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The Wounded Heart of a Child

The following quotations are from Jean Vanier’s (the founder of L’Arche, a world wide community that looks after the mentally handicapped) in his book “Man and Woman He Made them,” published in 1984. When he wrote the book, he has already lived day by day for 20 years with people who have mental handicap. He still lives with them today.


1. The Disillusionment of Parents (11-26)

     A person with a mental handicapped has deep wounds in his or her heart and affections. These wounds can seriously affect the sexuality of the person, which may then become quite disturbed. A handicap is often very visible. It is written on the face, the legs and the hands. It is apparent in the person’s speech or lack of speech, in the inability to reason, to plan and to face the future. The wounded heart, on the other hand, is hidden, revealing itself through fear, lack of confidence, depression, violence, fantasies and withdrawal from reality. Above all, it is manifested by a broken image of self, a profound guilt and a refusal of life.

     The person with a mental handicap is a disappointment to the parents who expected a beautiful, healthy child, looking like them, a child in whom they had placed much hope. At the time of birth, or after an illness or accident, they saw the handicap in the face and body of their child. Doctors confirmed their fears, perhaps brutally: ‘Your child is severely handicapped. We can do nothing. Put him away and plan to have another as soon as possible.’ In an instant, their hearts were crushed, their hopes shattered; and anger was born. ‘Why has this happened to us? What have we done to deserve this?’ Then, because it is necessary to blame someone, comes the terrible question: ‘Whose fault is this?’ In the Gospel (John 9:2) the apostles ask the question about the man born blind: ‘Master, who has sinned, this man or his parents?’ They are asking: ‘Who is guilty?’ Is the child with a handicap a punishment from God? And if so, how can the fault be expiated?

     More and more I am touched by the suffering and difficulties of parents. At l’Arche, we have our days off, our holidays, our times of renewal and spiritual refreshment. We have chosen to live with handicapped people. Parents have no days off, little support and no chance to refresh their spirits. They did not choose their child to be ‘like that.’ For them, it is a tragedy, a personal humiliation, and constant suffering. We at l’Arche are often admired for our ‘dedication’; parents, on the other hand, are often pitied or looked down upon. A whole school of psychological thought even blames them, especially if the child is psychotic. There are many heroic parents who live long days and often long nights with terribly disturbed children. There are no schools, centers or special workshops near their homes. They do not have competent or understanding psychologists and doctors to encourage and support them. Often shunned by neighbors, friends, and even family and church, they find themselves terribly alone, utterly abandoned. Believing they are punished by God, they close in on themselves in isolation and anguish.


2.The Suffering of the Child (12-13)

     All sufferings deeply affect the child. It is a terrible thing for a child to feel it has lets its parents down and is the cause of their pain and their tears. The wounded hearts of parents wound the heart of the child. A healthy child senses itself as the cause of joy and the centre of delighted attention, one whom everyone wants to touch, to hug and to hold. The child senses the pride and joy of its parents as each new skill is gradually developed and acquired. Between the baby and its parents, there is a life-giving dialogue, which stimulates, calls forth, encourages and supports. The tiniest baby senses whether or not it is truly precious to parents, loved by them in a unique way.

     Sometimes I am asked: ‘Is a child or an adult who has a severe mental handicap aware of his or her condition? Do they suffer from this?’ For the most part, I don’t know. But this I do know: the tiniest infant senses if it is loved and wanted, or not. Similarly, people with mental handicap, even a severe one sense immediately whether they are loved and valued by the way they are looked at, spoken to and welcomed.

     A newborn child is extremely fragile and vulnerable. Unable to do anything alone, he or she must be fed, washed and held. There is only one recourse, which is to cry. If the baby feels loved and valued, there is a feeling of security and safety; the baby is able to live, to be at ease and to enter with confidence into relationships with others and with the reality of the world. However, the life of a baby who does not feel loved and valued is in danger; other people and the surroundings become threatening. Then, the baby enters into the world of fear and insecurity, where one instinctively harden oneself in order to protect oneself and thus to survive. The child suffers terribly; he or she lives in anguish.

     A child also live in anguish and experiences a form of interior death if its mother is too possessive and has invested herself too exclusively in him or her. Somehow she communicates the fear of separation, and through this can smother life. Every child is called to leave its parents. Therefore, children must learn early in life to cope with separation and frustration. This is as necessary for their growth as it is to be loved and valued. True love does not imprison; it liberates. A mother cannot be occupied totally with her child; she has a husband also, and she has her own needs. The child must learn the frustrations of separation in order to discover the joys of reunion with parents and to put his or her confidence in the bonds which unites them all together.

