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'The Mission for L'Arche Today' - Address at L'Arche International Federation Meeting

Sunday 29th May 2005

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, delivers an address at the L'Arche International Federation Meeting, Assisi, Italy

When I think of L'Arche, I usually think first of faces: literally, primarily, the faces of community members met over the years, as well as all the particular stories that L'Arche people tell, the witness of individuals and about individuals. The most effective books about L'Arche have been those with pictures. The history of the community is an icon screen, a forest of faces behind each of which is the holy place. People are made to look like God, says the Bible, and the chief place where we see God's glory is a human face, Jesus' face. So it isn't surprising that Christian writers, ancient and modern, have said, 'Show me what you think about people and I'll tell you what you think about God. Show me what you would recognise as a human face and I'll know something about where and how you recognise God.' Surely this is where we go to think about the basic calling of L'Arche.

Now, there is a very simple way of understanding this, one that has obvious roots in the Bible. We're told to love God and then to love others as ourselves; if we approach each other with love, then we show that we have some idea of what it is that God is asking from us. We show that we take God seriously. More than once in the New Testament, specially in the first letter of St John, we are reminded that if we can't love each other we can't expect to be believed if we say that we love God. And if we can't expect this, the God we say we believe in becomes less credible. We don't look as if we really believe what we're saying.

But I think it goes deeper than that. What I want to think about in the time we have together is, first of all, what messages about human beings are generally given in society – or at least in the society of the 'developed' world – today, and what they might tell us about what people think of God; and then to ask what's different about L'Arche that communicates something bigger and stronger about God that needs to be said and heard today. I've got in mind two main kinds of message, and I'll look at them in turn.

First, then: for all sorts of very good reasons, one of the things that comes across most strongly in the West when we look at the world of television and film and advertising these days is an emphasis on being in charge of your options in life. You deserve the best – think of all those advertisements that tell you to treat yourself to something 'because you're worth it'. And out there are lots of people competing to give you the best. The ideal position to be in is one where you have the greatest amount of choice between all these offers, so that you can build up the kind of world that suits you best. More and more, our political language too presents us with this frame of reference: a good government, a government worth voting for, is one that promises us greater power to build our world as we wish.

This sort of message, as I've said, has some good things behind it. For too many people, there are no choices that will help them get a grip on their circumstances to change them for the better; and for quite a lot of people, there is a history of being told they're not worth it, and they need to be reassured that it's all right to want some dignity or joy or even ordinary leisure. The trouble is that by focusing so closely on our power to choose and to shape our circumstances, it gives us no resources for dealing with or making sense of all those areas where we are never in control. It can subtly convey the message that we shall not fall ill or die, that we shall not encounter problems we can't solve; if we seem to meet such situations, it must be the fault of someone, and we can turn to the processes of law to make our complaint and seek for compensation.

But the truth is that we live as part of a whole set of interconnecting activities that we only partly grasp, and that our lives are limited by things beyond our control. We are bodies and we live in a world of material things; we may be able to modify those things, and our own bodies, to a greater and greater degree, as technology advances, but we never quite know what the full consequences are of these changes. We seem to solve one problem only to create another; for reasons that seem good and compelling, we change the balance of things and find that a new imbalance has to be rectified. And accident, unexpected disease, death, remain, however ambitious we are in our scientific hopes. Human cloning has apparently arrived as a scientific reality; and we are already able to think about selecting the sex of an unborn child. But when we have set out all the possible choices the fact remains that any child born into the world, even one whose genetic makeup has been screened and refined, is vulnerable, just by existing as a body in a world of bodies. And all the history of technology suggests that new choices bring new risks.

This doesn't mean that we never seek to change the balance of nature – as we do for example when we seek to exterminate an epidemic disease like malaria. But we need to look at overall risks, at what we don't and shan't ever know, at what our capacity is likely to be in dealing with new choices, especially when we lack any coherent picture of what most matters in human life. And above all we need to strip away the tempting illusion that one day we could get to a point where all that counted was some kind of disembodied human will making decisions that would simply happen without any problems.

