Friday, July 19, 2013

What would a conversation between John Paul II and Jean Vanier be like?

Jean Vanier pictured in 2008 (Photo: CNS)
Jean Vanier pictured in 2008 (Photo: CNS)
 Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, an international federation of communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together, is to receive the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award.
For the first time in its history the US-based award is being taken overseas, to France, where Bishop Martin Amos of Davenport, Iowa, will present the award to Vanier in the village where he founded L’Arche in 1964.

The award honours Pope John XXIII and commemorates his 1963 encyclical letter Pacem in Terris (“Peace on Earth”)....
(More of the news article here.)

I have joked to some people that the third chapter of this manuscript, on the sign of the impaired body, is pretty close to planting John Paul II and Jean Vanier in the same room and watching them have the conversation they should have had when both were alive.  They did meet--but as far as I know, no in depth conversation occurred.  Vanier's way of gentleness and openness to the other, and his focus on being an embodied ecclesial community, is lived out in L'Arche communities worldwide--and has points in common with the spirituality and phenomenology of the Theology of the Body.  Vanier and John Paul II both began as students of philosophy, and one sense that although they may be on different pages, they play from the same book.

A clip from the manuscript on Vanier and the Theology of the Body:

Vanier (and others) exemplify the phenomenological attitude when they affirm that  L’Arche is “a sign, not a solution.”....

The sign of  L’Arche fleshes out the shared reality of limitation and weakness and the common reliance on the unlimited strength of God, and points to the divine call to love as God loves. The mission of  L’Arche, as stated in its charter, is simultaneously ambitious yet humble: “Our mission is to create homes where faithful relationships based on forgiveness and celebration are nurtured. We want to reveal the unique value and vocation of each person, and to live relationships in community as a sign of hope and love.”[3] The process of living in community together involves acknowledging weakness, and confronting fear with the concrete power of love. The end of the lived experience is celebration and joy: not that every moment is joyful, or a celebration, but that the lived experience is a real gift of life shared.

But Vanier also says that community is not achieved but received, not a goal but a gift. Living together, guided by the above mission, opens our hands to receive that gift. And in doing so, he undercuts what I think can be a subtle temptation: the purpose of welcoming people with disabilities into small community, into the Church, into our families, is not first and foremost to witness. It is a response to a call from God to love as God loves. It requires a “spiritual seeing,” as Scheler would say, that all human beings are our brothers and sisters, called in Christ to be adopted sons and daughters of God. In doing so, Vanier clarifies what seems to be a temptation among first readers of the Theology of the Body literature: as central as the doctrines of Incarnation and incarnation are, the audiences are not about seeing the body of oneself or another in isolation. It is about the visible lived experience of call to love and response to love, of relationship to God and others. It is about the divinely ordained witness to love. This is seen in a powerful way by the union of a man and woman in sacramental marriage, and as John Paul II argues, was given to us at the dawn of creation as a sign of how we are called to be in union with God. I argue this can be seen in a woman giving birth, yielding to the work of the Holy Spirit, living out the “pre-given language of self-giving and fruitfulness” through answering the call to motherhood.  The relationship of those who are obviously impaired to those of us who are less obviously impaired gives us practice in loving one another without preconditions, in accepting our identity as beloved children of the Father, and in sensing how our mutually sensed limitation and weakness points to God as our fulfillment. The sign is fully manifest in the finite human being’s relationship to the infinite God and each finite other.

[1] A good summary of this notion is provided by John Swinton, in the preface of Living Gently in a Violent World, 17.
[2] Living Gently in a Violent World, 34.
[3] The Paradox of Disability, 60.

Congratulations to Vanier and L'Arche for this well deserved award!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

"Theology of the Body for Every Body": a book review

Leah Perrault’s Theology of the Body for Every Body (2012): book review


It’s the incarnation, stupid. 

True, Leah Perrault is nothing but gracious when she writes Theology of the Body for Every Body (MontrĂ©al: Novalis, 2012).  She would never say “stupid.”  But she does take her experience as a pastoral minister (as director of Pastoral Services in the diocese of Saskatoon) , a wife and mother of young children, and a teacher and writer on the Theology of the Body audiences to say with infectious joy: the Theology of the Body is about the incarnation of God and the bodily realities of being human.

Perrault (who also wrote a book on dating and the Theology of the Body) argues that the Theology of the Body literature is, more than anything, about what it means to be human.  Most secondary interpreters focus on the sexual ethics within the audiences, and Perrault adds to that conversation in new ways.  But she sees opportunities lost if we do not pay attention to “the first 500 pages of the audiences”: the theological anthropology and spirituality of John Paul II.

This is not an easy task.  As she notes, John Paul II’s audiences are less linear, more thematic and circular in their argument.  The audiences, especially here, have the feel of a theological exploration, full of wonder and mystery.  But what John Paul does theologically is internally consistent, and best broken down through thematic treatment. 

In Part I, Perrault uses short, eminently readable chapters to introduce salient motifs within the audiences: John Paul’s understanding and use of human experience, scripture, “original man,” the spousal meaning of the body, sacramentality, seeing through hope, and the philosophy of the acting person.  As one who has written an anthropology of the audiences, I applaud her for the succinct thematic summary (I wish she had included a treatment of John Paul II’s Carmelite influences, but otherwise, I think she hits all the high notes).   Besides providing some background outside the audiences, she peppers the first half of the book with pastoral examples.

But what may really open people’s eyes is the second half of the book, “Living the Theology of Our Bodies.”  Perrault’s own background as a pastoral minister serves us here as she moves through narrative after narrative of Christians, young and old, single and married and divorced and widowed and consecrated, facing messy realities that require discernment as to how to give oneself to God through others.   While Perrault connects the dots in some of the narratives to the Theology of the Body themes, other narratives are left to stand as evocative possibilities.  It is fascinating and poignant reading, made important by the implied challenge given the reader: how is this lived reality--a decision between two goods, a process of dying, an opportunity to address a family conflict--a sign that points to God?

This is a joyful and practical book, written with conviction and deep knowledge of the Theology of the Body literature and its possibilities in helping people live in a way more open to God’s work within their selves and the world.  I hope this publication marks the beginning of a sustained turn to the spiritual anthropology of the audiences, which not only grounds the audiences' latter section on the sacrament of marriage, but also provides a rich and deep way to see what it means to be created human, in relationship with the world, and destined for union with God. 

--Susan Windley-Daoust
Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota
July 16, 2013


Monday, July 8, 2013

A Flattering Review (Blush)

Chelsea Zimmerman, the young writer behind the blog "Reflections of a Paralytic" and editor in chief of Catholic Lane, offered a very kind and positive review of the manuscript as a reflection she used for World Down Syndrome Day this year.  She also quotes the manuscript quite a bit, so if you want a sneak peak, please, click here.  Some of her commentary:

...Then she does a masterful job of going deep into the history of the eugenics movement of the late 19th, early 20th century focusing not just on Europe, where this movement was brought to its natural and horrific conclusion, but also spending a great deal of time, once again, on how eugenic thought and practices were common and widespread throughout the United States. Something that is often forgotten when we think about the history of eugenics.

I hope her book gets published for this chapter alone....
(She also offers a snippet in a blog post for Good Friday here.)

I especially appreciate Chelsea's kind words because she is close to the material discussed, Catholic to beat the band, a Theology of the Body enthusiast, and a very fine writer.  Thanks, Chelsea.  It means a lot to hear positives about the argument and presentation from a writer such as yourself.