Few people seem to understand the depth of the anguish of a tiny child who is not loved or who is ‘badly’ loved. Fortunately, scientific research, focusing on the newborn infant, is discovering today what mothers have always known: that the relationship between the mother and  child is profoundly sacred and precious, a source of life for them both.

     Today, human science has ascertained, in part, that a newborn infant cannot only see and hear (though in a very limited way), but can even recognize the smell of its mother. We know that an intense dialogue, harmony, relationship already exist between the baby and the mother---even before the child is born. If that relationship is defective, if the little one does not sense its mother’s love---which not only rejoices in her baby’s beauty and uniqueness, but also in its potential for growth, for autonomy and eventual separation from her---then the baby feels lost and enters into anguish. It experiences either an inner emptiness or an inner suffocation. 


3. Anguish (14-18)

            Anguish is a terrible reality, the greatest of human sufferings. This is why it is used in torture. When the victim suffers total anguish, there is a sense of terrible confusion, of being utterly lost. Then he or she will be unable to keep any secret.

     Anguish first reveals itself in the region of the solar plexus, the seat of the emotions, and then spreads throughout the whole body. Inner balance is broken, and the person become agitated, confused, unable to reason or to judge. The normal digestive and sleep cycles are destroyed, with a tendency to eat and sleep too much or not at all.

     This state of anguish is so terrible that it cannot be tolerated for long. In order to survive and escape the pain, the child protects itself by creating defenses, in particular by cutting itself off from the deep feelings of the heart and hiding in a world of dreams. When the heart of a person is solidly barricaded in this way, there is psychosis. If the barriers are less solid, there is instability, sometimes deep depression, agitation, apathy or aggression.

     In the case of adolescents or adults, the defences may take on different forms. Some escape into hyperactivity, a burning desire to succeed, to win, to dominate; others search for compensation in alcohol, drugs, sexual encounters, a continual search for distraction and pleasure. Still others sink into depression, mental illnesses, or delinquency.

     When I see Evelyn banging her head against the floor, when I hear Robert in the middle of the night begging someone to cut off his genitals, when I see Luke aimlessly running round and round, when I see the closed, tense face of George, I know in each there is a profound agony and an unbearable interior restlessness.

     A baby who has a mental handicap, sensing that it is not wanted, will harden its heart and body and, to protect itself, will withdraw from reality. There is thus a sort of inner death: life no longer evolves. Agitation prevents development. Certain aspects of the psychic being become blocked. The brain, language and even physical development are affected. Thus begins the fragmentation of the being.

     I remember John Mark seated next to me in the chapel, whispering over and over: ‘I have the devil in me. I have the devil in me.’ The story of John Mark is a story of rejection. Born in a psychiatric hospital, abandoned by his mother, he was adopted, but this did not work out. He then went from one foster family to another. After a time, he was placed in a small institution and then sent to a psychiatric hospital because he has shown signs of violence. At the age of 27, he came to l’Arche. Never in his life had he a lasting and unique relationship with an adult. Moved from one place to another, he had never heard anyone say to him, ’You are my beloved son and you are my joy. Between us is an indestructible bond. No matter what you do, you will always be my child.’ John Mark was without any roots.

     If one has never been loved, how can one believe oneself to be lovable? And if one is not lovable, then it must be because one is evil. The logic of love is relentless. Because no one ever had confidence in him, because on one had ever formed a bond with him, John Mark was not able to have confidence in himself. He had a negative image of himself. Perhaps John Mark is an extreme example, but how many handicapped people suffer from the image they have been given of themselves?

     There is Yvette, who was welcome into one of our communities and who had been considered a crazy idiot since her early childhood. She is imprisoned in that image and continually tries to live up to it.

     I remember Michael who, when he won a gold medal in the Special Olympics, wept and cried out: ‘Do you think that now my mother will believe I am good for something?’

     There is Georgette who, when asked if she would like to be married some day, replied: ‘I will never marry because my mother told me that if I married I might have a child like me.’