We need resources to live with these limits. We need to make sense of living in our bodies, living with frailty and uncertainty, otherwise we shall be in a perpetual state of resentment and misery at the failure of the world to live up to what we think we want. Because one of the really frightening things about the idea of complete technological control over our circumstances is that frailty, disability, accident and so on come to look precisely like failure. And another frightening thing is that all these hopes depend on a world without the deep conflicts that so obviously haunt us, without war or endemic poverty, a world in which we can be sure of wealth and a steady supply of raw materials. In a situation such as the one we are actually in, where war continues to threaten and where we cannot rely on a stable environment, because of our manic greed and consumption, technology can only be at best the property of a lucky few. And that does not promise well for a future of justice and shared goods.

'Show me what you think about people'. Well, this picture suggests that what we're being encouraged to think about people is that they ought always to be looking for increased control, that they are failing if they can't access this, that they become less real if they don't have the maximum imaginable level of choice. The human face that is shaped in all this is one that may be smooth and well-cared for, but it is marked by anxiety and suspicion: is this it? Should I be acquiring something further, something better? Who is to blame if I feel that I'm not really free? And the implication is that those who are ill are less real, those who are poor are less real, those whose physical condition limits their possibilities are less real. Where does that leave God? If we are in effect our own creators, either God is superfluous, or else he becomes another 'accessory' – something to provide a spiritual icing on the cake. God represents another lifestyle choice, as they say; God is something we choose to take on board, another item to make us happy and to feel in control. If we are shown this sort of humanity, we are being shown a God whose role is that of a helpful adjunct to human welfare. It is hard to think, if human beings are like this, of a God who surprises, tests, even hurts, by the sheer fact of his being – hard to think of a God who is anything like the God of the Bible.

Let me turn briefly to another message that seems to be around in our present climate, and which actually has a lot to do with that first set of ideas, though it isn't really consistent with them. This is the suggestion that there is some level of explanation that will once and for all show us the causes of our actions as persons. We are fascinated by theories about how our behaviour is conditioned by genes or chemicals. It's as if we really long to know that someone can give a complete account of what we are and why we do what we do. As I've hinted, it doesn't sit very well with the picture of absolute consumer freedom that we started with; but both pictures have one thing in common. Both are concerned about mastering the world, acquiring the sort of knowledge that allows for better manipulation of reality. It may be simply what helps us turn our wishes into reality, what gives us security and welfare; or it may be about understanding the roots of human motivation so that we can cut out the risks of human freedom, the terrifying prospect that there might be corners in the world where our minds could never reach. Both are about a certain kind of safety.

And of course a picture of human beings as the sum total of a set of predictable processes again has consequences for what can be thought about God. At best, we could only think of God as winding up the mechanism; the idea that there was a personal relationship involved which touched something mysterious at the heart of a human being and could never be contained or predicted would make no sense. It would really be more rational to dispense with any concept of a God who could be related to as a person.

'Show me what you think about people...' There seems to be a lot in our world that presses us to think about people either as choice-making ghosts, floating in an abstract environment, or as programmed material systems. On either account, it is nonsense to think of a God who relates to us as an active reality. We are the active ones – exercising our choices or working out our programmes. If we stopped being active, God could not be there, since God is only 'there' as an object to be used or as a principle of organisation in the universe.

It isn't the God of the Bible, by any stretch of the imagination. But the important point here is that, if the idea I started with is right, it matters a great deal to ask if these pictures of humanity are adequate to the reality we experience as human; because if we can begin to have a fuller and better picture of humanity, we may at least start to move towards a better picture of God. In other words, we can explore whether the God of the Bible and the reality of humanity as we actually experience it make some kind of a 'fit' that might persuade us that it's still worth taking the God of the Bible seriously.

