Jean Vanier and the “Wisdom of God”

I’d like to welcome Todd back. It’s a good thing that he came back before I reduced the site traffic to unrecoverable levels.

The Jean Vanier essay from which I earlier posted was included in a festschrift for the patristics scholar and Methodist minister Frances Young, whose son, Arthur, is mentally and physically handicapped. In another essay from that volume, the Anglican theologian David F. Ford quotes a provocative remark that Vanier made at a small meeting, “I wonder whether that is anything close to a dream I have – the whole of the history of Christianity is culminated in Arthur.” What does this mean? Of course, it is a dream and Vanier is not speaking dogmatically. But it was in a dream that God invited Solomon to ask something of him, and Solomon responded, “Give your servant, therefore, an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong” (1 Kgs 3:9).

David Ford writes about Vanier’s statement:

[W]hat is to be made of the whole of the history of Christianity culminating in Arthur? There is no reason why there should not be several complementary meanings approaching it from different angles, using various scriptures, diverse readings of Christian history, and alternative conceptualities. Mine will be through the idea of the wisdom of God embodied in history and opening up God’s future for the world. The crucified Jesus Christ as “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 12:4) is a radical challenge to any conception of the meaning of history and its culmination. Paul in 1 Corinthians immediately applies this idea to turn upside-down the usual evaluations of who and what are important …

If Arthur is seen as an embodiment of weakness, foolishness, what is low and despised and counted as of no value by many in our world, then this encourages us to think about him as chosen by God, with a role in God’s purposes, helping to learn more of what Paul later calls ‘God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory’ (1 Cor 2:7). As the culmination of the history of Christianity Arthur might act as a touchstone for discerning where that history has been in harmony with God’s wisdom; who and what the purposes of God might be for the twenty-first century. He is not a culmination in the sense of being an effective integration of our world into a super-church or into a super-state or into a super-network of civil societies or around a super-wisdom – though, as will be suggested below, he has implications for all those spheres. He might be the culmination in the sense of embodying the call of God today in a way that is analogous to the message of the crucified Jesus in the first century: a message that seems foolish according to dominant wisdoms, but that yet shows a power to grip whole lives and communities and lead them into ways of love, joy and peace that fulfill the deepest yearnings of human hearts.

But how can this message be received? It has been around long enough, but does not take easily to translation into doctrines, methods, principles, ways of biblical interpretation or communication or prayer, courses in discipleship, ladders of ascent, rulers of life, spiritualities, and so on. All those have of course played roles in its reception, but from Jesus and Paul onwards the heart of its transmission has been through lives that embody it “in the Spirit” and somehow reveal the wisdom of the cross in the Spirit. Paul in 1 Corinthians 2 goes on to remind the Corinthians both of his own way of embodying his message and of the vital role of the Spirit of God in teaching this wisdom. The reception of the wisdom of God is inseparable both from Paul communicating it in his words and life and from the Spirit of God working in him and in the Corinthian community. There is a mystery of reception and also of rejection, and this mystery is bound up with the scandalous choice of the ‘nothings’ of the world.

Yet this is no ideology privileging the ‘nothings’ to the exclusion of the ‘somethings.’ The ‘not many’ ‘wise by human standards’ (or powerful or of noble birth) is not ‘none,’ and Paul himself is ‘something’ in education and other ways. But Paul and the others have recognized and been grasped by a mystery that they acknowledge as embodied in Jesus Christ crucified who is at the heart of God’s purposes and of the working of God’s Spirit in the world now. This is about ‘somethings’ and ‘nothings’ together, with Paul as crucial for the articulation and thinking through of this strange wisdom. I see something similar happening in Jean Vanier and Frances Young. The Canadian Governor General’s son, naval officer and interpreter of Aristotle becomes a witness to the preciousness and importance of those with disabilities; the headmaster’s daughter, professor of theology and Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Birmingham University is also the mother of Arthur.

I’d like to highlight two aspects of this “strange wisdom” that Ford identifies:

“But in the narrative of Arthur what is most striking is the ordinariness,” especially in the details of his daily care. This reminds us of the significance of the ordinary, as St Paul himself did in the midst of a discussion of such rather extraordinary things as speaking in tongues, apostleship, and prophecy. “In contrast to matters that might seem ‘really’ to have historical impact, such as powerful prophecy, comprehensive knowledge, moving mountains, and dramatic self-sacrifice, Paul describes long-term, ordinary loving.” This is the love that is patient, kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant, or rude (1 Cor 12:31). This love, unexciting and often unnoticed, builds up the community of the church, and this love “is the criterion for historical significance in God’s sight.”

The essential quality of the ordinary especially can be seen when Frances Young’s experience of mothering Arthur connects her in a very simple but profound way with Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Frances Young has written this honest and intimate poem:

Mary, my child’s lovely.
Is yours lovely too?
Little hands, little feet.
Curly hair, smiles sweet.

Mary, my child’s broken.
Is yours broken too?
Crushed by affliction,
Hurt by rejection,
Disfigured, stricken,
Silent submission.

Mary, my heart’s bursting.
Is yours bursting too?
Bursting with labour, travail and pain.
Bursting with agony, ecstasy, gain.
Busting with sympathy, anger, compassion.
Bursting with praising Love’s transfiguration.

Mary, my heart’s joyful.
Is yours joyful too?

A second aspect of this “strange wisdom” is that it reminds us of the importance of contemplation. Many in L’Arche consider their lives a form of contemplative vocation or eventually enter contemplative religious orders. Why is this? In part of an autobiographical psalm, Frances Young has written

In the inner depths of my mind,
I heard a voice:
I am the Lord,
Believe in me or not –
It makes no difference to me.

This declaration of divine impassibility is deeply traditional and contains a mystery – God loves us for our own sake, not for what we might hope to contribute to God. David Ford writes of Jean Vanier’s own reflections: “Our deep desire is to be loved like this, for our own sake. This is the mystery of the best friendships, including those that many in L’Arche have testified to” (my emphasis). When we grasp that God loves each of us for our own sake, we are freed to love God for God’s sake, to contemplatively adore him “for his name’s sake.” We can then see others, created in God’s image, as beautiful and precious no matter what they can perform or accomplish. This, David Ford claims, is near the theological heart of Frances Young’s relationship with her son and L’Arche, too. And, so, Arthur brings us to the “wisdom of God.”

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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1 Response to Jean Vanier and the “Wisdom of God”

  1. Pingback: Theology and Down Syndrome « Catholic Sensibility

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