     I am always struck by the way each is the reflection of how he or she is seen by others. Gloria, who lives in a l’Arche community in a Latin-American slum, acts so differently now compared to the time when she was with her family who scorned her. At home, family and neighbors looked on her as the ‘village idiot’. In our home, where she is treated with hope, respect and understanding, she is adjusting more and more; her personality is becoming more structured despite her crises. Girls like her lie in wait to see if others look at them in fear, judgment, scorn, and superiority, or with understanding, kindness and joy in her presence. The eyes are the mirror where each of us discovers who we are. ‘Who am I for you?’ Gloria is so much who we see her to be. And she is capable of interpreting the tiniest nuance: ‘You love me because I gave you a gift? You love me because I am making progress? You love me because through me you found a meaning to your life?’ Or rather, ‘You love me for me, because my life means something?’

     These are only a few examples. I could give hundreds of others, showing the deep suffering of mentally handicapped people, and how the negative, broken image they have of themselves comes from the image others have of them. Dr. Dolto, a child psychiatrist, at a session for special educators in France, once explained how the psychotic child identifies himself with human excrement. Always feeling rejection, always perceiving himself as bad, he identifies himself with what is rejected as waste and which smells bad.

     I am always impressed by the love people with a mental handicap have for their parents, even when there are no grounds for such love, even when they have been mistreated and abandoned. People who have a mental handicap always hope for the happy and loving reunion with their parents, even when their waiting and their hope are so often disappointed and dashed to the ground. I have never heard one of them criticize or judge his or her parents. The tragedy is rather that they condemn themselves as if they deserved their parents’ rejection. They feel and develop a profound sense of guilt because they feel it is they who are bad and evil.

     Let me tell you about Betty. She lived with an impossible mother, a ‘bad’ mother. She has endured so much that now she is unable to live with a woman assistant without persecuting her, without avenging herself. But, is it truly revenge? Is it not rather a cry: ‘You see, you will never be able to love me, I am too bad.’ Thus, she relives the conflict with her mother.

     One of the difficulties of the child, but also found between engaged couples or husband and wife, is to idealize the parent (or the other), to turn them into idols. They become as gods who ought to fulfill every need. When this doesn’t happen, then the child either feels it is its own fault or rejects the one who has not lived up to its expectations. It is so difficult in any relationship to accept the loved one as a fallible person who also has needs, and to avoid projecting one’s own needs on to the other.

     I remember a meeting at l’Arche to discuss a man who has been severely rejected by his family and who was quite disturbed. Dr Franko, then the psychiatrist of our community, said of him: ‘He feels guilty for existing.’ So many men and women we welcome into l’Arche have been considered to be difficult and unbearable by their families (and often they have been). They have been treated only in negative terms, as idiots, disabled, deficient. It is not surprising they feel guilty, responsible for the tears and anguish of their parents. It is not surprising that they have cut themselves off from their hearts; they have suffered too much. They cannot bear the pain any more.

     This deep wound of the heart is the source of their bizarre behaviour, whether aggressive or depressive. Not having been recognized as true human beings, capable of growth, they are unable even to begin forming a true relationship with another. Having always been considered by others as an object, they will consider others as objects; they cannot imagine that they are capable of giving life and happiness to another. In order to live they must make the transition from a negative self-image to a positive image, from a feeling of being without value to a feeling of being valued. Who will help them make this transition?

This inner fragmentation is not restricted to people who have

mental handicap. It is found in all unwanted children, children who feel they are a burden. These, too, must protect themselves from unbearable pain. I remember a prisoner, condemned for kidnapping a child, telling me that his mother had told him when he was eight years old: ‘If the contraceptives had worked, you would not be here today.’

Symptoms of depression are often found, not only in such children, but also in people who are scorned because of their race, their poverty, or their inabilities.

These same wounds are found also, though to a lesser degree, in the hearts of all children. This becomes clearer and clearer to me each day. Every child, some day or other, has felt more or less let down by its parents, has felt unloved, unappreciated. Parents go through periods of depression; they are taken up by their own problems and needs and do not give adequate attention to caring for their child. And the heart of a child is so vulnerable and sensitive! These wounds which remain in the unconscious produce difficulties in future relationships, and even in the use of one’s sexuality. They accentuate a separation between genital sexuality and the heart, between the search for sexual pleasure for self and the search for an authentic and deep relationship with another who is seen as a unique person having his or her own needs and freedom.