'Show me what you think of people.' Can what we say about human beings make room for weakness, disability, the mystery of minds that don't work as we think they 'ought'? It's always a good question when we're thinking theologically or philosophically to ask, 'Who's being left out?' And the answer is often precisely those who are weaker by the world' standards: minorities of all sorts, children, women in many societies, disabled and disadvantaged people, people with impairments of different sorts, in practically all societies. If we have words and ideas and above all habits of acting that don't allow anyone to forget that these people are here, we shall be showing that we think about people in a distinctive way – and we start discovering something distinctive about God.

If there are habits of acting that assume that people with disablement or impairment of any kind are partners, whose perspective is valued and attended to, we are showing that we don't accept any idea that it is a failure, a lack of reality, if people are not in control. On the contrary: we are saying that we accept the person before us as they are, with all that makes and has made them as they are, the physical constitution, the mental history. That's what they are bringing to this encounter, here and now, as a gift. And if these habits of acting also show that we refuse to restrict that personal reality here and now to what we can understand or explain, we are saying simply that there is more in the person before us than can be contained in our relationship with them or our mental picture of them. They 'answer', as we might say, to more than just us.

How do we respond to people who will never be able to tell us in the terms we usually use what they know, how they feel, what they long for? Getting over the frightening aspect of this is an essential moment in our growing-up; but just how hard it is, anyone who has ever sat alongside someone with challenging behaviour or learning difficulties will confirm. It only fully happens, I suppose (I say 'I suppose' because I know how hard it still is for me), when we have really taken it in that this person belongs with God before they belong with me, let alone belonging 'to' me. I constantly slip back into assuming that I can know the degree of authenticity or understanding in their lives.

'Big Giorgio, who can only say a few words, often suffers profound inner torment, which he expresses sometimes by an achingly sad expression, sometimes by ignoring some members of the community, or even, very occasionally, by violent outbursts. He came and knelt before the cross. After a long silence, he murmured three times: "Jesus, heart...Jesus, heart...Jesus, heart' – making gestures as if leaving his heart at the foot of the cross. It was a Good Friday morning' (Gerard Daucourt, in Encounter with Mystery. Reflections on L'Arche and Living with Disability, ed. Frances Young, London, DLT, p.45).

'A few years later, we were waiting for a similar sign to help us decide whether Armando was ready to receive the sacrament of the Eucharist. Should we be content with his smiles when we told him of Jesus' assurance that those who eat his body and drink his blood live in him and Jesus lives in them..?...We didn't have any dramatic signs beforehand...but we had confirmation immediately afterwards; from the day of his first communion, Armando became more than ever unifying agent for us, expressing the truth that Jesus died "to gather into one the dispersed children of God"' (ibid. p.50).

'Some time ago a little girl with a handicap made her first communion. The Eucharist was beautiful and was followed by a little celebration with the family. At one moment the girl's uncle said to her mother, "wasn't it beautiful? It's too bad that she did not understand anything". The little girl heard the remark and with tears in her eyes said: "Don't worry, Mummy, Jesus loves me as I am"' (Jean Vanier, ibid., p.12).

Faces: faces as signs of what doesn't belong to me but exists in response to an Other. There can be no stronger 'showing' of what we think of people than a habit of life that recognises our unknowing of the hearts of others. And in encounter with those whose capacity is different, impaired or restricted from our standpoint, we are brought up against the challenge more forcefully than anywhere else. We are not going to fathom this, we are not going to be able to contain and control it. And it is why Christians are so deeply uneasy with policies around the beginning and end of life which assume that we know, for example, that the foetus does not feel pain as we do, or that we can be sure consciousness has vanished, the spirit has been extinguished or discomfort is unbearable simply because we have no access of the usual kind to that consciousness. This is not to offer a clinching argument; it is not the stuff of argument – which needs other language – only the elucidation of a particularly Christian kind of hesitation before the complexities of life's start and close. The main thing is the recognition of what always escapes me in my relation to others, the fact that the other is connected to life independently of me, related to God independently of me. And I don't have to know what that means or how it works, only to be aware of it and to be ready to receive God through it.

