11 September 2017 16:30 | Bezirksregierung Muenster, Freiherr-vom-Stein-Saal
Speech of Stephen Conway
One of the most decisive elements of my formation for the priesthood at the seminary was being sent each week to spend a day with a group of young people who lived with significant intellectual and physical challenges, some with cerebral palsy and many with Downs Syndrome. During that same period, I spent a sustained period on an acute ward in the neighbouring mental hospital where I mixed with patients without any distinction or protection of a badge or formal role. I was just one among them. I quickly learned that I was the main beneficiary of this engagement. St Paul was told by the Lord “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12.9) I learned this as I experienced the unconditional love and joy of those considered the weakest in our society and as I witnessed the courage and insight of people with severe and enduring mental illness, for whom getting out of bed was itself a triumph. Most human hierarchies are founded on the principle that almost everyone has someone at least to look down on. In my part of the world that would still be homeless people living with mental illness. I rejoice in the paradox that people identified as those who are most disordered are often the agents of God in turning the world the right way up. Only servant leaders are effective peace-builders.
It is because of what those young people taught me about our shared humanity in God’s image that I am now one of the church leaders of L’Arche International and in the UK. In 1964 Jean Vanier co-founded the first L’Arche community at Troilly in France with two men with learning difficulties whom Jean released from institutional care. When he received the British Templeton Prize in 2014 he spoke clearly that his life among differently abled people in his community has taught him how to be human. Vanier is also certain that we distort what is ‘normal’ when it actually describes our greed and violence and ambition. We have forgotten how to live and love generously and spontaneously. Vanier has said that the traits of inclusivity and civility exemplified at L’Arche are important to us all, not just people who are developmentally disabled. “Many young people, disillusioned in the face of societies built for winners, take to drugs and alcohol because of their sense of not making it,” he said. “We risk moving towards a philosophy of a perfect race, instead of welcoming the poorest and weakest among us, who transform us.”
The prophetic paradox by which we need to re-learn how to be human from those who are automatically dependent upon the care of others is that we are never truly human when we are autonomous and powerful. People who rely on others for their survival and flourishing and who rely on their interdependence with others are the people who are most alive. This is what St Irenaeus described in the second century: “The glory of God is humanity fully alive.” Our societies abuse the language of choice as though my individual choice were paramount to assert my identity. Actually, when one looks for the language of choice in the Bible, there is hardly any mention of individual choice: the language is primarily about being chosen. Our identity is a gift of God in creation, the perfect expression of God’s will in and for our lives. Life and identity are not infinitely malleable. We need to learn from the virtues of the given life – steadfastness, patience, hope and, above all, love which in unstinting, immediate and often refined by suffering. There are now non-invasive prenatal tests which could over time remove choice by an increase in the number of abortions because of fear of disability. This will particularly affect the numbers of people with Downs Syndrome, a condition which is not a danger at birth nor life-shortening for most. I do not want to wish pain or suffering on anybody; but the presence of the weak, including our frail elderly, is not a matter of shame but an invitation to embrace the given-ness of our identity as a human being wrapped in the tenderness of God; and a challenge for communities and societies radically to embrace mercy and love.
We are reflecting on the Path of Peace. Peace has not been achieved if it is just a stand-off between evenly-matched aggressors. Peace can only grow out of mutual vulnerability. I believe passionately that disabled people and those who live with severe and enduring mental illnesses have much to teach us about living in the truth and working for inclusion and genuine diversity. So many contemporary human ideologies seek a tidy but coercive uniformity when any rich contact with those whom society usually show us that real peace is found when we rejoice in diversity and difference, including physical and intellectual ability. The Australian novelist, Morris West, wrote a series of novels about fictional popes and in The Clowns of God the Lord spares the world from an immediate end for its sins; and the token or sign of his transforming love for us was a little girl with Downs Syndrome. When powerful human beings begin striking deals and even start carving up continents, we all forget that God is more likely to be found at the edge where the weak and the poor are, than at the centres of human power and prestige.
I see much contemporary corroboration of the evidence from the Gospels that Jesus had a special relationship with people who were deemed mad. The crowds gathered primarily because of his reputation as an exorcist and healer. And it was the mad people, like Legion and others, who first knew who Jesus was. “Son of God”, they shouted, “Have you come to torment us before our time”? But he brought not torment, but release and healing. Among these people, we are told that Jesus had healed Mary of Magdala, who had been released of seven devils.
