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Love can Transform the Severely Hurt Heart

The following quotations are from Jean Vanier (the founder of L’Arche, a world wide community that looks after the mentally handicapped) in his book “Becoming Human,” published in 1998. When he wrote the book, he has already lived day by day for 35 years with people who have mental handicap. He still lives with them today.


Love Transforms Chaos (24-35)

In 1975, we welcomed Claudia into our L’Arche community in Suyapa, a slum area of Tegucigalpa, Honduras. She was seven years old and had spent practically her whole life in a dismal, overcrowded asylum. Claudia was blind, fearful of relationships, filled with inner pain and anguish. Technically speaking she was autistic.

Her anguish seemed to increase terribly when she arrived in the community; probably because in leaving the asylum, she lost her reference points, as well as the structured existence that had given her a certain security. Everything and everyone frightened her; she screamed day and night and smeared excrement on the walls. She seemed totally mad; overwhelmed by insecurity, her personality appeared to be disintegrating. Claudia lived a horrible form of madness which should not be idealized or seen as a gateway to another world. In L’Arche we have learned from our own experience of healing, as well as through the help of psychiatrists and psychologists, that chaos, or “madness”, has meaning; it comes from somewhere, it is comprehensible. Madness is an immense cry, a sickness. It is a way of escaping when the stress of being in a world of pain is too great. Madness is an escape from anguish. But there is an order in the disorder that can permit healing, if only it can be found.

Twenty years after she first arrived at Suyapa, I visited the community and met Claudia again; I found her quite well. She was by then a woman, still blind and autistic but at peace and able to do many things in the community. She still liked being alone but she was clearly not a lonely person. She would often sing to herself and there was a constant smile on her face.

She did get angry at times, when she felt she was not being respected or was put in a situation that provoked feelings of insecurity. One day, I was sitting opposite to her at lunch and said, “Claudia, can I ask you a question?” She replied, “Si, Juan.”

“Claudia, why are you so happy?” Her answer was simple and direct: “Dios.” God. I asked the community leader, Nadine, what the answer meant. Nadine said, “That is Claudia’s secret.”

It was loneliness and insecurity that had brought Claudia to the chaos of madness. It was community, love, and friendship that finally brought her inner peace. This movement from chaos to inner peace, from self-hate to self-trust, began when Claudia realized that she was loved.

There are, for me, seven aspects of love that seem necessary for the transformation of the heart in those who are profoundly lonely. They are:

1.  to reveal,

2.  to understand,

3.  to communicate,

4.  to celebrate,

5.  to empower,

6.  to be in communion with another, and, finally,

7.  to forgive.



The first aspect of love, the key aspect, is revelation. Just as a mother and father reveal to their children that they have value and beauty; so, too, did the therapist and the others who lived with Claudia reveal to Claudia her value and beauty. To reveal someone’s beauty is to reveal their value by giving them time, attention, and tenderness. To love is not just to do something for them but to reveal to them their own uniqueness, to tell them that they are special and worthy of attention. We can express this revelation through our open and gentle presence, in the way we look at and listen to a person, the way we speak to and care for someone. Gestures can be filled with a respect that reveals to someone their worth, even if that worth is hidden under anger, hatred, or madness.

This revelation of value, the revelation that heals, takes time. In the case of Claudia, seven childhood years of pain in an asylum, seven years of loneliness, lack of love, and feelings of worthlessness had taken their toll. Claudia had developed survival tactics and habits founded upon her belief in her own unworthiness. Her madness and screaming were reasonable responses to a world in which nobody wanted her. It took time for the transformation, from a hatred of herself to a trust in herse1f to take place.

It is easy to trust in the beauty of a little child, but how to trust in the hidden beauty of Claudia when she appeared so “mad”? That is the fundamental question; how to trust that she has a heart and that she can, little by little, receive love, be transformed by love, and then give love.

The belief in the inner beauty of each and every human being is at the heart of l’Arche, at the heart of all true education and at the heart of being human. As soon as we start choosing and judging people instead of welcoming them as they are---with their sometimes hidden beauty, as well as their more frequently visible weaknesses---we are reducing life, not fostering it. When we reveal to people our belief in them, their hidden beauty rises to the surface where it may be more clearly seen by all.



To love also means to understand and this is the second aspect of love. Claudia needed to be understood. If no one understood her how could they help her to find inner peace and growth? Her screams were not only a sign of her inner brokenness, darkness, and anguish but also a cry for help. Difficult as it is for us to accept and come to terms with this idea, I believe that every act of violence is also a message that needs to be understood. Violence should not be answered just by greater violence but by real understanding. We must ask: where is the violence coming from? What is its meaning?

Let us go back to Claudia again.

Nadine, the community leader in Suyapa, needed help from the psychiatrist and the psychologist in caring for Claudia. In this case, she found out that Claudia needed the security of a structured day. Claudia began to learn how the day at Suyapa would evolve and how she should respond in each situation. She began to discover order and learned what to expect, as well as what was expected of her. What was important was the creation of a trusting relationship based on an understanding of Claudia’s needs.

