Advent: Introduction- Hospitality of the Heart.
This year in Austin, our group – Austin Parable- has been meeting regularly in the hope of starting a community in the spirit of L’Arche, Jean Vanier, Sue Mosteller, and Henri Nouwen. So much has emerged and grown this year and we are taking some leaps of faith in the near future to set some concrete things in motion. As it happens, one of the biggest challenges in front of us is not fundraising, legal loopholes, non-profit status, “recruiting” members and assistants, CPR training, nor even securing real estate. The greatest task in front of us as a group is to develop the character and the culture of L’Arche that makes L’Arche communities so different than the group homes, residential facilities, and intentional communities in that exist in the world today. This is so challenging because so much of what it means to be L’Arche is ineffable, impossible to state. So how on earth can we take the first steps and what does that have to do with Advent?
There are many living arrangements in the world for people with disabilities, some, even right here in Austin, are atrocious and border on inhumane. Other places can be stellar examples of respect, mutuality, and empowerment. To be sure, we in Austin Parable will have a lot to learn from those stellar care facilities. But L’Arche has never been only a care facility, a residence, or even a program. It may be all of these things and needs to learn to execute those things impeccably. But at its heart, L’Arche is a familial community, an intentional life together, and a spiritual vocation with roots in the Beatitudes.
To be clear there is an element of absurdity in this spirit of L’Arche. Many professional caregivers with experience running care facilities will perceive this description as a recipe for failure, wildly too ambitious, and foolish in its undertakings. I won’t disagree with that, our call doesn’t make a ton of worldly sense. I am just fully persuaded that the beauty of the life that is possible in an L’Arche community, as is already embodied in L’Arche communities all over the world, far outweighs the impossibility of their existence and reminds me once again to state that sometimes, the impossible just takes a little while.
So as we move forward with all the practical demands of cultivating an empowering and profoundly human community for people with intellectual disabilities, the most practical and most urgent task is to become persons (and a community) that see truthfully and clearly the giftedness of every single human, especially when that giftedness is less obvious to the shape of how we perceive things right now. We absolutely must be able to see and believe in the giftedness and givenness of everyone, especially when others can not.
Can I really come to believe that every single human is a gift, and gifted, even if that person is profoundly mentally “disabled,” and possibly unable to speak, sit up, or even feed themselves? OK, but what if they are Republican? Or a cross-fitter? Or even, God help us, an actual politician? What about an atheist, a Muslim, a vegan, a pro-lifer, a lesbian, a person with HIV/AIDS, a rabbi, a feminist, a scholar, a transgendered person, or an undocumented resident? How long do I have to make this list before we all start sweating profusely? I will answer: not long.
At the end of the day, the spirituality of what we are trying to do at Austin Parable is focussed on discovering the blessedness (as Jesus would call it) of people with abilities that are sometimes very different than mine. But in truth, it is going to demand of our character and ability to grow and learn that we open ourselves to all of the surprises and gifts of any one of the humans God may bring into our path. It gets very real and very hard, not in saying we should believe that all people are gifts, but in living with the people whose gifts aren’t being welcomed…. or with the person in the cubicle next to you who microwaves salmon every day in the break room for lunch. C’mon dude. And sometimes reconciling with a spouse and welcoming their giftedness 8n a moment is much harder than loving an enemy. How do we learn to open our hearts then? However able we can begin to welcome the “least of these” is the same extent to which we are able to welcome God into our lives. That is the truth of the Beatitudes, and that is the artfulness of Advent: If we want more of God, we will need more of each other. So, welcome.
For our first, practical baby-steps toward becoming a group, a community, capable of living in the Spirit of L’Arche-which assumes that it is the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers and the persecuted who are really the ones who we have to understand as being blessed- we have to start by being capable of being surprised. And nothing will eventually surprise us more than practicing the art of true hospitality. We need to get our ‘welcome’ on.…. not so much in the spirit of Martha Stewart (though she might help us) but in the spirit of Jean Vanier, who in trying to live the beatitudes moved in with two men with disabilities -Raphael and Phillipe- and unwittingly started the first L’Arche community.
So for this year I and a few dear friends will be living and cultivating Hospitality of Heart so that we can be open to the surprises that have the potential to make us more loving, more able to recognize the blessedness of those with abilities not celebrated by the rest of the world, and more ourselves as God meant us to be.
As it happens the skills of hospitality, are particularly relevant to the Advent season in which we practice waiting and preparing. Even in the readings for the first Sunday in Advent, (Luke 21:25-36) we are given good advice for this whole next phase of our becoming: pay attention, be on guard, look, what you seek from God is much much much closer than you think.
If anything, Advent reminds us God is moving toward us and asks to be ready. We have some preparing to do, not just for the baby Jesus in the manger, but for each other in our lives, our homes, our cars, our calendars, and even our hearts. God moves toward us and it is wise to clean house and make room.
We have to prepare because God does not come to us as we want, but as God is, which for most of us is a grace if for no other reason than it is also a surprise.
The challenge for us in Advent is to believe God will come to us in the least likely of places: a manger, a pregnant teenage girl on a donkey, an angel to the shepherds, and also a person who has Down’s syndrome. …Don’t take my word for it. We can discover it together. Let’s just agree we would like to see for ourselves how this blessedness really works in God’s kingdom like Jesus talks about, and see where it takes us, however strange it might seem in the moment.
This is the good news we have been waiting for. It is also just about the most dangerous prayer (and interesting) I can think to pray on this, the first day of Advent.
Dear God, welcome to our world. Help us make room for you in it, especially if the only way to do that is to make room for each other in our lives.
Doug is not officially affiliated with the L'Arche federation of communities and does not speak for them. While some of the members have lived in an L'Arche community, and even immersed themselves in L'Arche friendships, readings, and practices, Austin Parable is not affiliated with the L'Arche Federation ....yet. Let's say a prayer. Austin Parable fully welcomes people of all faiths and abilities. For more information click here and contact Austin Parable.