This opens up the whole territory of the many ways and levels in which connection to God's reality is possible – not least through the body and its senses. 'In L'Arche communities ... touching and the care of one another's bodies is at the base of our relationships and our daily life together' (Hilary Wilson, My Life Together: L'Arche Communities and the Challenge of Unity, London, DLT, 2004, p.54). This begins to help us see how we resist the first of the pictures I sketched earlier, the picture of essential humanity as a free will in a vacuum. If the body knows certain things and makes certain sorts of connection possible – to God and to others and to the whole material world – there is always something alongside the knowledge and skill of the mind and the energy of the will. There is a connection that is given through our frailty and our physical limits. To deny these or struggle endlessly against them is to cut ourselves off from aspects of real life, from attunement to truths that don't lend themselves to abstract formulation.

This is not about some sentimental appeal to instinctive knowledge as better than rational. It is simply about recognising what connections the body makes, even when it is weak or unusually limited, and about what only the body can communicate. And to look at the body in such a light is also to realise that our connectedness with God does not depend on getting ideas straight, on being confident that we know how God works and how we ought to respond or any such matter. God is actively communicating whether or not we are acting or thinking. So when we stop acting and thinking in order simply to be the bodily creatures we are, when we seek in contemplation just to live with God, God's activity may be at its freest and most real in us. Some of those who have shared the L'Arche experience have indeed found that it makes them see what contemplation is about; and conversely, it is often contemplatives who need least explanation about L'Arche.

'Show me what you think about people': what if people are indeed allowed to be still, to live in their bodies silently and trustfully? If they are allowed to communicate in the imperfection of touch and gesture and facial movement? If they are allowed to be mysterious, incapable of explanation or possession? The picture of humanity that emerges is one of people (and other realities too) depending on a trustworthy surrounding reality, to the extent that they are free to depend on each other as well. Over against the anxious and suspicious self of so much of our culture is set another kind of living: a life that shows itself to be sustained, to be the receiver of nourishment and faithful presence. A life like this shows God as that on which everything depends – not just for its beginning but for its sustenance and its future. It shows a God worth trusting.

So the vision and mission of L'Arche in its widest interpretation is about this; does it show a God worth trusting? It cannot be a sort of 'reservation' for those who find reality too difficult; on the contrary, it is a glimpse into the dimension of reality that most of us are afraid of, the dimension in which we must acknowledge our weakness, our limits, our bodies, our lack of complete knowledge of one another. In the encounter between people of radically different skills and styles of communication or coping, it brings fully into the light some of what is at the heart of every serious human encounter, every serious human experience of the mortal world.

And the hard truth is that we shall never persuade the world about God unless we can show a human face in the world that makes it credible to commit yourself to God. I mean 'show' in two senses – we have to show ourselves to be human beings of a certain kind (even if we're pretty unimpressive examples), and we have to show, to point to, faces that make plain what we're talking about ('Never mind me, look at him/her'). It is little use constructing faultless arguments for God's existence if we have no way of showing what sort of human being it is who makes belief believable – which means challenging so much of what is taken for granted about being human, so much of what you and I take for granted (because 'the world' isn't out there somewhere, but here in all of us). And the challenge is finally to ask ourselves and our world, 'Does this taken-for-granted world have room for fragile bodies and unfathomable minds? Or does it restrict entry to those who can control and explain?' Sometimes the simplest question is, 'How big is our world?' Jesus, remember, began to change everything by telling the religious world of his time that it was too small, because it had no room for non-achievers, no room for children, no room for the sick or the 'unclean'. And by dying helpless as a child, under the curse of pollution, a failure and outcast, he declared once and for all that God's world is a world where such people are at the heart.

