogue of communion with them and to liberate them from fear. It is through these personal encounters that people began to open their hearts and minds to Jesus and were transformed. Some people, however, refused to trust Jesus and rejected him in spite of the signs he provided. Many in our societies today reject people with disabilities, unable to see the person and his or her value underneath the handicap.
Let us go through the Gospel and see how Jesus meets and transforms people.
"Remain In My Love"
The first significant meeting in this Gospel is with two disciples of John the Baptist who leave him in order to follow Jesus, whom John had announced as the "Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1). Jesus turns around and asks them, "What are you looking for?" They answer: "Teacher, where do you live?" to which Jesus responds, "Come and see." So they went and saw and stayed with Jesus. After this first meeting with Jesus, Andrew, one of the two disciples, goes to find his brother Simon and tells him, "We have found the Messiah." The two disciples no longer see Jesus as a teacher but as the Christ, the Anointed One. They then want to remain with him, follow him, learn from him, and be transformed by him.
Their journey in trust and faith begins. Jesus leads the two men, and the three others who have also begun to follow him, to a wedding feast in Cana. The wedding feast is a sign of the wedding feast of love that Jesus is leading all of his disciples to—a union of love with God. We human beings are made for love, a love that flows from God, a love that transforms us and liberates us from all forms of violence and self-centredness.
Jesus's first mission is in Samaria. Tired, he sits down near the well of Jacob, meets a Samaritan woman who has come to draw water. She is a woman who must be in a lot of inner pain for she has lived five broken relationships. It is never easy to feel rejected, unloved, pushed aside. Her heart is probably filled with guilt and a feeling of worthlessness. Jesus enters into conversation with her, humbly asking her for some water to drink. He needs her. She is astonished, perplexed: How can a Jew speak to a Samaritan woman and ask for some water? Jews never spoke to Samaritans, let alone a Jewish man to a Samaritan woman! Jesus enters into a dialogue with her. She asks questions. Jesus answers, revealing little by little who he is. She begins to trust him and to realize that he must be a prophet. Then Jesus reveals to her that he is the Messiah, the one who reveals all things. She is deeply moved and runs off to tell people in the village that she has met a man who may be the Messiah. The love, humility, and goodness of Jesus have opened her heart.
In John 9, we see a blind beggar who is healed by Jesus. That is all he knows for certain: he was blind and now he can see. So for him Jesus must be a man sent by God. The religious authorities on the other hand are living in an ideology; they are unable to see and accept reality. They excommunicate the healed beggar. He meets Jesus again and kneels down and worships him and proclaims his trust and faith in Jesus.
The eleventh chapter reveals for the first time Jesus not only teaching people but loving three people who form a little family in Bethany: Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. There is clearly a deep intimacy between Jesus and this little family. Who is Lazarus? A man who never speaks. Luke's Gospel refers to the house in which they were living as "Martha's house": two unmarried sisters—strange for the Jewish society. Could Lazarus, called by his sisters "The one you love," be a man with severe disabilities? It seems quite possible.
"Menein," translated as "remain" or "dwell" or "abide," is an important word in John's Gospel. It is used thirty-five times, not just to designate remaining in a particular place, but above all to designate friendship. Jesus tells his disciple, "I no longer call you servants but I call you friends." To be a friend is to dwell in the heart of another. "Remain in my love" is to remain in Jesus. If we remain in Jesus, we will bear much fruit and give glory to God. The temple is God's dwelling place or home on this earth; we, his disciples, are called to become the dwelling place or home of God: "The person who loves me, will keep my words and my Father will love this person and we will come and dwell in this person." So it is that when we eat his body and drink his blood, Jesus dwells in us and we in him (John 6).
L'Arche is a place of friendship and of a communion of hearts, where we live covenant relationships together. It is not just about doing things for people with disabilities, but to be with them, to create a home with them. As we do this, we give meaning to their lives; we transform them but they also transform us.
Many Inner Deaths
A business man I know, who was used to doing "important" things, wrote to me recently. His wife had developed Alzheimer's disease. He decided not to put her in an institution but to continue to live with her, to "remain" with her.
He now bathes her and cares for her tenderly. He told me that his life had been completely changed. "I have become more human." As we care for people who are weak or in need, as we look after their bodily needs, we too in l'Arche discover that we are becoming more human. The Gospel of John gives us a spirituality that helps us to become more human.
Transformation from being a success in a society of competition to covenant and interpersonal relationships takes time. John's Gospel is a Gospel of transformation over time. It does not just reveal moments and events in the life of Jesus, but the journey that disciples of Jesus must make in order to become themselves as they grow in friendship with him. We need to move from seeing Jesus as a charismatic leader who does great things (signs), not only to becoming his disciples but his friends. This growth in friendship implies a growth in trust and in faith. We must gradually live as Jesus lived, love as he loved, and choose to become little and humble as Jesus was. This will imply many inner deaths. We have to let go of our psychological compulsions for success and power, even spiritual success and power, in order to live the very life of God which John calls "eternal life" (John 12). This life is his union with the Father. We are called to gradually become one with Jesus as he is one with the Father. The Gospel of John leads us to become men and women of contemplation—to be in communion with Jesus, to dwell in his love in order to dwell in the presence of the Father. "I have made known your name to them, and I make it known to them so that the love with which you love me, may be in them and I in them" (John 17:26).
John's Gospel reveals to us how our God of power came to reveal the foolishness and littleness of God as he seeks to live a communion of hearts with each one of us. We may admire and even fear people who have power, but we love those who show their littleness and even their need of us. At the end of this Gospel we see Jesus kneeling down humbly at the feet of each one of his disciples, washing their feet, in order that they may find trust in themselves, to raise them up to discover their mission, which is to continue the mission of the love of Jesus. We, too, in l'Arche are called to lower ourselves and wash the feet of people with disabilities, to help them to rise up in greater self-confidence and thus discover their mission in life. We are called to follow a path of littleness and vulnerability, and so discover our real self. Power frequently leads to loneliness whereas a humble life of service brings us to togetherness and unity. Our experience in l'Arche of the transformation of assistants and of people with disabilities helps us to understand the transformation Jesus offers us, just as the Word of God in John's Gospel sheds light on our own experience of transformation. Experience and the Word of God come together to enlighten each other and to enlighten our shared life in community.
Our experience with people who have been rejected and have a broken self-image helps us to understand this Samaritan woman. In order to rise up and find trust in themselves, people who suffer rejection need to meet someone who sees them as valuable.
At the beginning of this Gospel (John 3), Jesus reveals to Nicodemus that in order to enter into the kingdom of God, we must be born from on high, reborn of water and the Spirit. At the end (John 14—15), Jesus reveals that he and the Father will send us the "Paraclete," the Spirit of truth, who will be with us and transform us and lead us into the fullness of truth. To live our lives in l'Arche, to live this friendship with people with disabilities, we need to be reborn from on high, to receive the Paraclete, the Spirit of truth. L'Arche is a school of love—sometimes painful— where our own inner poverty and brokenness is revealed. In this school we also discover our own beauty, our capacity to love and give life to others and receive life from them. Our communities are called to be a little sign of the presence of God in our broken world today.