Participants were presented with a series of testimonies, each leading to questions and prompts for personal reflection and small group discussion. The event was introduced by Andy Noethe, executive director of L'Arche Portland, and Karen Eifler, co-director of the Garaventa Center, who shared the video (at the bottom of this post) from Jean Vanier called "What does it mean to be fully human?"
The first prompts for reflection came from Beth Barsotti, board president of L'Arche Portland and assistant director of faith formation for UP's Office of Campus Ministry, and Pat Ell, assistant director of leadership development for UP's Moreau Center, who provided an introduction to L'Arche and revisited our discussion last year. They then asked the tables to reflect on and share their responses to the questions: "How have I allowed myself to be vulnerable?" and "What masks do I wear?"
Michael Biornstad, community coordinator for L'Arche Portland, and Ben Miller, core member for L'Arche Portland, then shared their experience of sharing life together at L'Arche Portland. Michael reflected on an interview with anthropologist, Helen Fisher, an expert on the subjects of love, sex, and attachment.
Michael, and Ben, shared the following with the room:
This last week I was listening to an interview with an anthropologist at Rutgers University, Helen Fisher. She is an expert on the subjects of love, sex, and attachment. In the interview there was a wonderful line that really caught my attention: “What happens in love has the hallmarks of insanity.” Fisher says “…Parts of the brain associated with decision making [actually] shut down.” Blood leaves areas of the brain that would typically be flooded. It is an overload of dopamine that can most closely be replicated by illicit drugs.
And what’s interesting is that according to Fisher, “Romantic love evolved for that reason. To enable you to overlook everything in order to be with this human being.” In a language of chemicals and hormones, the brain is yelling at you, “Be with this person!” And from an evolutionary standpoint, this chemistry matters: It’s what drives a person to be with another person. And is how an individual ultimately sends their DNA into the future.
When we are in love, the barriers come down. We open ourselves to another person. We are vulnerable. We risk and we entrust. We become weak so that another person might hold us and so that we might be entrusted to hold them.
And this is L’Arche. Minus the dopamine. My experience in this community could very accurately be called, “The hard way of falling in love.”
Vanier writes, “Love makes us weak and vulnerable, because it breaks down the barriers and protective armour we have built around ourselves.”
I agree with him. As Vanier mentions elsewhere, weakness compounds weakness. Love makes us more and more vulnerable to one another. This is important for the development of community, of love. But what about the empowering nature of weakness? That if we engage weakness we see something quite wonderful occur. It is not just the bedrock of a secure community. It is the launching point for empowerment and growth.
Love demands weakness, but it is also procreative. Yes, babies. Sending that DNA off into the future. But love is procreative in countless other ways. A community is knit together by the intimate relationships of many individuals. I don’t actually have a relationship with a community. I have a relationship with individuals. Community is in the milieu and its strength is entirely dependent on the weakness – the interdependence – of those within it.
Weakness is an invitation. Society does not see this. So it responds with pity. With benevolence. Or with remediation.
Ben Miller asked me to contact his social worker yesterday. He wants her to know that he desires paid work. Preferably, paid work that he enjoys. Ben’s act of vulnerability in the request is not for vulnerabilities sake alone. The relationship that grows between he and I as he trusts me to be his voice in a phone call to his social worker is wonderful. But it’s not just about that. If I revel in the beauty of his trust and our interdependence and pay no attention to Ben’s desire for meaningful work, what have I done? I want Ben to have a job that he loves. And a job that fairly compensates him for his work. And a job that emboldens him and allows him to grow.
Because that’s what he’s given me. You see that right?
There is a deep, deep power in weakness. I hope we see it as an invitation.
- To abide attentively together
- To love generously
- To be a sign of hope in an alienated world
Somewhere in the movement from the dependence we felt as children to the independence we feel as full adults, we had an encounter with Jesus Christ. We were, as is often the case between God and us, minding our own business, when at the appointed time (whether it was 4 o’clock in the afternoon or some other time) our path crossed the path of Jesus Christ and he caught our attention in some definitive way. And so we followed him from a safe distance until at some point he turned to us and asked us, “What are you looking for?” The disciples ask Jesus where he was staying. The Greek is more accurately rendered, “Where do you abide?” And Jesus said, without giving anything away: Come and see. From that point on, we were no longer dependent or independent in any fundamental way. In fact, we no longer understood our lives in in terms of dependence or independence. With our choosing to make Jesus’ path our path, his home our home we moved to the territory of freedom. We are, we know now, most free when our lives are tangled up with His, when his joy becomes our joy. We abide with Christ and he abides with us. This is who we are, then, as Church. Men, women and children whose life and life’s work—our mission—is inextricably linked to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s no longer me but we. So we abide attentively together as community, sensitive to and responsive to our gifts and talents as well as our weaknesses and brokenness."
This is my commandment, Jesus said, love one another as I have loved you. To embrace a life of interdependence, then, is to recognize we all have the capacity to love generously, to love with a prodigal love—almost scandalously, to love until you don’t think you can love anymore and then you love some more. Again, the interdependent life is to move from me to we: to see our greatest freedom in entangling our lives with each other in such a way that it would be difficult to discern where one of us ends and the other begins, so united are we by God’s complete and unconditional act of self-gift.
At its heart, community is an experiment in agape: Is it possible for us human beings to love as Christ loves. It requires a willingness to daily leave our old, selfish self behinds and embrace a new identity in Christ, one that finds its deepest expression in compassion and mercy.
From Constitution Eight it is written: But we do not grieve as men without hope, for Christ the Lord has risen to die no more. He has taken us into the mystery and the grace of this life that springs up from death. If we, like Him encounter and accept suffering in our discipleship, we will move without awkwardness among others who suffer. We must be men with hope to bring. There is no failure the Lord’s love cannot reverse, no humiliation He cannot exchange for blessing, no anger He cannot dissolve, no routine He cannot transfigure. All is swallowed up in victory. He has nothing but gifts to offer. It remains only for us to find how even the cross can be borne as a gift.
In a world defined by self-interest we offer self-gift. In a world marked off by borders and walls, we offer bridges and free passage. For a world closed in on itself, we offer a way out: we offer Jesus Christ in the flesh and the bone and the blood. In a world that celebrates individual accomplishment, we remind them that in the end, what will save us is community. Dorothy Day wrote: “We have all known the long loneliness, and we have found learned that the only solution is love and that loves comes with community.” To see that each of our lives are inextricably linked to each other—the mystical and broken and crucified and risen Body of Christ—is to free ourselves from the blindness of our own fears and pride and insecurities and in the end, thankfully, the blindness of our own loneliness. It’s no longer me but we.
We are grateful for everyone who shared and participated in this important community discussion, and look forward to continuing the conversation in 2016.