However, it seems evident---to anyone who knows all kinds of families, united or divided, all kinds of parents, over-protective or unloving or, on the other hand, very present and loving---that a wounded heart is not produced in a child only by the attitudes of parents. Even the most marvellous parents can never fulfil every hope and need in the child. They are able to love their child, but they are not able to ensure that the child’s heart will itself be loving. Certainly, in a child, there is great innocence and beauty but, regardless of all the qualities of its parents, there are also all kinds of fear, fragility and egotism. In the heart of a child there is always a void which can be filled only by an infinite love. This is the glory and the tragedy of humankind. St Augustine’s words, ‘My heart is restless until it rests in God’, applies to each and every human being. The wounded heart of every child, with its selfishness and fear, comes from an aware ness of this emptiness deep within our being which we desperately try to fill. This void is an anguish but, if the child has even a minimum of confidence, it can become a driving force towards a search for truth.

Christian doctrine on the wounded heart, or original sin, appears to me the one reality which is easily verified. It would be an error to believe that if there were no oppressive parents, if there was no oppressive society, then we would have only beautiful children, loving, happy, integrated within themselves. No, in the heart of each of us, there is division, there is fear, there is fragility; there is a defence system which protects our vulnerability, there is flight from pain, there is evil and there is darkness. However, the child who has relationships which help and truly support, will find hope and trust to go forward in the search for true fulfilment.



What is true for a child is true for the young person or adult with a mental handicap whom we welcome at l’Arche. Many come to us without having received any real education. They have been trained at a psychiatric hospital or centre where they were obliged to conform to its laws through fear of punishment or the promise of privileges. But this is not true education; it is, rather, the way animals are trained.

Life in community requires the recognition of certain rules, the welcoming and respecting of others. If we want to be the centre of attention, to have always the biggest piece of cake, then we will live in a state of continual conflict. We will tend then to crush the weak, to search for companions who agree with us, to avoid all those who seem to oppose us. It is a struggle in which all seek their own interests and, in those interests, manipulate others. We cannot live harmoniously together if we are thinking only of ourselves.

This is what divides our society and our world, raising walls of fear between individuals and nations. The poor are crushed while more and more armaments pile up for defence or attack. A human being who does not think of others and their needs, SOWS the seeds of division and war.

This individualistic attitude is the negation of love. It leads to sexual activity concerned only with selfish pleasure. It does not engage the heart in a true and harmonious relationship which expresses a real communion with and tenderness for the other, confirming and helping the other towards fulfilment.

The fundamental principle of all education is to open the heart and the mind to the needs of others. This implies a certain quality of observation and of listening. There is an education of the intelligence through concepts and knowledge. There is also an education of both the heart and the will in love and service to others.

The essence of education is to lead a person into relationships with others, in openness and sensitivity to their limitations and in response to their needs. Maturity is growth in responsibility for oneself and for others.

In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries it was debated whether slaves had souls and whether they had a real inner life and were capable of making choices. Today, some people doubt whether a person with a mental handicap is capable of an inner life and of love. Some want to introduce a person with a mental handicap to sexual pleasure as a right, without helping him or her to discover the joy of loving and being in communion with another person.

The aim of education at l’Arche is to help each one to welcome people just as they are, to appreciate them, to see their beauty, and to respond to their needs for true growth and liberation.

Certainly it is important to learn to be autonomous. But, it is more important to develop one’s capacities, not as an end in itself but in order better to enter into communication with others and to build with them---not against them---a world of justice where each one feels responsible for others. Those with handicaps are capable of such love Maybe with the little they have, they are able to love more deeply than those who are rich in knowledge, power and possessions.

People with a mental handicap live closer to their hearts. Their perception and awareness are more emotional and affectionate than rational. On the other hand, people who have developed their reasoning capacities often have more difficulty meeting others freely. They live on the level of logic and competition, wanting to prove that they are the best. Intellectual faculties, powers of reason, and the capacity of action are often used to prove their superiority and to dominate others.

I do not believe that the capacity to give freely and lovingly comes only after a long development of the rational faculties. Certain theories of child development give the impression that the child is fundamentally selfish, only able to receive and consume. It is implied that until a more advanced stage of intellectual development has been reached, the child is unable to discover itself as a part of a greater whole. It is implied that gift of self is purely rational and willed. My experience with those whose reason and will are less developed gives no evidence they are unable to love freely and unselfishly, or that their hearts remain on the level of subjective feelings, incapable of union with another.

