Friendship makes demands and none more so than making a meaningful relationship with someone who has a learning disability

I have just read the interview with Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, in the Herald last week. By coincidence, I have been reading a book about the spiritual meaning behind L’Arche by the late, well-known, spiritual author Henri Nouwen, called “Adam: God’s Beloved”, recently published by Darton, Longman and Todd. As readers of the interview will know, L’Arch is an organisation where adults with learning disabilities live in small communities alongside their carers. The crucial aspect of these communities is that they are about building relationships of love and trust; they are not institutions where “handicapped” people are “cared for” by professional staff.

It is so important to emphasise this aspect of the “message” of L’Arche. Christians are called to be friends of Christ and thus friends with one another. We are not called merely to be colleagues, carers, acquaintances or associates. Friendship makes demands – and none more so than making a meaningful relationship with someone who has a learning disability. Yet, as Christians, we know that no event or experience that is seemingly a tragedy is ever random or ill-luck or merely the cruel twist of fate. We know that all things work to the good of those who love God, as St Paul tells us.

The witness of communities like L’Arche is a profound and necessary one for our world today, especially in the West where it is very easy (even fatally easy) to think of the sick, the elderly and the vulnerable as somehow having lives that are not useful or worthwhile. From this attitude it is only a small step to wanting to help people die prematurely and before their time, because they have a terminal illness or for other, less defined reasons, such as mental illness or depression.

People who look at seemingly broken bodies in wheelchairs might, without thinking deeply about the matter, feel they would be “better off dead”. It is this response of sympathetic despair that L’Arche seeks to combat – by showing that however damaged a person’s mind or body may be, there is always the possibility of relationship with him or her: a relationship that in an extraordinary and inexplicable way, will change the “normal” person and bring them to a deeper understanding of what life is really about.

Henri Nouwen discovered this. A famous priest, academic, writer and communicator, he knew there was something fundamental missing in his life. His faith and his priestly vocation had not brought him inner peace. So he made the life-changing decision to leave the world of lecture halls and academic success and to live as the chaplain in “Daybreak”, the L’Arche house in Ontario, Canada. He was also given the task of caring for Adam, a man with severe epilepsy as well as physical and learning disabilities, every morning: washing him, shaving him, feeding him and preparing him for the day ahead.

At first he felt helpless and inadequate. Very slowly he came to understand that Adam was “my friend, my teacher and my guide.” Their daily two hours together slowly transformed the restless intellectual into someone humbler, more authentic and less the captive of his public persona. Finally Nouwen was able to state with sincerity, “We were friends, brothers bonded in our hearts” – and this with a man who was completely helpless and who never spoke to him or communicated in any normal way.

It is an extraordinary story, well worth reading and pondering. As Jean Vanier pointed out in the interview, “St Paul says that God has chosen what is weak and foolish to confound the intellectuals and the powerful…The Church frequently intellectualises faith. But to love is to let the other rest in your heart…The whole vision of Jesus is there: to live in us as we live in him.”