December 1992By Jean Bethke Elshtain
Jean Bethke Elshtain is Centennial Professor of Political Science and Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University, and a Contributing Editor of the NOR. Princeton University Press will bring out a second edition of her Public Man, Private Woman early next year.
During a recent trip to Rome, I enjoyed an evening in the company of a group which included a young Jesuit, who had spent a year in El Salvador and was due to return there soon. At one point in the evenings discussion, Father Michael described the time hed spent at one of the lArche communities founded by Jean Vanier. LArche began in 1964 when Vanier bought a home in rural France and invited two mentally retarded adults to live there with him. Some 60 lArche communities now exist worldwide. The guiding spirit behind lArche differs dramatically from the therapeutic paternalism that often structures relationships between the normal and the mentally handicapped. LArche is a community dedicated to the unlikely proposition that the more able should not do things to or for the less able but should, instead, live with them in covenant. Writes Vanier:
Handicapped people are the teachers of the strong. With their tremendous qualities of heart and lives of faith and love, the handicapped give testimony to the truth that the privileged place for meeting with God is in our vulnerability and weakness.I thought of Vaniers words as listened to Father Michael tell a story of empty pockets. At lArche Michael helped dress and clean a profoundly handicapped young man. One day it struck him that this young man went out of his room and into his world and through his day, every day, with empty pockets.
Father Michael thought of how odd that was no change, no wallet. No keys, another dinner guest and I exclaimed simultaneously, showing, no doubt, both our automotive and professional preoccupations. In my own case, domestic concerns also helped to account for my outburst concerning keys keys to ones home being central to ones sense of self and place.
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