Each time we pray the Our Father, we say “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”. With all the recent news of violence in our world, it is easy to lose Hope, that this prayer will ever be answered! Someone recently shared with me a link to an interview with Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche community, which cares for severely “disabled” persons. The interview has reminded me of why I became a Franciscan, and how even 800 years ago, St. Francis lived in a way that still speaks profoundly today, and teaches us all how to still have hope that God’s will can be done, and His Kingdom can still come through our living the Gospel, until of course, He comes at the end of time. Today many are proposing various policies and strategies to stop the violence, and the hate. Just and loving policies can help, but ultimately, policies will never solve our societal problems. The only lasting solution to our social problems, and the only true peace, will come only with the transformation of human hearts. The transformation of hearts is what Jesus did 2,000 years ago to begin the church. It is what God did through St. Francis 800 years ago. It is what God, and Pope Francis (especially by proclaiming the year of Mercy) is calling us to do today!
A vocation prospect I am working with, recently shared with me a link to an interview with Jean Vanier. As I listened to the interview, I was reminded of the event in the life of St. Francis, when he underwent a profound conversion of his heart, in the embrace of a leper. I newly saw the genius of St. Francis’ embrace of the leper, and the care of lepers by the early Franciscans, and how it offers a solution to violence and most of our societal problems, and has much to teach us ESPECIALLY today! Jean Vanier shares that the reason he founded the L’Arche community 50 years ago, was because of a discovery he made, that disabled people can teach us all how to live together in harmony. As I listened to the interview, I realized that this was exactly the same discovery St. Francis made when he encountered the leper, and why he and the early friars spent much of their time, caring for lepers. Jean explained it this way. All humans have a most basic desire to be loved, to be valued and accepted. But our society has so evolved to teach that to be loved, valued and accepted, you must be; beautiful, successful and strong. Because of this, the disabled, elderly, poor, anyone who is “in the margins” will constantly get the message, they are not valued, loved, and not worthy. It is hard not to internalize this message, and so it can leave a huge emptiness, or wound. However, Jean Vanier and St. Francis, realized that this wound, as bad as it is, is not the greatest damage this false belief causes! The real damage of this belief is not as much with the outcasts of our society (for Jean Vanier the handicapped, or for Francis the leper) but rather, the deeper wound (or disease) is in those who the world deems as “successful”, “beautiful”, “valuable”, “acceptable” or “healthy”! “The healthy” live under tremendous pressure and fear to remain beautiful, strong and successful, so as to remain being valued and accepted. This ultimately is an impossible task, and subconsciously we all know it. Most of us live under tremendous fear that one day we will fail, or get sick or old, or fall out of favor, and then we will no longer be loved, accepted, valuable. The result of all this, is we have a society of mostly broken and fearful people, reacting defensively to keep what we have, competing with one another to be successful and strong, without inner peace or joy. This competition and fear is often acted out in corruption, violence, addiction, and more. But more importantly this inner fear and brokenness shapes our overall social conditions and perpetuates a culture where people have value based on what they do, not simply because they are human. This creates a culture, and social systems, where people are objects to be used and manipulated for greater profit, and utility. We lose the value of human life, and violence and usury become acceptable, even necessary, means to our own ends, which results in the broken, violent and fearful society we find ourselves in.
St. Francis and Jean Vanier both see the solution, or antidote to this way of living, in the direct care offered to the outcast. They suggest that the poor, sick, and outcasts of our societies have much to teach us, and that perhaps God allows such suffering and disease to teach us all, what it means to be truly human, and to live according to that truth. The poor and outcast challenge us to love one another simply because they are human. They can teach us how to create loving communities where people feel loved, valued and accepted for who they are, and not what they do. From this environment, people can live free of fear, not frantically trying to prove themselves, and hence live generously with self-confidence, inner peace, and then to strive to live in harmony and outer peace, and contribute to the community, each in the capacity they are able. In short, directly serving the poor and outcasts of our society teaches us to slow down and pay attention to what is really important about being human. Jean Vanier gives the following example of how we “healthy” people so easily miss this point. Jean was visited at his ministry for the disabled one day by an old work colleague (a professor I believe) who admired his work and change of life, and so had come to visit. Not knowing Jean was in a meeting, one of the “handicapped” residents where Jean worked, Jean-Claude walked into his office. He happened to have been laughing when he walked in. When he noticed Jean was occupied, he simply greeted each person, and walked out, still laughing. Jean’s former colleague turned to him and said, ‘It is sad that a young man like that is so severely disabled.’ Jean, in the interview remarks, ‘What was sad was not that Jean-Claude was disabled, but that my former colleague was unable to recognize that Jean-Claude was happy’!
St. Francis, in his testament before death, describes his conversion this way; “When I was in sin, the sight of lepers nauseated me beyond measure; but then God himself led me into their company, and I had pity on them. When I had once become acquainted with them, what had previously nauseated me became a source of spiritual and physical consolation for me. After that I did not wait long before leaving the world.” Francis, who was born into a wealthy merchant class family and being brought up to work in his father’s business, found in his encounter with lepers the meaning of being human. He found that because he was human, God loved him. Further, he discerned that God also became human, and can be encountered in all humans, and when we serve one another, we serve Christ, and hence the purpose of being human is to Love God, and Love God by loving others, including all of God’s creation. Francis so embodied this insight that he called all persons, and even all creatures of our God and King, “Brother”, and “Sister”.
St. Francis and Jean Vanier have both seen that by our learning how to care for the poor and outcast, all of us can learn how to live better, in harmony and peace, and we can learn what it truly means to be human. Francis and Franciscans serve the “lepers” of our society, not only for what we give them, but also for what they give us!
Join us on our next Come and See to learn more about the Franciscan way of life! Listen to the interview with Jean Vanier here.