What L’Arche Has Taught Me about God

John Knechtle

More specifically, what have people with disabilities taught me about God

A Zoom recording of this teaching can be found here.

September 12, 2021

Almost every day, I receive a phone call from Grace.  Grace is a 58-year-old mentally disabled woman who bags groceries for work, is a tennis star in Special Olympics, and who lives with her brother and sister-in-law now that her parents have died.  She is also my younger sister so I have known her since her birth.  She calls to see how I am doing and to say that she “loves me to pieces.” The conversation lasts about a minute but it is a regular, consistent, expression of love that has changed my life.

From Mo Higgs and Eileen Scofield from L’Arche, Washington, to Tony Lobello and Mary Wilson from L’Arche Syracuse, a variety of mentally disabled individuals have changed my life and my understanding and experience of God.

They have helped me discover who I am, my own needs, and what it means to be human.  They have revealed the need for community in our society and have shown that those who are weak and vulnerable have something important to bring to our deeply divided world today. 

Those who are rejected by society because of their weakness and apparent uselessness are, in fact, a presence of God.

But our society rejects those with mental disabilities in multiple ways. 

Because it is common notion that a physical or developmental disability is a tragedy, when Down syndrome is diagnosed prenatally in the United States, the pregnancy is usually terminated.[1] Who would want to bring a disabled child into this world?  They are not wanted.  They do not belong. 

 This utter lack of understanding and appreciation for people with disabilities shows the importance of the mission of L’Arche: to make known the gifts of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

To reassure parents that they can, in fact, raise children with significant impairments, American society must understand that disability is a normal part of human diversity--and must provide more cultural, social, and emotional support for the families that experience it.

This attitude towards those with disabilities reaches academia.  The majority of contemporary moral psychologists ground moral maturity in rationalism.  This is represented in Lawrence Kohlberg’s landmark theory of the six stages of moral development.  Moral maturity is unavoidably cognitive, premised on a capacity for moral abstraction such that progressively fewer individuals achieve the ethical mountaintops of stages 5 and 6. 

Core members lacking sophisticated capacities for Kantian justice reasoning score at the bottom level of this moral stage framework. 

This stands in stark contrast to studies of L’Arche communities funded by the Fetzer Institute and the Templeton Foundation.  The data from these studies found that most people who live and work in L’Arche experience some sort of internal character change because of their relationships with core members.  People reported being more open to people, being more empathetic and resilient, and being more gentle, patient, and sensitive as a result of these relationships.  How could core members be such teachers of moral development if they are so underdeveloped morally?

When I mentioned to a couple of my colleagues in Trinidad that I was leaving academia to work with people with mental disabilities, the response was bewilderment.  There was nothing I could say that made them understand my decision. 

They knew I also has a job offer from the State Department, which they thought for sure I would accept. 

How could I move from a place where the intellect was given the highest value and esteem, to work with people who had little intellect, some of whom are nonverbal? 

The mind is a wonderful thing and in leaving academia I left a stimulating environment where I could help form the minds of my students and contribute to the development of ideas. 

However, I switched from the University of the Mind to the University of the Heart. 

A paradox of L’Arche is that people with mental disabilities are often more gifted than others when it comes to matters of the heart and to relationships.

I think Paul must have had the disabled in mind when he wrote:

27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.  28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things--and the things that are not--to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him.

Luisito, a man with severe disabilities, was left alone when his mother died.  He lived in the streets of Santo Domingo where neighbors would give him something to eat from time to time.  But no one was really committed to him. 

He was dirty, smelly; his body was twisted; he could not walk or talk.  People found it difficult to look at him.  He disturbed them.  He confronted them with their own and society’s ugliness, pain, and suffering. 

Today Luisito is a member of L’Arche Santo Domingo.

The mystery and secret of Jesus’ Gospel is that Luisito renders Jesus present.  It seems foolish to say that but the Gospel is truly a message of folly.  It is so simple, so amazing, yet difficult to believe it is true. 

The people on whom our world has turned its back reveal the mystery of Jesus. 

How do they do this? 

First, Luisito confronts us with the reality of our and our society’s rejection, exclusion, self-centeredness, pain and suffering. 

We are often frightened of reality because reality can be painful and a source of disappointment.  We tend to escape into a world of illusions, seeking refuge in dreams and fantasies.  Or we bury ourselves in ideas and theories, compulsions, busyness and addictions. 

We run away from our Valley of Achor, a place of misfortune described in Hosea, which is the place of our greatest and most intimate pain. 

Yet that is the place God calls us to enter so that it may be transformed into a door of hope. 

Because Luisito reminds us of our own pain and vulnerability, we are uncomfortable with his presence. 

To allow such people into our lives is to become witnesses to their misery, which is what most people refuse to do.

But the Good News of the Gospel is that if we do become witnesses to their misery and pain, if we do face their reality, these people will turn into a door of hope. 

In this process I must face my own pain and weakness.  Whether I like it or not, some things are true about me and there is no way of coming closer to God unless I am prepared to face them. 

There is no way of bearing fruit in our lives unless we face the reality of our own pain, anxiety and weakness. 