A newborn child lives in a profound communion with its mother. The baby receives and, in its own way, gives. The child loves and wants to express this love. It has need of its mother and the security she gives, but beyond this, there is an experience of a relationship with her. The child may not be rationally conscious of that love, but it senses the peace engendered by it. The child who is loved as a unique person, experiences a sense of well-being and the revelation of its own beauty, and is aware of receiving life and strength from its mother. The baby expresses its love through the gift of its joyful smile and confidence. The child, in communion with its mother, gives itself to her without reserve, without fear, confident of being loved. This in turn gives life to the mother, reveals to her her own beauty and the truth of her fruitfulness, her capacity to give life, not only biologically but spiritually, through love and communion.

As the child develops, its innocence, the joys of communion and wonder in the discovery of the world, are tarnished. In its vulnerability, its immense emotional need and almost infinite thirst to be loved, the child is wounded by the parents’ lack of attention, whether deliberate or more often, unconscious. This opens the more profound wound in the heart of the child, that original flaw of which we spoke earlier. A series of barriers are then created because the feelings of inner emptiness, pain and anguish are unbearable. Yet, these barriers and even parental limitations can be positive, because they force the child to begin to separate itself from its parents and to work through frustrations. This becomes harmful only if there is a fragility too great to bear these frustrations or to overcome the anguish. Then, the child flounders in a sea of sadness. Alternatively, if the suffering is too great and too early, the response will be an attempt to cut off the pain and suffering and, in so doing, the deep feelings of the heart will be cut off. The defences thus built up become more or less impenetrable.

If the heart has been hurt, the child tends to turn toward knowledge, power and efficiency, toward personal success, indeed to all those areas which demand less relationship. No longer feeling unique in terms of love and communion, the child will seek to be unique in terms of action and production. Consequently, it will find it difficult to direct the gifts of intelligence and activity towards the service of others. The child will always tend to act in order to prove him or herself, to dominate, to feel superior, to compensate for the sense of inferiority.

When Jesus tells us that we must become like little children, he reveals what is most profound and divine in a human being. Behind all the barriers built up since childhood, there is the pure and innocent heart of a child where the gift of God resides. This heart is capable of receiving and giving love, of living in communion with another person and with God, capable of being a source of life for others. In the designs of God, it is the heart which is meant to inspire all human activities.

The great suffering and the great sin of human beings is no longer to believe in the innocence of communion and mutual trust which opens us up to others, to the whole world and to God. This sin is to let oneself be seduced by efficiency, power and material possessions rather than building one’s life on love and welcome, with all the risks of suffering that entails. It is to close oneself up upon oneself.

Sartre, in his book Being and Nothingness, sees love only as a battle where one person wins and decides and the other loses and becomes dependent. He seems to ignore the reality of communion, which is different from ‘fusion’, which implies the disappearance of one or the other, or both. Communion is a Union ‘with’ the other which respects, deepens and strengthens the identity of each one; but, this communion is only possible if we have had a true experience of freely offered love, where the other does not wish ‘to eat us up’ and make us dependent---a love which, on the contrary, helps us to grow and discover what is best in us.

So often people hide behind barriers of knowledge, power and wealth, fearful of relationships and dialogue. Love appears to them as no more than a manipulation or a desire to possess the other, preventing that person from being him or herself. Dependence seems to be a loss, a form of death. So, they harden themselves against this possibility and, in so doing, they hurt others.



Eric was sixteen years old when we welcomed him to l’Arche

some years ago. He had been placed in a hospital at the age of four; he was blind, deaf, severely brain-damaged and his heart terribly wounded by being abandoned by his family.

In the hospital there were doctors and nurses who cared for him, but none were able to answer the deep cries of his heart. They were not there to establish lasting and loving relationships with him. Hospitals are not homes but places for treatment.

The body of a child who senses it is loved and secure is relaxed. A child who feels abandoned and alone becomes rigid and tense, so as not to suffer too much anguish. Thus it was with Eric who protected himself against an environment which he perceived as hostile, because it was incapable of responding to his cry and his enormous need for tenderness. The rigidity of Eric’s heart had become a rigidity of his whole body. His muscles were like wood. When he came to us, he could not walk.

Eric would only refind his desire to live when he could discover that he was loved by another person and that there were real and lasting bonds between them — not possessive bonds, but bonds which could liberate.

