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Empty Pockets

Guest Column

By Jean Bethke Elshtain | December 1992
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 evening’s discussion, Father Michael described the time he’d spent at one of the l’Arche communities founded by Jean Vanier. L’Arche began in 1964 when Vanier bought a home in rural France and invited two mentally retarded adults to live there with him. Some 60 l’Arche communities now exist worldwide. The guiding spirit behind l’Arche differs dramatically from the therapeutic paternalism that often structures relationships between the “normal” and the “mentally handicapped.” L’Arche 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 Vanier’s words as listened to Father Michael tell a story of empty pockets. At l’Arche 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 one’s home being central to one’s sense of self and place.

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