“To open ourselves to the one who is in misery, to listen to their story and to understand it, all this awakens deep forces in our human heart.”

Relationship and transformation

Jean Vanier

Excerpt from This other that transforms me in Here is the Man, Word and Silence, 2006

All over the world, on every continent, poor people are crying out for recognition and support. Can we continue to shut ourselves off in our comfort and in our social class while forgetting the cry of the poor and the weak? Do we become more human by fleeing the reality of human suffering? The refusal to meet the person who is different, who is weak, often leads us to harden our hearts, to despise the weak, and to want to suppress them. The danger of eugenics persists in all cultures, often for economic reasons.

The meeting of people from different cultures is an enrichment. I dare to claim that such meetings not only allow an enrichment but a transformation of the heart. Our societies can become truly human only if we open our hearts to those who are different, if we work together for justice towards the weakest people and if we put an end to the rivalry between the powerful which leads to conflict and war. Only then will we again discover the true meaning of life.

For that to happen, we need to create the conditions that allow meetings and dialogues of mutual trust at all levels. Only then can a new meaning of life and a true hope for peace be born in our nations and in the world.

A transformation of the heart

To open ourselves to the one who is in misery, to listen to their story and to understand it, all this awakens deep forces in our human heart. These are the forces of love and compassion. To love is not just an emotion. To love involves true human wisdom, skill, and intelligence of the heart. To love is to create bonds of fidelity, to rejoice in the existence of the other in his weakness and his difference; it is to see the person behind the disability, behind the difference.

“It is at that moment that we become truly free, free to be who we are: rich in our gifts, our weaknesses and even our mortality.”

We discover then that the weakest person – who may also be the one who is old, or sick, or unemployed, someone who feels lonely and abandoned – is the one who, if we accept to enter into relationship with them, can cure the hardening of our hearts. They allow us to find our own inner unity. They help us to welcome what is weak and vulnerable in ourselves. It is at that moment that we become truly free, free to be who we are: rich in our gifts, our weaknesses and even our mortality. Free to not let ourselves be controlled by our fears and our prejudices or by our drive to seek power. Free to stop locking ourselves behind the safe walls of our culture which favours those who are strong. Free to love each person as they are.

Françoise

In 1979, at one of our L'Arche homes in Trosly, we welcomed Françoise. She was 46 years old and had profound intellectual disabilities. There was very little that she could do for herself: unable to speak or eat by herself, and only able to walk with great difficulty.

She became blind and only rarely left her bed; with little cries, she would show her joy or her difficulties and anxieties. But those living with her in the home loved her very much and called her “our little grandma”. They sought to understand her cries. In that home, the source of joy was Françoise. In her own deep poverty, she humanized those around her who were so attentive to all her needs. Their relationship with her transformed them.