franciscan - May 2001
© The Society of Saint Francis, 2001
For some twenty years, I have volunteered at agencies catering to people with learning disabilities. It all started when I spent the first of many summers working in American camps for ‘mentally retarded’ children (as they were then labelled). There, I was put in charge of a non-verbal teenager called Phil who, most of the time, was bouncy, energetic and naughty (his pièce de resistance being to pull his trousers down in public, particularly when dignitaries were visiting).
But there was another side to Phil – a dark, agonised side – that found expression particularly at night, when he would scream tortured screams and thrash about wildly while I tried to soothe and comfort him. I was deeply affected by the rawness and intimacy of our summer-long relationship, and although intangible, I am sure our inter-dependence helped me become aware of my utter need of God, and of a deep, gut-based desire to serve God, possibly in some professional capacity. Well, two decades on, and here I am, the dew of ordination still on my cheeks, embarking on my professional clerical career.
I’ve continued to work with people with learning disabilities, most recently during my studies at Oxford as an assistant at a L’Arche community in Inverness. Started by Jean Vanier in France in the 1960s, there are now dozens of L’Arche communities around the globe – communities that are founded on the Beatitudes, and dedicated to shared living with the poorest and most vulnerable people in society.
For two months, I lived alongside a group of core-members: working with them in their workshops, worshipping with
them in their chapel, sharing in their joys and struggles. And as I make the first tentative steps in my new profession,
I am aware that my understanding of ministry is indelibly informed by an ‘ethic of L’Arche.’ Three aspects of
this L’Arche ethic that seem particularly pertinent to my current situation are those of status, efficiency and
At L’Arche, status is for the birds. No-one is particularly impressed or interested by what you are or what you do when not at the community. Academic achievements, financial ‘success’, or positions of authority in society, are of little consequence. It’s here and now that matters. Jean Vanier has stated that ‘Power is the greatest seduction, and the only answer is to be powerless.’ On the face of it, just being with a L’Arche core-member might seem to be of such little consequence, but as Vanier reminds us, ‘To be with the poor is our greatest strength ... it’s through the littleness that the power of God is manifest.’
As I stroll around the parish in my new clerical outfit, acknowledging the nods of recognition from local people,
I am acutely aware that I am here to serve, and not to expect respect. L’Arche has impressed upon me the need
to confer dignity equally upon everyone, and that of far greater import than what I wear is who I am now, and what
I do now, and how I do it.
The pressure upon clergy, as upon most professionals, to be efficient is considerable. There are just so many people to visit, so many sermons to write, so many projects to tackle, so many discussions and meetings to attend. At college, we learned about clergy stress and burn-out and how to avoid them. Despite that, I recognise that I have already fallen prey to a self-imposed work ethic that puts too many demands on my time, and prevents me from spending enough time with my family and in prayer or study. My diary may be full, but is that necessarily a good thing?
At L’Arche Inverness, there was always something going on. Amidst all the activity, however, we were not only
encouraged to spend time helping and nurturing each other but also to give ourselves the chance to catch our breath
and regain our energies. Such time and space to cater to our own and each other’s needs is not a privilege, but
a necessity. I am conscious how easy it is to sacrifice that necessity on the altar of efficiency. L’Arche communities
teach us to manage time and not to allow time to manage us.
In his work The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen describes hospitality as a central attitude of any minister who ‘wants to make their own wounded condition available to others as a source of healing. A minister,’ Nouwen continues, ‘is not a doctor whose primary task is to take away pain. Rather, a minister deepens the pain to a level where it can be shared.’
L’Arche communities, and especially their core-members, are hospitality experts. Assistants come and go, sometimes at an alarming rate, yet all are made so welcome, however long they stay. L’Arche, however, is also a place where pain as well as friendship is shared. And this sharing of pain, Nouwen reminds us, ‘is no longer paralyzing but mobilizing, when understood as a way to liberation, when we understand that we do not have to escape our pains, but that we can mobilize them into a common search for life.’ I want to carry that spirit of hospitality into my ministry, however it unfolds. I want to develop a ministry that risks being vulnerable to enable those very pains to be ‘transformed from expressions of despair into signs of hope.’
The Anglican priest Ian Cohen has written of the ‘priestly vocation’ of people with learning disabilities. Using the biblical theme of ‘resident alien’ he suggests their vocation is to ‘embody the soul of the stranger, so imaging God. Thus relationship with anyone who has [learning] disabilities enhances our relationship with God.’ From the teachings of Phil in America, all those years ago, to my friends at L’Arche Inverness, I recognise how people with learning disabilities have ministered to me, and have given me strength, resolve and purpose as my priestly vocation unfolds. I recognise how they encapsulate that paradox to which Saint Paul so often refers in his letters: that somehow, God’s power is fulfilled and made complete in inability. f
Robert Easton is the curate at Saint Mary’s Church, Stoke Newington, in London.
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