Jean Vanier and Wilderness

I would like to share from an essay recently published by Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche communities, entitled “From Wilderness Towards Home.” (The editors of the Christian Century have just opined, “If Jean Vanier is not a saint, no one is.”) Many of us have not encountered wilderness in nature – perhaps we are already thinking of the prepackaged “wilderness” of theaters or theme parks, but Vanier wishes us to think of the hostility of an existential wilderness. “It is a place where we feel unwanted and we are increasingly submerged in fear and loneliness, unsure of our identity. Wilderness is a place of chaos, empty of affection and peace.” This might be more familiar.

Children are especially vulnerable to this wilderness. The elderly are often susceptible to feeling useless and unwanted, left lonely in depression. But even if we do not belong to these two groups, we might still find ourselves in this place of chaos. After all, as Vanier reminds us, we are not made of steel – “our bodies are constituted mainly of liquid.” “Our deepest hurts come when the heart is wounded, when we feel ignored, rejected, and put aside.” And so, Vanier continues, “We then fall into depression and neurosis and hide behind interior barriers that protect us; we refuse to live in reality.” But, despite our inclinations, we should not try to escape our weakness – our liquidity – by trying to become completely secure and self-sufficient, by vainly filling our emptiness with material objects, or through ultimately destructive obsessions. This is all deeply unreal. It leads us further into the wilderness. Our weakness must open us to sharing and friendship and compassion.

This is to say that love is the only path out of the wilderness. But love is neither easy nor obvious. It isn’t a matter of emotion or sentimentality. Very few of us, I suppose, can even begin to say that we are in full control of our emotions, and we often find ourselves idealizing someone only to suddenly and sometimes inexplicably fall into very bitter disappointment. Also, what we imagine to be love might actually prevent us from discovering our true selves, as we are really clinging in fear to the wishes of a parent or spouse in the psychological imprisonment of what Vanier calls “fusional love.” Finally, we are aware of the fragility of many relationships that seemed to be so clearly and beautifully love, but soon collapsed with the exposure of imperfections and self-doubt into anger and condemnations. What does Vanier mean by love? Love must be a matter of being attentive to another person, listening to them and understanding their needs. “To love is to leave our own self-centred reality in order to perceive the needs of another.”

The absence of this love is truly destructive. Vanier has seen this in children with disabilities whose parents could not hide their disappointment.Vanier describes the howling wilderness that grows in this darkness:

The inner chaos of some people is so powerful that they are obliged to hide it behind strong walls around their heart, like the man I met in a Montreal prison who had been condemned to death for murder. I do not remember what we talked about together. All I remember is the terrible unease I felt in his presence. I have never met anyone so devoid of any emotion in his eyes and body. He was like a huge block of ice, totally closed off from the reality around him and the reality of his own heart or emotions; he was hermetically sealed off. He was obviously a very dangerous man who had to be in prison. Yet, I could imagine how he had arrived at that point. Perhaps he had been unwanted from the start of his life in the womb of his mother. He had probably been hurt, physically and maybe even sexually, as a child, treated more like a thing than as a person. Gradually, he also began treating others as things. If he had to hide and defend himself from the violence and hatred of his parents, how could he begin to trust adults? His deepest self and his capacity to love and respect others had been buried under all the pain and chaos that he had lived. To survive he had to develop his own force in order to beat down anyone who might threaten him. And the chaos that developed within him eventually made him a source of chaos around him.

Such is the wilderness. With children, more specifically, an initial reaction to the negative attitude of disappointed parents becomes hatred or withdrawal. Such feelings towards the ones who gave them life naturally develop into guilt. “Feeling even more guilty, sensing that they are totally bad, they become even more aggressive until they fall into depression, hiding all the chaos within them behind strong walls, trying to forget all the mess. They have reached the heart of wilderness.” And then the only way out is through love, shared life for others. “To be for others also means that we ourselves have discovered our own beauty and fundamental value.”

Wilderness is the absence of being in communion with others, the lack of giving to and receiving from friends to whom one is bound in such a way that we come to peace despite our continuing dependency and weakness. The wilderness never fully disappears, but we may, God willing, learn to live with it. We can finally ask whether the wilderness can truly cease to be a threat without God, the Friend who “showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners” (Rom 5:8), in whose forgiving arms we need not be unsure of our identity, but rather can rest “truly safe and deeply at home.”

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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