Because Eric was deaf and blind, this relationship could only be established through a touch filled with tenderness and respect, a touch which reassured him and showed him that he was supported and loved, that he was safe. It was important to spend a lot of time with Eric’s body, bathing him, feeding him, walking and playing with him. Only through the constant fidelity of this touch could he gradually gain confidence arid discover that he was lovable and able to grow, that he was valued. During the five years he was at l’Arche, Eric became more peaceful. No longer did he try, in a crazy way, to climb up every adult in his thirst to be touched. However, he still remained disturbed; there were still doors firmly locked within him, and his body remained rigid. We did not find the key which would allow him to open his heart and reveal his vulnerability and his capacity to respond with confidence to love. Perhaps that would have put him in too much danger. For to open his heart would have been to relive certain agonies and traumas of his early childhood, and particularly the experience of being abandoned; it would have meant accepting the risk of new failure in a relationship, a new abandonment. Would he ever have been able to take such a risk? We Cannot know.

In another l’Arche community, Yvette was welcomed from a Psychiatric centre She was ten years old then and had suffered repeated rejection. She had always been called ‘the mad child’. She hid the reality of her heart behind many aggressive and anti-social gestures. It took a long time for the leader of the community to meet her behind all those barriers. On arriving, Yvette was not ready to give her trust at the first overture. Those who have been terribly wounded, as she was, will not open up easily; they are suspicious of kind words, of kind people. Yvette did not want to live through another experience of desertion, so it was better not to create new relationships; she hid and closed herself up. Then, Yvette began to test the love shown her by making much mischief and by running away: ‘Are you really concerned about me?’ ‘Do you really love me?’ Then came the day when the innocent child within her dared to believe that she was loved. Yvette accepted the tenderness; she opened the door of her heart. However, very quickly she shut it again. But, for an instant, for the first time, she had tasted the joy of communion with another person. Some days later, she dared to turn again towards tenderness: she then began a game of hide and seek, a going and coming, until the day when she was able almost. totally to open her heart, She had found peace. She had accepted dialogue. She had found trust in an adult. Today, she knows she is loved and appreciated; she is now ‘at home’; she is learning to love and serve those weaker than herself, But it took much time and attention, much suffering and many battles before she was able to make the transition. During the dark days, the community leader, speaking of Yvette, said to me: ‘In order for her to come out of herself and live, our hope in her must be deeper than the despair within her.’

Eric and Yvette needed a redemptive love. It was not simply a question of loving a child who has a handicap, but of loving a wounded child who had lost all confidence in self and in others, who was broken and entrenched behind barriers. Such children need a love which will put them together again and lead them to wholeness. Some children are so wounded that they are obliged to cut themselves off from their hearts and the pain of the past. They have built inner barriers in order to forget those agonizing times. However, in order to have a future, to have hope, all of us must come to terms with our past. The discovery of peace and liberation, and the possibility of growth, depend on the integration of one’s being which includes the integration of the past. Some people are never able to do this; their wounds are too severe.

Redemptive love must permit children or adolescents to live through essential aspects of parental love which was denied to them. They must discover a deep and lasting bond with an adult. They must experience the joy that an adult has in being with them; they must discover that an adult has confidence in them, is proud of them and of their growth. This love must be very concrete and bring them back to a relationship with their own bodies.

Through this love these young people will discover the beauty and sacredness of their own bodies. They are able to discover this only through a touch of tenderness and forgiveness, a touch of immense respect and hope. Only when someone begins to be at ease with his or her own body, to consider it as their own, is it possible to approach a true relationship with the body of another person.

All of this will take a long time. Sometimes, despite every effort, it will never come about. The adolescent young man remains divided and disturbed and unable to find the right boundaries to relationships; or else he seeks too quickly a close physical relationship, which is always dangerous for him and the other person because sooner or later it leads to rejection; or else he hides behind walls which have been built over the years and flees from all relationships. In the face of this suffering, the most important thing we can do is to accept and continue living with the person, deeply respecting the wound that is being carried, but always keeping hope in our hearts.



As we have seen, a child sensing that he or she is not loved, experiences emptiness arid anguish. Barriers are built around the heart to repress the pain. To cut oneself off from one’s own heart is to cut oneself off also from all that is most profound and intimate within, from the very source of life and love.

Unable to live with others, there will be escape into cerebral activities, aesthetics, work, immediate pleasure and aggression, or, even into the world of madness. Love is impossible. The intuition of the heart, which makes us sensitive to others and their needs, and which is the foundation of communion and mutual confidence, is lost.

How can we help people rediscover their source, their whole ness and centre of unity? They must be helped to descend through all the barriers to the most vulnerable region of the heart. In so doing, they will relive certain anguishes of the past, and certain experiences of hate and revolt born of all their inner suffering.

