The Compassion of the Blessed Mother
The word compassion comes from the Latin compati– “to suffer with.” Of this, there is no clearer example than the Blessed Mother at the foot of the Cross. According to St. Alphonsus Liguori, as she witnessed the suffering of her son, Mary suffered a martyrdom like no other martyr. St. Alphonsus quotes Arnold of Chartres, “For on that Mount, when the Son sacrificed His Body by death, Mary sacrificed her soul by compassion.” He also cites Saint Lawrence Justinian,
The heart of Mary, by compassion for her Son, became a mirror of His torments, in which might be seen, faithfully reflected, the spittings, the blows, the wounds, and all that Jesus suffered.”
Yet, as the Blessed Mother beheld Jesus’ agony, she did not look away
“Mary, who stood by [the] side [of the Cross], never turned her eyes from Him [emphasis added]; she beheld Him all torn by the scourges, thorns, and nails; she saw that her poor Son, suspended by those three iron hooks, found no repose.”–St. Alphonsus
Simply a ‘Soothing Pill’ for Our Conscience
Addressing the members of Caritas International, Pope Francis warned against charity becoming something done to limit one’s own personal discomfort instead of a sincere effort to help those less fortunate physically or materially.
What we must never forget is that charity has its origin and its essence in God himself (cf. 1 Jn 4:8)… [Not] only is charity that fails to reach the pocket a false charity, but charity that does not involve the heart, soul, and our entire being is a concept of charity not yet fulfilled.
It is important to always be careful not to succumb to the temptation to live a hypocritical or deceitful charity, a charity … [that is] a ‘soothing pill’ for our troubled consciences. … [We] must avoid equating charity work to philanthropic efficiency or to effective planning or to excessive and scintillating organization. Address of His Holiness Pope Francis to Participants in the Meeting Sponsored by Caritas Internationalis, May 27, 2019
When the heart and soul are absent and charity becomes an academic or economic exercise, it is not long before those who are healthy adopt an attitude of privilege. They smugly assume they know what’s best for those who are weaker, often with catastrophic results.
Jean Vanier was someone who recognized this very clearly. An extraordinary crusader for the marginalized and handicapped, he showed what can be accomplished when the true meaning of compassion is fully embraced.
On May 7, 2019, Jean Vanier, author, speaker, and founder of the international L’Arche (“The Ark”) communities for the disabled, died at the age of 90. His passing was marked by numerous tributes, both secular and religious, from around the world. Vanier’s simple funeral at the L’Arche community in Trosly-Breuil was broadcast over the internet to accommodate the thousands of admirers who wanted to be present. Pope Francis, returning to Rome that day from Macedonia, honored Vanier in his in-flight press conference as “a man who knew how to read the Christian efficiency of the mystery of death, the cross, of sickness, the mystery of those who are disrespected and discarded by the world.”
Jean Vanier was born in Geneva in 1928 to a Catholic Canadian family. According to his biography, following a tour of duty with the British navy during World War II, Vanier became disenchanted with military service and began to search for a deeper purpose. He studied theology and philosophy, and became a much sought-after lecturer. However, like St. Francis in his encounter with the leper, Vanier found his calling shortly after experiencing the suffering of the disabled.
“Will You Come Back?”
At that time, it was common to keep people with physical and mental disabilities locked away in institutions. There they were condemned to lead a meaningless existence in living conditions that were frequently deplorable. Vanier recounted the day that he visited a priest friend who was chaplain at a small institution for the disabled.
[When] I returned to Paris again, not quite knowing what the future was… I visited this institution and was very touched by the men that were there. It was an institution where there [were] about 30 or 35 men with intellectual disabilities.
And what touched me [were] the cries, asking ‘will you come back?,’ ‘will you be my friend?’ That really touched me. So I then discovered a whole world of people with disabilities locked up in institutions, … this world of people locked up just because they had some defect, intellectual defect. –Jean Vanier, Message to Boston College, February, 2019
“I Began to Live from My Heart”
Vanier did much more than simply “come back.” He invited two men with significant physical and mental disabilities, Raphael and Philippe, to share a tiny house with him in Trosly-Breuil. In an interview in The Economist, Vanier explained at that time there “was… no huge idea of doing something special that might change the world.”
