Offered by Beth Barsotti on September 29, 2019
On a retreat during my senior year of college one of the directors named Cindy Rose was setting up the theme for the day. Cindy Rose was part of the L’Arche community in Tacoma, WA. Cindy Rose walked into the home one day and Eileen, one of the adults with intellectual disabilities, walked up to her and said Cindy Rose, I love you. Cindy graciously thanked Eileen and intended to go about her business. Eileen said it again, “Cindy Rose, I love you.” Cindy Rose stopped, thanked Eileen and began to step away. Again, “Cindy Rose, I love you.” “Cindy Rose, I love you.” Eileen said it again…she said it until Cindy Rose heard the message and tears formed in her eyes–You are loved.
While this story is unique to Cindy Rose and Eileen, it reveals a lot about the way of life in L’Arche. Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, was a man with many gifts. From the outside he appeared to be successful in almost everything he did. He joined the Royal Navy at age 13, he earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy, he taught at a university to full classes of students. Yet, he felt a desire for something different than what society deemed as “success.” He was raised in a Catholic home and was a man of deep faith. He simply desired to be a friend of Jesus. In his searching, his mom introduced him to a priest in France who, at the time (the 1960s), worked in a small institution for people with intellectual disabilities. Jean visited him and saw the deplorable conditions in the institution. Yet, when encountering the men in the institution, he heard something. He heard a cry for relationship. “Do you love me?” “Do you want to be my friend?” This resonated within Jean. It was the cry Jean heard from Jesus in the Gospels–do you love me? Will you be my friend? The men wanted to be seen and loved.
Then, in 1964, he moved from Canada to France and in an irreversible act invited three men from the institution (including Raphael and Philippe) to share life with him in the spirit of the Beatitudes. Jean responded to Jesus’s invitation to a distinct way of life; to live in the spirit of the Beatitudes.
In our text today from the Gospel of Matthew we hear “when he saw the crowds, he went up the mountain.” Jesus went up the mountain not to get away, but instead the mountain conveys to us something important is going to be revealed like with Moses on Mount Sinai. Jesus sat down (a posture of a teacher), the disciples came to him, and he shared a vision for a world that was different than what they (or you or I) might expect.
Blessed are those who are meek–whose whole drive is not to get ahead of their neighbors. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness–who seek to bring about God’s desires here on earth. Blessed are those who are merciful–who exercise mercy rather than taking advantage of a person in a more vulnerable position. Blessed are the pure of heart–those who live with integrity. Blessed are the peacemakers–those who actively seek unity and celebrate diversity. Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of living a “right way of life.” The Beatitudes are a challenge to our western way of life. More than a list of things to do and not do–they reflect an approach or attitude reflective of the vision of God.
Yet, we do not need to look far or hardly open the paper or turn on the radio to hear the disparity between the rich and the poor, the treatment of people based on the color of their skin, their abilities, education, or background. We are taught to be in competition with our neighbors, to value production and the bottom line over people, and that weakness and vulnerability are to be avoided at all costs. Underlying so much of this division in our world is our fear of what is different.
A practical question arises–What does it look like to live in the spirit of the Beatitudes in a world punctuated by so much division?
Prior to visiting the institution in France, Jean Vanier experienced fear and walls of separation. He was worried about how he might talk with people who may not speak, what to say, or even how he was going to respond in the new situation. Fear alone is not the problem; it is how we respond to it. Jean’s response was to draw close in friendship.
For Jean, living in the spirit of the Beatitudes means responding to Jesus’s invitation by building a community centered on relationships of mutuality, where “the weak and the strong, the rich and the poor would be brought together in community and find peace.”
Friendship—Growth in Mutuality
The Beatitudes mark for us a different way of living where those who mourn, who exercise mercy, are pure of heart, and are peacemakers are understood to be blessed. This way of life is only possible if the walls of separation between the strong and weak are dismantled.
The walls do not necessarily come down immediately. Vanier upon his first visit to the institution, would tell us that he believed in love, and yet at the time for him, love was understood to be generosity. However, through sharing life in L’Arche, he gradually grew to understand love quite differently—he began to realize that through vulnerability and in opening his heart to those who were excluded (not just acts of generosity), he was able to experience the giftedness of his housemates and truly begin to reveal to them their belovedness. His witness invites us to live in the spirit of the Beatitudes by entering into relationships of mutuality and building communities with the most vulnerable at the center.
Over a year into my own life in L’Arche, Walton (one of the core members—in L’Arche language we say core because the people with intellectual disabilities are at the heart of the community) and I had an errand to run. We journeyed to the downtown DMV (one step of many to get a handicapped parking permit). Through a series of frustrating events, we left without what we needed and I was dismayed and on the verge of tears. We got to the parking garage and we were 3 minutes into the next hour and had to pay extra. I started to cry. Waltico, sitting in the passenger seat in the van rummaging through his bag of pens looked over at me and said, “Qué pasa?” (Spanish is his native language.) His simple question wondering what was wrong, startled me.
While I loved Walton, on some level I remained in the role of a “generous care-giver” and had not truly entered into a relationship of mutuality. With a simple “¿Qué pasa?” Walton invited me to be a friend, to break down the walls that remained. In the words of Jean Vanier, “[w]hen I become your friend, I become vulnerable to you…In some mysterious way, friendship is the beginning of a covenant whereby we are all tied to each other. You have to know that once you become the friend of someone with disabilities, much of your life begins to change.”
A theology professor once told me that God’s hand is always outstretched offering friendship. And, when we are ready, we can meet that outstretched hand with our “yes” to the offer of friendship. Walton embodied that outstretched hand, whether it was his actual hand or whether it was the gentleness in which he invited me into relationship.
Mutual relationships enable us to gradually take down the walls that separate the “strong” from the “weak” and allow us to truly see the giftedness and value of each person. It is in saying “yes” to mutual relationships with the vulnerable people in the community that one’s heart is opened, and the spirit of the Beatitudes take shape. In opening one’s heart…
- to Eileen who insists you hear the message, “I love you”;
- to the men in the institution who communicated the same question of Jesus, “Do you love me?” “Will you be my friend?”
- to Walton who says, “¿Qué pasa?”
How do we live the
spirit of the Beatitudes in a world marked by so much division? We enter into
relationships of mutuality with the people who are pushed aside in society, who
are deemed weak, vulnerable, meek, poor in spirit because in fact, they are
the very people who will lead the community to live in the spirit of the
 Brendan Byrne, SJ, “Matthew,” in The Paulist Biblical Commentary, ed. editor José Enrique Aguilar Chiu contributor et al. (Paulist Press, 2018), 900–971.
 Stanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier, Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness, Resources for Reconciliation (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books, 2008), 25–26.
 Vanier, We Need Each Other, 53-54.