I tell people that you go there thinking you are going to help others and you end up getting helped. My brother John, and the various people with disabilities at Joni and Friends camp have helped me see that I have inherent worth and dignity. And I’ve also learned that it is only once you learn to accept that you have worth and dignity that you are able to see it more fully in others.
Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche communities for people with disabilities, writes the following in his book Becoming Human:
Those I have lived with have helped me to recognize and accept my own weaknesses and vulnerability. I no longer have to pretend I am strong or clever or better than others. I am like everybody else, with my fragilities and my gifts.
Finding God in Inner Silence
Vanier helps us to understand that the reason being alone with ourselves is so hard is because it requires us to be honest about the fundamental loneliness that we all experience as indicative of the human condition. He explains that “loneliness is part of being human, because there is nothing in existence that can completely fulfill the needs of the human heart.” And yet, when we bring that loneliness before God, crying out to Him in all our longings, God works to liberate us from “the tentacles of chaos and loneliness, and from those fears that provoke us to exclude and reject others.” Vanier explains that this liberation, which can only be experienced after we have wrestled honestly with our own loneliness, “opens us up and leads us to the discovery of our common humanity.” Once we have begun to taste this liberation, to accept ourselves as loved by God, then we are ready to love our neighbor as ourselves.
In his book The Power of Silence, Cardinal Sarah explains that “silence is not an absence. On the contrary, it is the manifestation of a presence,” He further writes that “all activity must be preceded by an intense life of prayer, contemplation, seeking and listening to God’s will.” If you’re anything like me, spending time alone with yourself is scary and unpleasant; the temptation is to fill that silence with noise and to find distractions. Cardinal Sarah emphasizes that given the temptation to turn away, we need to embrace inner silence and prayer as a discipline, thinking of it like a habit like going to the gym or getting up for a morning run each day.
Finding God in Our Neighbor
It may seem counterintuitive to talk of seeing Christ in your neighbor before seeing Him in Scripture and the Sacraments. But remember Christ’s teaching in Matthew 5 that one is to leave his gifts at the altar and be reconciled with his brother before coming to God in worship. Christ’s words here are his commentary on Cain and Abel: He is reminding us that we cannot be in right relationship with God if we are not in right relationship with our brother/neighbor.
Vanier explains that God draws special attention to those who “suffer poverty, brokenness, disabilities, or loneliness.” He writes that “they cry out to us for help, these millions named Lazarus” but notes that “their cries become dangerous for those of us who live in comfort” because “if we listen to their cries and open our hearts, it will cost us something.” So just like we distract ourselves from our own inner loneliness, and run from stillness, so also we “pretend not to hear the cry and so exclude them.” Vanier says that “if we are courageous and open, we will find a new way to live that is far more humane.” And this leads directly into the work we normally associate with the pro-life cause: “when we ally ourselves with the excluded in society, not only are we enabled to see people as people and to join them in their struggle for justice, to work for community and places of belonging, but we also develop the critical tools for seeing what is wrong in our own society.”
I want to suggest that we cannot be fully pro-life, regardless of how often we attend the March for Life, if our heart is closed off to the life of our neighbors, and especially our smelly neighbor, our suffering neighbor, our annoying neighbor, our neighbor who offends our religious sensibilities or holds a set of political beliefs that is antithetical to our own. But if we can learn to see Christ in our neighbor, we will better recognize Him in the Mass and in the masses - and also at the March.
Finding God in The Sacred Scriptures and Sacraments
Cardinal Sarah writes that “through Sacred Scripture, when it is listened to and meditated upon in silence, divine graces are poured out on man.” And even more pointedly, he writes that “it is through long hours of poring over Sacred Scripture, after resisting all the attacks of the Prince of this world, that we will reach God.” St. John tells us that the “Word is God” (John 1:1) which means that in reading Scripture we are encountering God directly.
As with any encounter with God, reading the Scriptures shapes both our conscience and our moral imagination, and that’s essential because it prepares us for all good works (2 Timothy 3:16-17). And we do need to do good works: St. James puts a fine point on it in his epistle: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” (1:22.) Just as we seek God both in our own heart and the face of our neighbor, so also we seek God in both the reading of Scripture and in the living it out. As we read in 1 John 4:7-8, “beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love.”
In addition to a regular engagement with Christ in the Scriptures, we need regular participation in Christ in the Eucharist, which is as the Catechism states, “the source and summit of the Christian life.” (CCC 1324.) Consider the words of Pope Benedict XVI that “with the Eucharist, therefore, heaven comes down to earth, the tomorrow of God descends into the present and it is as if time remains embraced by divine eternity.” The Eucharist, our reception of Christ Himself, sanctifies all of time, and unites us to God.
After receiving the Eucharist, at the conclusion of the Mass, we are told to go forth and evangelize. Fed by Christ, we are compelled to share that good news with our neighbors. And here we see everything comes full circle: having encountered Christ in the Mass, we are sent out with graces to continue to encounter Him in the silence of our heart and in the faces of our neighbors.