The elevator and the ladder.
THE ELEVATOR AND THE LADDER:
A CONVERSATION BETWEEN THÉRÈSE OF LISIEUX AND JEAN VANIER
Michelle Jones STL, STD, is a consecrated woman affiliated with the Carmelite Monastery of Quidenham (UK). She lives a life of prayer in Porongurup, Western Australia, and teachesonline with BBI-The Australian Institute of Theological Education and the Carmelite Institute of Britain and Ireland. Michelle is the author of The Gospel Mysticism of Ruth Burrows: Going to God with Empty Hands (ICS Publications, 2018) and Ruth Burrows: Essential Writings (Orbis Books, 2019). In this imagined dialogue between Jean Vanier and St Therese of Lisieux, she focusses the conversation on such topics as the nature of God, what it means to be fully human, and life in community. It includes direct quotations from the works of both Jean and Therese, as well as Michelle’s own imaginings of how a heavenly conversation between these two remarkable figures could possibly unfold.
Jean: Can it be? Thérèse of Lisieux?!
Thérèse: Welcome to heaven, Jean! I have been appointed as your guardian, to help you adjust to the marvellous ways of eternal life!
J: Oh, how wonderful! I guess that makes sense. After all, there is a special link between us. You and “my grandmother, who was also called Thérèse, shared the same spiritual director: Father Pichon. In one of his letters, the good priest spoke of his two ‘little Thérèse’s.’” I have always thought you were watching over our L’Arche and Faith and Light communities.1
T: And indeed, I am, dear Jean! There are even deeper connections between us than the lovely Father Pichon link, aren’t there? Someone once said that you are one of my best-known and most faithful disciples and that few people have lived my way so powerfully. 2
J: That was very nice of that person to say such things. It’s true, you, with your “little way,” have been such an influential teacher and guide throughout my life.3
T: We have a little while before we are due at the heavenly banquet. Perhaps we could chat for a while about the things we learned throughout our lives about following our beloved Lord?
J: I would love that!
T: At first glance, we seem like opposites! As you know well, I wrote, “I have always wanted to be a saint. Alas! I have always noticed that when I compared myself to the saints, there is between them and me the same difference that exists between a mountain whose summit is lost in the clouds and the obscure grain of sand trampled underfoot by passers-by.” (SS, 207)
J: Oh Thérèse, I’m so sorry to interrupt, but I suddenly feel nervous. Are there towering mountains of saints beyond those beautiful gates behind you? I don’t think I could bear that. I am fragile, broken, vulnerable and weak, and have only become more so throughout my life.
T: Ah Jean, that’s the point, don’t you see! Be at peace. It’s very sandy in there – not mountainous! You and I discovered and articulated the only way to holiness, the only way to being fully human. But I’m getting ahead of myself!
As I was saying, at first glance we seem like opposites. After noticing the difference between what I thought was sanctity and my poor self, and also acknowledging my relentless longing to be a saint, “Instead of becoming discouraged, I said to myself: God cannot inspire unrealizable desires. I can, then, in spite of my littleness, aspire to holiness. It is impossible for me to grow up, and so I must bear with myself such as I am, with all my imperfections. But I want to seek out a means of going to heaven by a little way, a way that is very straight, very short, and totally new.” (SS, 207)
And now I am getting to the opposites bit, Jean! I knew from my pilgrimage to Rome that “we are living now in an age of inventions, and we no longer have to take the trouble of climbing stairs, for, in the homes of the rich, an elevator has replaced these very successfully. I wanted to find an elevator which would raise me to Jesus, for I am too small to climb the rough stairway to perfection.” (SS, 207) An elevator! I wanted an elevator that would lift me up! But you, on the other hand, talked so often about…
J: … About “descending the ladder”!4 You’re going up, and I’m going down!
T: Yes! But we meant the same thing, didn’t we, dear brother! Perhaps you could share a little about this image that was so important to you?
J: Yes, I’d love to. It all starts with our God of outpoured love. “The vision of God is to go down the social ladder to take the lowest placein order to be with the weak and the broken. Then God rises up with them to build a new community which does not forget or exclude anyone. Many people want to climb up the social ladder of individual success and promotion, to earn more, have more, to dominate, to build up one’s own personal glory and reputation… [It is] a cycle in which each one tries to push and hold down the other motivated by the fear of being dominated by someone stronger. Jesus tells us: ‘Stop being so frightened and forever trying to protect yourself! Stop trying to defend and justify yourself! Stop associating only with people like yourself! Accept differences. Go down the ladder. Become a friend of the weak and the broken, and a friend of God.’”5
T: That is so beautiful, Jean. Yes, “In order that Love be fully satisfied, it is necessary that It lower Itself, and that It lower Itself to nothingness and transform this nothingness into fire.” (SS, 195) Our God is a descending God; if only people realised how much they are loved…
You, we, are saying something about what it means to be human in these words about the nature of God, aren’t we?