[Living] with [Raphael and Philippe] Vanier began to understand what it meant to be really human. “We did everything together–the shopping, the cooking, the gardening–but above all we had fun.” With other friends, Jean [was] used to spending time doing things, achieving things, having intellectual conversations. “Before meeting [Raphael and Philippe], my life had been governed largely from my head and my sense of duty; they brought out the child in me. I began to live from my heart.
Vanier became someone who lived and taught the meaning of compassion in a radical way. As a result, many were drawn to this gentle man and the challenge he laid down. From the small home in Trosly-Breuil, L’Arche communities sprang up around the world. Today, there are over 140 L’Arche communities in 35 countries, serving more than 3500 persons with disabilities.
“I’m Glad You Exist”
When asked what held the L’Arche communities together, Vanier explained it was a very simple, but challenging, philosophy.
The heart of L’Arche is to say to people, “I am glad you exist.” And the proof we are glad that they exist is that we stay with them for a long time…”I am glad you exist” is translated into physical presence.
– Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness, 2008, co-authored with Stanley Hauwerwas
However, the goal was not simply to tolerate or do something nice for marginalized people. The message was so much greater than that. By sharing daily life as equals, those who are healthy find themselves enriched by those who have limitations, in practical as well as spiritual life.
Vanier often cited a passage from the letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians:
God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no flesh may boast in the presence of God. 1 Corinthians 1:27-29 (RSV)
“Moving Beyond Charity and Tolerance”
Therefore, Vanier warned, it is wrong to approach the disabled with an attitude of condescension.
Sharing life with marginalized people galvanized Vanier’s understanding that to serve others well requires us to move beyond charity and tolerance [emphasis added]. He recognized the hubris that grows when a helper imagines himself as somehow superior or separate from those he serves. He learned how much better help feels to the person in need when animated by a sense of solidarity and common humanity than help driven merely by a sense of duty.
The felt distinction is between merely caring for others and actually caring about them as people. Cushing, Pamela, “Gifts of Those Who are Marginalized,” (Jean-Vanier.org)
Violence as the Consequence of False Charity
At that institution in Paris, Vanier was “horrified by what I saw…, especially the violence.” He frequently referred to violence as a natural consequence of a compassion based on expediency.
A society which discards those who are weak and non-productive risks exaggerating the development of reason, organization, aggression and the desire to dominate. It becomes a society without a heart, without kindness–a rational and sad society, lacking celebration, divided within itself and given to competition, rivalry and, finally, violence [emphasis added]. — Jean Vanier, “Man and Woman He Made Them,” (p. 172).
Contemporary society has not only become increasingly hard-hearted, but has developed a monstrous enthusiasm to mete out its own grotesque version of mercy.
Consider two events that occurred shortly following Vanier’s death.
In July 2019, Vincent Lambert died when the French government ordered the withdrawal of food and water for his own good. Severely brain-damaged in an accident, his wife claimed Vincent wouldn’t have wanted to live as a disabled person. Lambert’s nephew angrily claimed that his uncle was a “victim of irrational medicine for years. It [the life support] had to stop.” His wife was relieved that she would “finally see him as a free man.”
Why the Strong Need the Weak
Henri Nowen, a priest who spent time in the L’Arche community of Daybreak, wrote, “Handicapped people, who have such a limited ability to learn, can let their hearts speak easily and thus reveal a mystical life that for many intelligent people seems unreachable” (The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey, p. 49).
Vanier wanted to spread this truth well beyond the walls of L’Arche. In a speech to the British House of Lords in 2015 titled “Why the Strong Need the Weak,” Vanier recounted how by living together, the strong and the weak transformed each other into better versions of themselves. “We come together, listen to each other… and in doing so, become more human.” Vanier urged the politicians to help spread this idea everywhere for he believed it to be the key to peace in the world.
Yet, Vanier’s counsel continues to be ignored. In the name of compassion, countries boast of eliminating 100% of persons with Down’s Syndrome, and are seeking to eradicate other genetic abnormalities such as cystic fibrosis. Charlie Gard and Alfie Evans had life support systems removed against their parents wishes because the Court’s determined their “condition of existence” offered them no benefit. There are numerous reports of patients denied costly medical treatments by their insurance companies while assisted suicide drugs were offered at little to no cost.
The Blessed Mother, Pope Francis, and Jean Vanier teach a better way, a way of the heart as well as the head. Society rejects their example at its own peril. This obsession with killing rationalized as kindness will ultimately destroy any hope for a better world