The mission of L'Arche is conversion – like any Christian mission, any serious spiritual mission of any kind for that matter. It asks us to inhabit another world, which is more not less real, more not less rich and complex and risky, a world in which real human beings can flourish and where human faces look human. Years ago, I watched a film about China, which featured some footage of a youth choir singing the praises of the Party and the System, and later some more footage of old people in a remote and struggling village. What I remember is the powerful feeling that the young people's faces weren't 'lived in' and the old ones were – not just about age but about honesty and emotional dimension and all sorts of things. The faces of those who try to live with God should look lived in, at any age. And that means that the face of faith is not smooth and tearless or problem-free; simply real, opening up on to something more than any one relationship at any one moment can contain.

The Irish theologian David Ford has said that, for L'Arche, 'faces, not problems, are the main focus' (Gerard Daucourt, in Encounter with Mystery. Reflections on L'Arche and Living with Disability, ed. Frances Young, London, DLT, p.81). As you all know, this doesn't mean that problems just sort themselves out quietly while we contemplate faces; it does mean that we know something of a world outside our problems, so that we can begin to sense how the 'answers' may be nothing that our planning minds could think of. Without the various kinds of connectedness that come from our interdependence as human beings and from our bodily existence, we should never break out of the 'ordinary' categories in which the problems are framed. A British L'Arche member has written that her work means that 'I am one of those brothers and sisters that I'm called to live with. I am called to live a covenant with my own weakness and poverty' (Maggie Smith in Wilson, op.cit., p.52). But the extraordinary thing is that this covenant means finding the context in which weakness and poverty deliver strength and wisdom. Denying these things would be unreal, a shrinking of the world: the visible covenant with my weakness and that of others, my mortal body and that of others, my stumbling mind and that of others uncovers a world large enough for actual humanity.

Conversion, then, to the new world (which is in fact the one we sort of knew was the real one all along); conversion to the world that, in the lovely phrase of a seventeenth century poet, 'likes its place' in the embrace of God (Richard Crashaw). And like all conversions it calls the Church to conversion. The Church is so fantastically vulnerable to self-importance and self-deceit. It so constantly reinvents the cramped and fearful humanity it should have left behind. It demands its own sort of success and control, its own denial of the weakness of the body, and offers its own total explanations. Yet in the middle of it all it goes on doing the things that count, making gestures that allow us to leave hearts at the foot of the cross, in Eucharist and reconciliation, even when making idiots of ourselves. It isn't that these things aren't there in the Church, otherwise we would never trouble ourselves with it. But there is or seems so much that urges us to reduce the size of Christian humanity – even urges us to think that the gestures and the weakness of the body as it comes to be fed and healed are somehow less significant than the argument and management that jostle to fill the foreground of our minds.

Conversion is needed; conversion by the visible presence of all those dimensions that can't be managed and can only be held in the embrace of God. Every child in a congregation is a sign of this; and every person with learning difficulties or disturbance or impairment, for whom the good news will never be a 'message', always a gesture, a touch, food and warmth for the spirit. How can we possibly believe that what is most real in the Church is what is most passionately argued when we try to do our theology – as Donald Nicholl of beloved memory used to say – within sight of children and others who are 'poor' by the usual measure. Conversion is not the acquiring of fresh ideas and human solutions but the expansion of the world that bit nearer to the dimension of God. We don't look to L'Arche or to the child in the congregation to solve anything, only to restore that sense of an expanded world. We know that arguments have to go on, that solutions have to be found; archbishops live with these delights day by day. But it was not by this and it was not for this that Christ died and rose and breathed the Spirit.

'Show me what you think about people'. That icon screen of faces is what L'Arche is for – as it is ultimately what the Church is for: a standing question to a world that is afraid of itself, its own reality, and takes refuge in fantasies of choice and possession and total understanding. If we can show a world large enough for human reality in its fullness, we show something of the God who alone has the endless resource of faithful love to sustain and embrace it. This is the Kingdom.

© Rowan Williams 2005

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