At first sight, this seems like an inauspicious beginning for the resurrection witness to the apostles. Here was someone who had been locked in another world, and yet she is clearly a trusted friend. Not so long ago, I confirmed a couple who both live with lasting mental ill-health. One of them offered his testimony. He joked that, having been locked in secure hospitals twenty-eight times, he was glad that at last his religious delusions were being taken seriously. He spoke with authority about the transforming presence of Christ. My encounters with people who live with severe depression or psychotic illness have taught me that people who live metaphorically with fewer layers of skin than other people can be eloquent witnesses to the depths of God and to the power of new life in dark places of crucifixion. Such people have been decisive witnesses in my life.
There is a strong tradition that Mary Magdalene escaped persecution in Palestine and came to southern Gaul where she first had a ministry as an evangelist, sharing her experience of Jesus and her testimony to his resurrection. Like many apostolic saints, we are told that she spent her last years in prayer and reparation in a cave. When the renaissance sculptor, Donatello, was in his seventies he carved some studies in age, among them a carving of an aged Mary Magdalene. He was clearly working from the same traditions of her later life. She is depicted as an ascetic and hermit. She is haggard and it is impossible to know where her rags and wild hair overlap. Every spiritual battle is written there in the plain wood of her face. The wonderful discovery, however, is that the careful restoration of the statue a few years revealed that Donatello had used the finest gold leaf to signify a life shot through with glory. This is us, too, as we begin to see more clearly the glory with which the world is shot through.
Mary Magdalene discovered that she need no longer be defined as a person by the isolation of her illness aggravated by other peoples’ opinions. Vanier writes: “Mary does represent each one of us. Like her, we run here and there frantically, each one of us alone, feeling empty, wailing and weeping for a key to peace, seeking a dead body, a Jesus who lived some two thousand years ago. Then Jesus, whom she seeks, finds her and calls her by name. So, too, each of us is waiting to be found and called by name.” (Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John, chapter 25)
When Mary meets Jesus in the Garden, the two things which are recognisable about him are his voice and his wounds. If Jesus is recognisable by his scars, perhaps it is also true that we shall be very different in our resurrection bodies, too, but still recognisably ourselves in our scars. We Christians can so easily live the Resurrection intellectually and believe in our heads that it is all true, but somehow not believe in our hearts that all can be forgiven and all can ultimately be healed in our lives. Well, just think what it might be like to be recognisable by the sign of the healing of every single hurt we have ever known.
True peace and reconciliation is in fact a participation in the life of heaven in the here-and-now. The image of L’Arche is, obviously, a boat, but a boat with people aboard together. Peace in hearts, homes communities and nations comes from the relentless pursuit of conversation and the absolute commitment to making oneself vulnerable to the other through listening. In L’Arche communities paying attention to one another is a profound gift. At last year’s World Communication Day, the message from Pope Francis was: “Listening means paying attention, wanting to understand, to value, to respect and to ponder what the other person says. Knowing how to listen is an immense grace, it is a gift which we need to ask for and then make every effort to practice”. In the L’Arche boat we set off together as a prophetic community of many religious traditions and a great diversity of gifts and strengths. In communities on the paths of peace no one wins at the expense of others. A never defeats B, but both are taken to a new place of transformation, P, often via Z. As people of faith, we live in hope because we trust in our just and loving Creator and we stand on the shoulders of all those whom we revere as the holy ones who have gone before us. Many of them we would designate today as weak and even mad. The prophets Ezekiel, Isaiah and Hosea all exhibited unconventional behaviours. St Francis of Assisi was terrified of leprosy, yet embraced a leper only to find that he had met the Lord. In Shakespeare’s play King Lear, the king’s only constant friend is the Fool. It is he who speaks wisdom to the worldly monarch and at the last he is hanged for his devotion. Lear himself only finds redemption when he goes mad. Donatello’s statue has Mary Magdalene on the front foot. All that she has been through and endured is not holding her back. She is still ready to respond to the voice of Jesus calling her by name. She knows that God may well call us to be broken, but never to be destroyed. He has called us by name and made us his own.