Children like Claudia, children who flee from relationships into a world of their own and who are unable to communicate verbally, need to be understood in a special way. It takes time and a great deal of attention, as well as wisdom and help from professionals, in order to learn how to interpret their cries and their body language which reveal the desires and needs they cannot name.



The third aspect of love is then communication. Communication is at the heart of love. Just as we need to be understood, we also need to understand ourselves and for that we usually need to be helped. Children who are quite disturbed need to have someone help them name where their disturbance is coming from. When nothing is named, confusion grows and with it comes anguish.

To name something is to bring it out of chaos, out of confusion, and to render it understandable. It is a terrible thing when certain realities, such as death, are never talked about and remain hidden. When these realities are not named, they haunt us. For example, for people of my grandmother’s generation, it was forbidden to speak of sex, so sex, because it was unnamed, became powerful and controlling.

Children can then quickly discover that there is such a thing called truth; that they are not living in a chaotic world that is hypocritical, filled with only lies and pretense. Parents who admit to their children that they have been unjustly angry and ask for forgiveness are naming something: they are admitting that they are not perfect. Words and life can come together: the word can indeed become flesh.

I have learned that the process of teaching and learning, of communication, involves movement, back and forth: the one who is healed and the one who is healing constantly change places. As we begin to understand ourselves, we begin to understand others. It is part of the process of moving from idealism to reality from the sky to the earth. We do not have to be perfect or to deny our emotions.  

And here, for me, is another profound truth: understanding, as well as truth, comes not only from the intellect but also from the body. When we begin to listen to our bodies, we begin to listen to reality through our own experiences; we begin to trust our intuition, our hearts. The truth is also in the “earth” of our own bodies. So it is a question of moving from theories we have learned to listening to the reality that is in and around us. Truth flows from the earth. This is not to deny the truth that flows from teachers, from books, from tradition, from our ancestors, and from religious faith. But the two must come together. Truth from the sky must be confirmed and strengthened by truth from the earth. We must learn to listen and then to communicate.



The fourth aspect of love is celebration. It is not enough to reveal to people their value, to understand and care for them. To love people is also to celebrate them. So often the Claudias of the world are seen only as problems needing to be attended to by professionals. The Claudias also need laughter and play, they need people who will celebrate life with them and manifest their joy of being with them. It was this joy and the gentle presence of Nadine and the others in Suyapa that gradually weakened Claudia’s great walls of defence. Little by little, she began to trust that she was not bad, but capable of loving and being loved.

So many people with disabilities are seen by their parents and families only as a tragedy. They are surrounded by sad faces, sometimes full of pity, sometimes tears. But every child, every person, needs to know that they are a source of joy; every child, every person, needs to be celebrated. Only when all of our weaknesses are accepted as part of our humanity can our negative, broken self-images be transformed.



The fifth aspect of love is empowerment. It is not just a question of doing things for others but of helping them to do things for themselves, helping them to discover the meaning of their lives. To love means to empower. Claudia had to learn gradually that she was responsible for her own body; for her own life, that she had authority over her actions, and that she could make choices, however small. But with this sense of responsibility for herself also came the necessity of learning to respect others. Empowerment meant that Claudia had to learn how to observe the structures of the community and make efforts to respect and love others.

Many assistants come to our l’Arche communities to help and to live with men and women who have intellectual disabilities. An assistant’s role is like that of a midwife: to bring forth and help foster life, to let it develop and grow according to its own natural rhythm. Assistants in l’Arche are not there to make people with disabilities somehow “normal”, but to help them to grow towards maturity. For each person in l’Arche this growth towards maturity will be different. Nadine’s role, as well as the role of the other assistant, was not to control, possess, or programme Claudia, but to help her blossom forth into, freedom, to encourage her to grow and to accept herself as she is. Claudia’s life is her own secret.

Claudia could only begin to grow as she became more conscious of the mutual belonging and mutual dependence that is at the heart of the Suyapa community, itself a mirror of the larger world. And so it was that Claudia gradually began to discover that while Nadine was calling forth new life in her, Claudia was also calling forth new life in Nadine.

We have discovered how love flows into communion, the sixth aspect of love.



Communion is mutual trust, mutual belonging; it is the to-and-fro movement of love between two people where each one gives and each one receives. Communion is not a fixed state, it is an ever-growing and deepening reality that can turn sour if one person tries to possess the other, thus preventing growth. Communion is mutual vulnerability and openness one to the other. It is liberation for both, indeed, where both are allowed to be themselves, where both are called to grow in greater freedom and openness to others and to the universe.

Trust is a beautiful form of love. When we are generous, we give money, time, knowledge. In trust, we give ourselves. But we can only give of ourselves if we trust that we will be well-received by someone. At what moment is trust born? There was a secret moment, known only to Claudia, when she recognized that she was loved.

