As part of its purpose Spiritual Direction enables a person to find and affirm their own identity, particularly in relation with God. When I attended a symposium hosted by L’Arche in Melbourne on October 3rd 2014, this theme was one that ran through a number of the presentations. While the presenters and the audience were mainly focused on people with mental disabilities, it seemed to me that their insights could be applied to all of us, especially in the ministry of Spiritual Direction.
Persons with mental disability often suffer from low self-esteem: they feel they are a burden to their parents, they have had difficulties with learning at school, and they have been the victim of discrimination and abuse. Very often it is the labels and the social discrimination that becomes the more significant part of their disability. Part of the care offered to them by L’Arche (and other Christian service providers) includes helping them to see themselves as they really are. All humans are vulnerable to others: we may deny it or hid it, but that is a fact. This is the way we have been created. We are first dependent on our parents, then on our peers, and then on the larger community for so much that we need to be healthy and happy. Our very identity is formed and shaped by the relationships we have with so many others.
We are vulnerable in our need to be loved. Love is a gift that cannot be assured; the risk is always present of being overlooked or rejected. But this vulnerability is not a weakness or a handicap; it is in fact a value and a function of our humanity; it is this that is the foundation of our reaching out to others to form friendships and community. Being vulnerable, as physically and mentally disabled people cannot hide from, can be a vocation it is to live openly with one’s humanity.
Being vulnerable, being in need of love, is the need through which God comes to us. God doesn’t view any man or woman as a problem, or a pathology or a reject. God loves us and calls us his son or daughter regardless of our personal disabilities or weaknesses. Jesus met many a person who was labeled by his or her community as a sinner, or possessed, or cursed by God’, and therefore rejected and avoided. And Jesus response was to treat them with the respect and care due to any person. It is a human person who gives human identity to another. In the concentration camps of World War Two the Nazis stripped the Jews, and others, of their humanity, as far as they could.
At the other end of the scale, some people give a human status to their pet. I depend for my human identity on you and you on me. We can even go so far as to say that I increase or enrich or fulfill my own humanity by giving humanity to another. Jesus showed the outcasts their humanity, revealing what it is to be truly human. This was at least as important as merely healing their physical and spiritual disabilities.As Spiritual Directors we take a similar role to Jesus in this way.
We listen, we affirm, we remind the other of his or her precious value in God’s eyes. We help the other to see that their brokenness and their neediness is in fact a source of life, not death. In our work we remind and we help restore to a person his or her identity. We bless their vulnerabilities and their humanity and in turn we, too, are blessed in our humanity.I acknowledge the sources of these reflections: Dr Trevor Whitney, Prof Rosalie Hudson, Prof John Swinton.Iain Radvan November 2014