J: Yes! “God is not to be found in the ideal but is hidden in the poverty of the present moment, in all that is broken and inadequate in our communities and in our own hearts.”6 What I’m trying to say is that our God bends right down to us, so if we are to find him and so live our human lives to the full, we need to dwell at the very bottom of the ladder.
Through my life in L’Arche, where I lived in friendship with the profoundly impaired, I discovered that by going down, rather than up “the ladder of material success and individual accomplishment” we touched the very roots of our humanity.7 I discovered that we are all weak, we are all vulnerable, we are all fragile, we are all imperfect and fallible. “We human beings are all fundamentally the same. We all belong to a common, broken humanity… We all need help.”8
“The mystery of people with disabilities is that they long for authentic and loving relationships more than for power… They are crying for what matters most: love. And God hears their cry because in some way they respond to the cry of God, which is to give love.”9 Oh, the divinely-given transformation that emerges when people descend that beguiling, yet deceptive, ladder of pride and independence and truly encounter those who already know that they are at the bottom. We all begin to become more fully human. Love, goodness, compassion, freedom and peace flower within our shared, and embraced, inadequacy.
I’m sorry, dear Thérèse, I am going on. But may I just add one more point here?
T: Please, don’t stop!
J: In one of my letters to my friends – those in the communities of L’Arche and Faith and Light, and so many others – I thanked them for helping me to celebrate my ninetieth birthday and offered some personal reflections on the true meaning of being human.
I wrote, “I know that new weaknesses, new forms of poverty and new losses are waiting for me. It will be the descent into what is essential, that which is most hidden in me, deeper than all the parts of success and shadow inside me. That will be all that remains when all the rest is gone. My naked person, a primal innocence which is awaiting its encounter with God. Thank you for your prayers which accompany me in the descent into this treasure, the deepest part of my being…
In order to enter the kingdom of God, the kingdom of love, you have to become like that. We are all born in weakness and the end of our lives is a return to weakness, dependence, needing tenderness and protection. Becoming weaker gives the deepest meaning of our humanity.”10
T: “Becoming weaker gives the deepest meaning of our humanity.” YES! Oh what kindred spirits we are, dear Jean! It is true that in my poverty I was looking for an elevator to raise me to sanctity, to the fullness of life, but I discovered “the elevator which must raise me to heaven is Your arms, O Jesus! And for this I had no need to grow up, but rather had to remain little and become this more and more.” (SS, 208) Yes, radically confident openness to Love within our inescapable fragility and poverty is the secret to being human, to being fully alive, to being holy – isn’t it, Jean?!
As I said during my last few months on earth, “Holiness does not consist in this or that practice but rather in a disposition of heart that makes us always humble and little in the arms of God, well aware of our weakness and confident to the point of audacity in the goodness of our Father.” (LC, 129) (People question the authenticity of those words, but I really did say them!) As I have spent my heaven doing good on earth, I have noticed how radiantly evident these dispositions of acceptance of frailty, and trust are within L’Arche.
J: Ah yes, the wisdom of the childlike! We can look to them to see how truly to live. “Human beings grow from the dependence of a child to the independence of an adult. In our journey with Jesus it is just the opposite: we adults are called to become more and more like little children.”11 The childlike live from the affective sphere, from the heart – whereas so-called grown-ups so often succumb to the dominance of the rational sphere. How we need to attend to the wisdom of the heart. The knowing of functional rationality is only a fraction of the story.
T: You said earlier, Jean, that love, goodness, compassion, freedom and peace flower within our shared, and embraced, inadequacy. In my own way, I too experienced that through confidently embracing my poverty and encountering the other in their poverty, and trustingly holding our neediness as capacity for love, communion is born.
J: I would love to hear you speak more about this. “I am struck by how sharing our weakness and difficulties is more nourishing to others than sharing our qualities and successes… It is only when we stand up, with all our failings and sufferings, and try to support others rather than withdraw into ourselves, that we can fully live the life of community.”12
T: You’ve just reminded me of something I once said: “To become introverted is to sterilise the soul; one must turn hastily to works of charity.”13 Jesus counselled us, “When you give a dinner or a supper do not invite your friends, or your brethren, or your relatives, or your rich neighbors, lest perhaps they also invite you in return, and a recompense be made to you. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; and blessed shall you be, because they have nothing to repay you with, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (SS, 246; cf. Luke 14: 12-14 and Matt 6:4)
J: I love that Scripture! I quote it all the time!