With that realization, Claudia entered into a relationship of belonging. The opening of Claudia’s heart brought about a new opening in Nadine’s heart, bringing her out of her own loneliness. That moment was the birth of communion between them.

Communion is at the heart of the mystery of our humanity. It means accepting the presence of another inside oneself, as well as accepting the reciprocal call to enter into another. Communion, which implies the security and insecurity of trust, is a constant struggle against all the powers of fear and selfishness in us, as well as the seemingly resilient human need to control another person.

To a certain extent we lose control in our own lives when we are open to others. Communion of hearts is a beautiful but also a dangerous thing. Beautiful because it is a new form of liberation; it brings a new joy because we are no longer alone. We are close even if we are far away; Dangerous because letting down our inner barriers means that we can be easily hurt. Communion makes us vulnerable.

God is present in this liberating communion. That is why in the Bible John the Evangelist writes in his first letter:

“Beloved, let us love one another because love is from God and whoever loves is born of God and knows God.” (1 John 4:7)



There is a seventh and final aspect of love, the most crucial of all in our equation, and that is forgiveness.

In order for Claudia to begin her journey out of chaos, she needed an experience of unconditional love. But no human being can respond fully to that need. Sometimes fatigue or any one of a number of things could make the assistants respond with irritation or anger towards Claudia. This would wound her fragile heart. The bonding between people in communion implies that we forgive each other and that we ask each other for forgiveness.

All of us carry within ourselves brokenness, as well as shadow areas, dark corners of the spirit where uncomfortable things are hidden. Human beings cannot be constantly attentive, loving, and nonviolent. If this is true in the greater world, it is even more true in the smaller world of l’Arche, where the assistants, those who are called to share their lives with the disabled, are not, generally speaking, trained professionals who come to work for a few hours a day; on the contrary; the commitment of the assistants becomes a permanent bond that we call a “covenant relationship”. As we live and work and pray together, we build a new form of family.

During her time in the community particularly in the early days, Claudia had fits of anger. There were times when she refused any relationship or structure; she let herself be governed by her inner pain; she closed herself up within her own needs and desires. At times like that she needed to be confronted by a firm, unflinching person who would not let her escape into anguish, loneliness, or folly; But Claudia could accept this only if she knew that she was respected and that she could turn to that person for help and protection. Authority that is not based on this fundamental trust, the assent of those who are led, can only be oppressive, destructive of personal freedom. Only an authority based on trust can permit growth to inner peace and freedom.

In order for Claudia to grow peacefully towards womanhood, she needed to gradually accept not only her physical blindness but also her inner depression and anger, the scars, even open wounds, that flowed from her experience of rejection and lack of love and understanding during the years in the asylum. It was important that Claudia discover her shadow areas, even if she could not name them, and that she learn that it was acceptable to be less than perfect. It was for Nadine to show Claudia that we are all subject to a higher, more profound law, one that we do not make but which is given to us, hidden in the heart of every human being, to reveal that life is all about growth and that it is possible for each one of us to evolve out of darkness and chaos into light and into a new order of love.

Claudia’s growth was subject then to Nadine’s growth. How could Nadine accept Claudia in all her chaos or madness if Nadine refused to accept the chaotic aspects and shadow areas in her own life? How could she trust in Claudia’s growth if she did not trust in her own growth?

In the case of Claudia, there was a place where much of this spiritual struggle and growth occurred: in prayer. For most people, prayer necessitates stepping back from the pains and joys of daily life. We need this stepping back, particularly from all that is difficult or conflict ridden, taking for ourselves a certain distance, in order to look at things not just from our own self-centred perspective but from the perspective of the vision we are seeking together. That vision is to create a place of love and belonging. Prayer is a time to let light flow into our lives, to literally “enlighten” each day

Our daily life in l’Arche is filled with so much. So many things to do and so little time. We need space to re-read the day, as it were. We need time to listen to the inner voice of hope calling us back to the essentials of love, essentials that we may have forgotten because of busyness and selfishness. To pray, then, is more about listening than about talking. To pray is to be centred in love; it is to let what is deepest within us come to the surface. For me, it is all that and more. Prayer is also a meeting with the One who loves me, who reveals to me my secret value, who empowers me to give life, who loves us all, and who calls us forth to greater love and compassion. Prayer is resting in the quiet, gentle presence of God.

Every evening the community in Honduras would gather together to pray, a simple prayer of trust and of love, calling the Spirit of God to each person. Claudia entered freely and easily into this time of prayer, opening her heart to God. Before God, at prayers, Nadine, Claudia, and everyone in the community were on an equal footing. Each one could ask for forgiveness for the hardness of their heart; each could give thanks for the love and the life they experienced; each could ask for the strength to rid themselves of selfishness.

As Claudia began to trust that she was loved not only by Nadine but also by God, it became easier for her to love herself, easier for her to believe that she could grow in love and service, to God and to others, and that she too could give life to others. Thus she gradually found a meaning in her life. She, too, had come from God, a God of love, and was going to God. The journey through life becomes meaningful through love.

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