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Books

12/31/2014

SIGNS: Seven Words of Hope by Jean Vanier. Novalis, 2013. Paper, 94 pages, $16.95 (Can). Reviewed by Edwin Buettner.

Humiliation, awakening, encounter, authority, community, vulnerability and mystery are the seven “words” that are the focal points of this series of reflections by the well-known writer, speaker, and founder of the L’Arche communities. Though these themes will not be unfamiliar to those who have read or heard Vanier, this compilation has the character of well-aged wine. It is the distilled wisdom of one who has not merely lived over seven decades, but has become a wise elder.

Though the “words” provide helpful anchor points for the author’s reflections, these categories not to be mutually exclusive. There is a natural flow from one to the other, resulting in a well-integrated message. What is the ultimate source of this integration? For Vanier, it is found in one’s relationship with the poor; one that is not primarily about “helping” the poor, or even telling them that God loves them. Rather, it involves authentic encounters, those meetings that “expose us to our own vulnerabilities.”

Human encounters, especially those with the so-called “disabled,” give primacy to the heart and its vulnerabilities. To love is to risk rejection, shame and humiliation, yet that is precisely what gives it the potential to heal. Though we “dread the other will see our weaknesses . . . and judge us as beneath consideration,” loving encounters can “reveal to (others) their profound beauty and so . . . reveal it to themselves.”

Vanier believes that Christ took upon himself humanity’s essential poverty in order to encounter the poor: “It was in the flesh that Jesus was sent to the poor and told them, ‘I love you in the name of God.’ ” A church that sees itself as the ongoing embodiment of Christ, must therefore, bear witness “to a presence of God in a . . . humble church of which we are all part” (italics added). In other words, in order to serve the poor, the church itself must be poor and die to its “outmoded dreams of glory.” He sees the pedophile crisis as one example of how accepting humiliation has the potential to “become the very means by which we can live in greater communion.” He challenges the church to “. . . recognize (its) faults and encounter the other with humility, respect and love, as Jesus did.” In this way, the church founded by Christ can serve as a kind of organic icon for the humility of God as revealed in the Paschal Mystery.

The title indicates that the “seven words “ are evocative of hope. Though critical of his church, Vanier remains a believer in its commission to be a beacon to a troubled world. However, in order for its potential to be actualized, the church’s self-understanding must undergo a seismic shift. Vanier’s vision is based not on speculation, rather, it is grounded in a lifetime of work building community with those on the margins of society. “The renewal of the church and the new evangelization (will be) carried out through encounters with people who are broken by suffering and isolation.”