It is, as my Grandad once told us in a phone call home from his holidays, like “The Riveera” here. The sun is shining and we can almost entertain the possibility of summer. Hurrah.
I wanted to use this space this week to draw attention to the life of Jean Vanier. In contrast to last week’s news about Rachel Held Evans, this is more of a celebration of a life rather than the wrench of the loss of a young wife and mother. Jean Vanier had had what my grandad would have called “A Good Innings” This is true, partly because ninety years old is probably more than enough for anyone and also because his life’s work falls fairly and squarely in the category “good”.
Vanier famously visited a psychiatric ward and was appalled by the treatment of the patients there.
“I visited homes and discovered a world of vast suffering that I had been totally ignorant of. In the navy, I had been in a world of efficiency; through my studies, I was in the world of intellect. And then I found myself faced by a world of ‘the cry’ and that has turned my life upside down.”
He began to live with people with intellectual difficulties – not as a carer so much as a friend. This change of perspective – treating all equally and recognising the value of all people – was revolutionary. It is an attitude that reflects directly the approach of Jesus and led to L’Arch (or Ark) communities being set up all over the world.
I think that the current slow but sure changes that we are seeing in attitudes to people with disabilities and also their own sense of place in the world is rooted in the work of Jean Vanier.
So how does it work out in practice? My chances of leaving everyone and going to live a simple life in an Ark Community are slim. But little thoughts and changes where we are now can make a difference. When I am shopping at lunch and cannot cruise through M and S at my preferred speed because an old lady in front of me does not seem to be in full control of her walking frame, I can become impatient. When that happens, it helps to ask myself – what right did I have to set the walking speed to 100 mph and maybe it is me that is out of step? Or, if I have to repeat myself because someone can’t hear me or if someone in a wheelchair gets to jump the queue because they can’t actually fit their chair down the till isle. We need to see these as necessary adjustments, not favours.
The challenges are there for all of us every day. When Aged Parent decided that 5.45 am was a perfectly acceptable time to take round a friend’s birthday card. (“I wanted to catch her before she went out for lunch”) I am grateful that her friend gracefully decided that her response was to say “Thank-you”, then inform Aged Parent that Jesus loved her and then celebrate that fact with a rousing chorus of “When the roll is called up yonder”. (I am, unfortunately, unable to furnish you with the neighbours’ reaction at this point)
On the flip side, necessary adjustments do not mean accepting a phone call where someone shouts “I’m disabled! You better find a seat for me on your ****** buses or else!” Nor should physical violence to people who are trying to help be acceptable. I am also reliably informed by medical people that patients who have issues with the appropriate nature of certain Anglo Saxon words are always politely but firmly called out on it. (Even when everyone is sniggering because they have no idea how Nana ever even heard that word.)
Christianity does not escape unscathed. I have worked at a couple of churches where there wasn’t a lift to go to the second floor and it wasn’t considered a priority. I think that kind of attitude is on the way out now. (Please don’t write in with loads of “I think you’ll find it isn’t” stories – I know there is a very long way to go with this.) Vanier’s attitude – informed first and foremost by his understanding of the teachings of Jesus, is an example and a challenge. I’ll be honest, I’m a bit of a ratbag and I’m not sure I’m always up to it. The problem is – I don’t think I’m supposed to have a choice.