Contact with the deepest feelings of the heart is often an almost unbearable experience, unless there is a good and competent person who will listen to the cry and carry the suffering with compassion. This person must know how to accept the aggression which may erupt and is a necessary passage to a true relationship.

I am more and more convinced that each human being needs to be supported and accompanied in such a way, so as to grow and become more loving, transparent and responsible, and to break out of the prison of fear and anguish. It is not only the person with a handicap who needs to be accompanied through these interior transitions, but also the assistants. They, too, have their blockages and barriers and must learn to grow towards an ever more responsible love.

At certain times, someone who can no longer find a way to escape inner conflicts will enter into crisis. A crisis is the revelation of an interior void. This emptiness can be filled ultimately only by an authentic love, a love which comes from God, though it often passes through people. This true love alone reveals to the Person that he or she is not alone but is precious, of value and Capable of giving life and of loving. When the sources of life are awakened, there is an experience of wholeness which fills the void which the crisis uncovered.

In demolishing the barriers and refinding the sources of life, a measure of inner unity, of integration, is attained. Such transitions imply suffering. But often this suffering is accompanied

by a new experience of God in the depths and vulnerability of the heart of the person.



In order to open oneself to others and to the world, a wounded person needs to find someone who agrees to act as an intermediary. When a true relationship is established, the barriers slowly begin to fall, the person is able to leave the prison of sorrow and fear in which he or she was enclosed. Discovering confidence in oneself, it is no longer necessary to fight others and one’s surroundings. One can begin to have confidence in them too. Little by little, the capacity to listen, to welcome and to experience wonder grows, and one can open oneself to the universe in trust. The intermediary is like a rock upon which a person can lean, a source to which one can return to be sustained, confirmed and encouraged.

In the world of education, the intermediary plays a major role with the wounded person. They replace the parents when these have been lacking, those parents who should have been the first intermediaries; protecting, supporting, and awakening their child. To win the child over, the intermediary must approach gently, first creating a relationship of trust. The child must sense itself to be loved and respected by someone who wishes to live a covenant relationship, not wanting to manipulate, crush or impose, but wanting only the liberation and growth of the child. Before suggesting solutions, however good they may be, the intermediary must first discover the beauty of the wounded person, hidden under the ugliness and violence. In effect, love is not primarily to do something for someone, but it is to reveal to that person his or her value, not only through listening and tenderness, through love and kindness, but also through a certain competence and faithful commitment. Our challenge at l’Arche is to find and form those who will be such intermediaries.



A child who very early has an experience of God, will grow more peacefully and truthfully. This is even more true for the child or adult who has been rejected because of a mental handicap. Those who are able to discover themselves, either directly or through the love of intermediaries, as truly children of the Father, will be able more readily to drop those barriers which have been built around their vulnerable hearts, and they will experience a certain wholeness. To live an experience of being forgiven, washed in the living waters which spring forth from the heart of God, will, little by little, erase the feelings of guilt which are often so tenacious.

When a child has lived through unbearable suffering and has been obliged to close itself off behind thick walls, this meeting with God is less simple and clear. It may even seem that the walls around the heart prevent the meeting with Jesus. However, there are signs, tiny signs, which occasionally may be perceived, showing that Jesus is there, hidden behind the walls. He is the only hope in all these sufferings of the heart.

The religion of Jesus is truly good news. It is not, first of all, a series of laws which one must obey. It is an experience of the loving call of Jesus, a meeting with him in faith and tenderness. This encounter, which opens us to the universe and to the Father, reveals that we are precious in the eyes of God. The negative image we have of ourselves is gradually transformed. When we discover we are loved by the Father, we can begin to trust ourselves; our hearts are on the road to being healed. This experience gives hope. The call of God is within us like a seed; with other people we can grow in the Church, in the community of those who believe in Jesus and who wish to serve him in the way of the Beatitudes.

One of the great sufferings of all children, handicapped or not, is that the thirst to be loved is so exacting that parents are not able to respond adequately. All of us are wounded in our hearts; all of us have been wounded by our own parents and by life. We all have our difficulties with relationships, and barriers behind which we hide. Parents love their children, but they have their own fears. They, too, have been wounded by their own parents and by life. Sometimes they are not able to carry their child with tenderness. Their hidden aggressiveness manifests itself when the child passes their tolerance level. This is why it is indispensable that parents do not stand alone in front of their child. If they are alone the child identifies them as the source of everything, as God: he or she makes them idols that are worshipped rather than icons which signify the presence of God. The child is unable to accept that not everything in its parents is good. If, however, parents introduce their children to the mystery of God, the child will discover that parents are not alone and all powerful; they are not the prime source of life; they can have their faults. The parents are then able to ask forgiveness of their child when they make mistakes. The child and parents are together before God as brothers and sisters, praying and asking forgiveness together.

