Claudia hails from Honduras. She was born blind and autistic, then abandoned as a child. She found herself in the ‘L’Arche’ (The Ark like Noah’s Ark) – these are homes created by the Canadian Jean Vanier for people who have developmental disabilities.
During her first year she was visibly disturbed. She would spend hours just screaming aloud. Now she is more peaceful. One day, Jean found her walking around in the yard, smiling and singing to herself. “Why are you so happy?” Jean asked her. Her answer was a one syllable word. “Dios (God)”, she replied! This young girl, who had been abandoned by her family, has discovered that God fancies her!
We all need to be loved. The mystery of the Gospel is that God became man and died on a cross to entrench in us this certainty that whatever we do or whoever we are, He loves us.
In his book ‘Befriending The Stranger’, Jean Vanier recounts this amazing story. “In our community in Bouake (Ivory Coast) we welcomed Innocente, a young girl who became a source of life and great joy for the community. She had been dumped as a child, left to die in the bush. She could have been bitten by a snake or killed by a wild animal but somebody saw her there, picked her up and took her to a local orphanage.
When she arrived at the orphanage she was like a skeleton; she was dying. Innocente survived all that, and the orphanage later asked us to welcome her. She was still quite small at the time and we knew that she would never be able to walk or talk. We could never quite understand what she was thinking, but whenever anyone came near her and spoke to her, her whole face would light up.
She had an exceptional beauty. She was completely incapable of judging or condemning anyone. She was too fragile and weak to judge anyone. But if people did not pay attention to her, she would feel hurt.
One day while I was looking at her, I thought to myself, Jesus must be a bit like that: neither judging nor condemning but terribly wounded if we do not come close to him.”
I found this very powerful. A good number of people do not care about God. Others are afraid to approach him because they believe He may ask something of them that they cannot do or do not want to do. I was disturbed and hurt when in the Editorial of a local magazine in Guam, Catholicism was presented as the religion that ‘perfected guilt’ – a comment ‘to which my [Jewish] friend laughed and admitted that I was right’.
So many misconceptions, perhaps created by ourselves. God is not the One who enjoys accusing and punishing. God is not there to force us to do things that we do not want to do. A God who has a knack of taking away from us what we love or who is always demanding is a false god. As Jean Vanier says in this same book, “God knows our basic fears, our fear of not being loved … even our fear of being loved.” He loves us just as we are and wants to reveal how deeply he respects us.
A woman had a serious alcoholic problem; she would go through periods of abstinence and then fall back into drinking. She went to listen to Jean Vanier and after the talk approached him, “Now I understand. There are two women living inside me. The one who drinks and the one who, when she is not drinking, refuses to look at the wounded part of me as if it was too dirty for God to love. I deny that that part exists and I only speak to God about the bright side of me. I understand now that I have to let God meet the wounded, broken woman inside of me and let him enter into all the dirt inside me.”
Jesus did not come to condemn, He came to give life.
Helen is now dead. She arrived at the L’Arche when she was fifteen. Up to that time she had spent her whole life in hospital in the Philippines. She was blind, unable to walk, to talk or to use her hands. Communication was difficult. One of the girls, Keiko, was assigned to take care of her, a job that was not easy because Helen never responded to anything. All she could do was open her mouth for the baby feeding bottle.
Jean encouraged her to continue gently spending time with Helen, talking to her, touching her and holding her tenderly. He reassured her that God willing, Helen will one day smile and on that day she should send him a postcard.
Months later, Jean did receive a card from Manila that just said on the back, “Helen smiled today”. A trickle of life had entered into Helen. She had begun to trust.
“Growth begins when we begin to accept our own weakness.” These words of Jean Vanier are a gem of wisdom. Many of us have always hated our weaknesses and tried to hide or fight against them. Perhaps it is time to start looking at them from a different angle. The angle of God!
(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.