Luisito, like all of our core members, become our teachers in how to face reality. 

My sister Grace remembers everyone’s birthdays and the names of family members of friends.  She calls them on their birthday.  She calls family members who have refused to talk to each other for years.  But they all talk to Grace. 

Some of these family members have graduated from the most prestigious universities of the mind, but they are unable to communicate with other family members. 

But Grace can, because she is sensitive to the ways of our hearts. 

By opening the door to our hearts, core members can teach us much about ourselves, our moral character and our relationships with God and others that otherwise may remain hidden. 

Luisito’s teaching is not intentional.  It is not a rational process.  He teaches not by doing but by being.  Luisito teaches us by inviting us into his vulnerable space where we can see how he has been rejected.  Rejected by family, friends and society.  He is even rejected by architecture – buildings built so that he cannot enter. 

Yet his thirst for friendship, love and communion leaves no one indifferent: either you harden your heart to their cry and reject them, or you open your heart and enter into a relationship built on trust, simple tender gestures, and a few words. 

Lacking in skills of social adaptation, they are not governed by social conventions.  They are not interested in anyone’s position, rank or level of worldly success.  But they are perceptive about people’s hearts and they live in the present moment. 

Yes, there are moments of anger and rage, but their woundedness invites us to community. 

God hides herself in the mentally disabled who break down the barriers of power, wealth, ability, elitism and pride.  They pierce the armor the human heart builds to protect itself.  They teach us how to live the Gospel.  That is why they are the treasures of the church. 

Core members reflect the downward mobility of the spiritual journey that Jesus lived:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.   Philippians 2:5-8

By emptying himself and taking the form of a servant, Jesus identified himself with the poor and the weak in each of us. 

When God through Jesus comes to us in weakness, he sets the example for us to not hide our weaknesses.  This encourages us to turn to Jesus and each other, acknowledge our weaknesses and dependence on God, and thereby experience the presence of God.

As the singer Leonard Cohen said, “it’s through the cracks that the light gets in.”

God is the fountain from whom we are all called to drink, and this source of life is meant to flow, through each of us, upon all those who thirst: “As the Father has loved me, so I love you .  .  .  my commandment is that you love on another as I love you.” John 15:9-10.

Elizabeth O’Connor taught us well about the inward and outward journeys and some of us are drawn more to one than the other. 

I remember Tom Brown saying in our mission group, that the inward journey toward God was difficult for him.  But he could connect with God through service. 

Some people drink first of the inward waters flowing from God and then discover that they are called to give water to the thirsty. 

Others begin by giving water to the thirsty but soon find that their well is empty; they then discover the sources of water flowing from the heart of God which become in them “a source of water welling up into eternal life.” John 4:14

Core members have an uncanny ability to take the water we offer them, and then lead us to the well, the source of that water. 

I asked Karen to play Lauren Daigles song, You Say, because once again, people with mental disabilities show us how to counter the message of we are not enough.  The song begins with the lyrics,

I keep fighting voices in my mind that say I am not enough
every single lie that tells me I will never measure up

Many of us struggle with inner voices that tell us we are insufficient and insignificant.  Living in an overly competitive society where the highest values are individual achievement, brilliance, productivity and material success, it seems like we never have enough or are enough.  We are constantly asked to prove our value.

People with mental disabilities face these questions to an even higher degree.  The explicit and implicit messages to them are that they are insignificant, not worthy, not useful.  That they should just disappear. 

As Lauren Daigle asks, “Remind me once again just who I am because I need to know.”

A person gives glory to God by being himself or herself.  There will never be another you and whenever we try to be somebody else, we lose our identity. 

Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person, the person whom we think we want to be.  This false self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love -- outside of reality and outside of life.  And such a self cannot help but be an illusion.

Core members, in their open vulnerability, are irrevocably themselves.  They are so transparent, that any attempt to follow the false self, the egocentric desires for pleasure, power, honor, or knowledge, quickly reveal their futility and are often humorous. 

As Lauren says, “In You I find my worth, In You I find my identity.”

As Thomas Merton says, “If I find God, I will find myself and if I find my true self, I will find God.” (New Seeds of Contemplation, Chapter 5: “Things in Their Identity”)

In the midst of their pain and being excluded, core members are resilient in their efforts to welcome and build community. 

They show me how to slow down enough to hear God’s voice, that I am God’s beloved.  I belong, not because I measure up, but because I am. 

For me, core members prove the apophatic (Greek apophasis: denial, negation) strand of the contemplative tradition: God’s reality cannot be described or captured by the human intellect or expressed in human language. 

Therefore Love, not the intellect, is the key to knowing God.

As the anonymous writer of the Cloud of Unknowing says, “No one can fully comprehend the uncreated God with his or her knowledge, but each one, in a different way, can grasp God fully through love.”  In the midst of our cloud of unknowing, core members are God’s lovers, teaching us how to love.  As Grace says at the end of her brief calls, “love you to pieces.” Amen



[1] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22418958/  We need to reassure parents that they can, in fact, raise children with significant impairments. American society must to do more to emphasize that disability is a normal part of human diversity—and must provide more cultural, social, and emotional support for the families that experience it.