When a child discovers through a Christian community that it is possible to have a personal relationship with God, everything

changes. It is no longer necessary to live the relationship with One’s parents in ambivalence, expecting too much from them and blaming them when those expectations are disappointed. Even if one is sometimes disappointed, it is still possible to love them. In discovering the fidelity and compassion of God, through Jesus who is the Good Shepherd who loves and forgives, who truly leads and supports each one, and who always remains faithful, it becomes easier to drop one’s barriers. This love of God lived in the community of the Church is not a figment of the imagination, springing from a disillusioned and broken heart; it is truly an inner experience.

Not long ago, Donald, who has a mental handicap, said to me: ‘During Father Gilbert’s homily, my heart was burning.’ Many people who have a handicap, and many children, have had this experience of a burning heart. Unfortunately many ‘adults’ don’t believe in these inner experiences.

When the child discovers an absolute in relationship with God, it is possible to accept relativity in human relationships, especially with one’s parents. The child discovers that interpersonal relations are neither ideal nor impossible. They are a reality which exists, but with difficulty, with many failures, reverses, hurts, but also a reality full of joy which is deepened through a thousand pardons and reconciliations. In this reality, the ambivalent and conditional relationship with its message, ‘If you are good, I love you; if you are bad, I reject you’, is transcended.

When a child experiences the absolute in relationship with God, then it discovers faithfulness, pardon, and the reality of a covenant relationship. Because of the covenant with God, covenant with parents and others becomes possible. Relationship is no longer based on compatibility, but on a covenant. Then the bonds between people are more profound than emotions, feelings and even capacities for love and hate. There, forgiveness is possible.

If God is not present, it is more difficult for the child to live the relationship with its parents as a covenant. Likewise, it is more difficult for a man to live a permanent and deep relation ship with a woman, and for a woman with a man, if they have not discovered the relativity of their relationship. Neither will ever be able totally to fulfil the other; they are not God for one another. They both have their wounds, interior flaws, sins and infidelities. In order to live and deepen the covenant between them, to mutually accept the differences and limitations, they need to have confidence in the absolute of a relationship with Jesus.



Human life generally begins with a period of acquisition: in childhood and youth, one acquires knowledge, friendships, all sorts of goods. Then, at a certain moment as an adult, one begins to live a series of losses: diminished strength, health problems, loss of work, loss of friends, until there comes the final loss, of one’s life. These losses mark sorrowful passages in a person’s history which can sometimes be shattering. They are followed by a period of bereavement during which one enters, more or less, into the cycle of depression—aggression. But, after this time of grieving, positive strengths spring up again, allowing the person to accept the new situation and to move forward on the road of life in a new and creative way.

The particular drama of those who have a mental or physical handicap is that these losses come too early in life, before they have acquired the inner strength that would enable them to face loss. Sometimes loss comes at birth, or even during the pregnancy, when the baby is deprived of the love and esteem of its parents, affecting physical and psychic development. These losses and the grief which follows invade the life of the child prematurely, when it has neither the strength nor the human means to cope. Moreover, sometimes the child has to face a distress so profound that it can be overcome only if there is a deep inward experience of the love of God. In that love which burns, illuminates and enlivens the heart, one discovers that one is precious to God just as one is, in one’s very being. That love gives meaning to life, it gives strength to continue living; it enables the person to break out of the cycle of sorrow and anger; it stops the flight into illusion.

I remember a mother who had lost her six-year-old son. She told me that when her son was three-and-a-half-years old, he had been struck down by a paralysis of his legs which, little by little, invaded his whole body, and he became blind. Some months before he died, his mother was weeping at his side. Her little one said to her: ‘Don’t cry, Mummy. I still have a heart to love my Mummy.’ That small boy had attained a real maturity; he knew how to give thanks for what he had, rather than weep for what he had not. Such maturity often comes from an inner experience of God which, I believe, is given to people who are particularly poor and who, because of their weaknesses would not otherwise be able to continue living. But in order to receive this experience, the person in distress must be in

supportive surroundings.

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