Contemplative Life

Welcoming Weakness

I recently listened to an interview with Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche communities, and was struck by a particular question he posed. He asked: “How can we welcome fully the weakness of another if we haven’t welcomed our own weakness?” The question came in the context of a conversation about pain and about loving those with disabilities; but what I heard in Vanier’s words was a question that gets at the very heart of Coracle, for it speaks to the reason why spiritual formation is necessary for kingdom action. What Vanier recognized is that in order to encounter that which is broken in others and in the world, we must first encounter that which is broken in ourselves. In order to love, we must first learn to see – to see our own sinfulness with honesty and grace.

The problem is that we humans often choose blindness. We tend to hide from ourselves, and for good reason. When we take the time to look inside, what we find is a mixture of selfishness and fear, pride and shame, anger and self-interest. And so we busy ourselves with good things and less-than-good things and try our best to ignore our weaknesses. If we’re “good Christians,” we’ll confess our failings in the context of prayer but, if we’re honest with ourselves, we quickly move on; we see our own weakness but we don’t sit with it too long.

The only way we can learn to welcome our weakness – and to look at our sin rather than bury, ignore or despise it – is by realizing that we are welcomed (and forgiven) by the Father. It is only when recognize that we are seen by God, in all our sinfulness, and still loved that we gain the courage to acknowledge our own weakness and see others with compassion and grace.

This kind of seeing-and-being-seen is the experience of contemplative prayer. In the silence, we sit before God and ask Him to look at us – and not only look at us, but help us to see, to see ourselves as He sees us: beloved and accepted in spite of our very real sin. When we consistently encounter His gracious love in prayer, we come to know our own belovedness and see others as beloved-by-God. No longer encumbered by our own guilt or shame, we are freed up to love and to extend the grace we’ve experienced. We begin to welcome others’ weakness because we know it in ourselves, and we know that it no longer defines us.

In Matthew 6:22-23, Jesus says that “the eye is the lamp of the body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.” As Jesus makes clear in this passage, it is our capacity to see that determines what kind of “body” we will be – whether we will be a vessel of Christ’s light or a Christian constrained by darkness. If we see and perceive rightly – if our “eye is healthy” – our body will be full of light. We will become prisms of “the living light” (to borrow a phrase from Hildegard of Bingen), transparent conduits of Christ. But if we fail to see, if we blind ourselves to the reality of our sin and the weakness we find in ourselves, we will dampen the light of Christ. Our body will be “full of darkness.”

Thus the paradox: it is only by seeing the darkness in ourselves that we can become the light of Christ in the world. It is only by welcoming our own weakness that we can learn to welcome the weakness of others. It is only by being seen that we can rightly see.

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