T: Well, “what banquet could a Carmelite offer her Sisters except a spiritual banquet of loving and joyful charity?” (SS, 246-47) Anyway, let me share with you some examples from my life in which shared fragility led to a blossoming of communion. When I was a novice, I offered to escort an elderly sister, Sister St Pierre, from the choir to the refectory each night. While I had all the zeal of a novice, “it cost me very much to offer myself for this little service because I knew it was not easy to please Sister St Pierre. She was suffering very much and she did not like it when her helpers changed. However… I offered myself very humbly to lead her, and it was with a great deal of trouble that I succeeded in having my services accepted!
Each evening when I saw Sister St Pierre shake her hourglass I knew this meant: Let’s go! It is incredible how difficult it was for me to get up, especially at the beginning; however, I did it immediately, and then a ritual was set in motion. I had to remove and carry her little bench in a certain way, above all I was not to hurry, and then the walk took place. It was a question of following the poor invalid by holding her cincture; I did this with as much gentleness as possible. But if by mistake she took a false step, immediately it appeared to her that I was holding her incorrectly and that she was about to fall. ‘Ah! my God! You are going too fast; I’m going to break something.’ If I tried to go more slowly: ‘Well, come on! I don’t feel your hand; you’ve let me go and I’m going to fall! Ah! I was right when I said you were too young to help me.’
Finally, we reached the refectory without mishap; and here other difficulties arose. I had to seat Sister St Pierre and I had to act skilfully in order not to hurt her; then I had to turn back her sleeves (again in a certain way), and afterward I was free to leave. With her poor crippled hands, she was trying to manage with her bread as well as she could. I soon noticed this, and, each evening, I did not leave her until after I had rendered her this little service. As she had not asked for this, she was very much touched by my attention, and it was by this means that I gained her entire good graces, and this especially (I learned this later) because, after cutting her bread for her, I gave her my most beautiful smile before leaving her all alone.” (SS, 247-48)
It is such a simple, trifling incident, dear Jean. But it meant so much. By God’s grace, the combination of my inabilities and inadequacies and poor old Sister St Pierre’s frailty and impatience led to such a precious encounter.
J: Ah, “presence: being present to people who are fragile and being present to one another. … Our human hearts are thirsting for presence.”14 What a beautiful story of transformation within the mundane ordinariness of our flesh-and-blood lives together. And it is a wonderful reminder of how you encouraged me throughout my time on earth “to live community life and smile on those who, from time to time…appear[ed] to me to be disagreeable”15; thank you. Please tell me more, Thérèse.
T: As you know, I experienced such devastating losses as a child, losses of precious maternal figures. Emotionally, I suffered so profoundly from the time of my beloved Mama’s death until my Christmas conversion. While the grace of Christmas healed much of the psychological disturbance of my childhood, I was forever aware of my frailty. And, of course, I was plunged into the ultimate vulnerability of my life during my final illness.
This vivid awareness of my own fragility helped me to understand the struggles and sufferings of others, and I conveyed this insight to my novices whenever I could. You may have read this account from my sister, Céline, in the testimonies from the process of my beatification (how all of those lovely words made me blush!): “When she was ill, she drew a lesson for me from the fact that the infirmarian always chose the softest linen for her, in an effort to give her some relief. ‘You see,’ she said, ‘people must be treated with the same care … How often one hurts them without realising it! … So many are sick, others are weak, and all of them are suffering. We ought to be very gentle with them.’ She told me too that ‘One should always treat others charitably, for very often what we think is negligence is heroic in God’s eyes. A sister who is suffering from migraine, or is troubled internally, does more when she does half of what is required of her than another who does it all, but is sound in mind and body.’”16
J: Oh Thérèse, you speak the language of my own heart! I discovered, and proclaimed to others, “We need to touch the truth of who we are… I cannot accept the wounds of [[the profoundly disabled]] unless I am open and accept my own wounded self and seek help… Jesus calls us not only to welcome the weak and the rejected… but also the weak and the broken person within us.”17
T: Beautifully said, Jean! Let me give you one final example from my life in which shared frailty led to the flourishing of communion. As you know, during my last eighteen months, I experienced such dreadful interior darkness. Everything that once consoled me disappeared, and I was left in a “night of nothingness.” (SS, 213) A most unexpected unity emerged within this bewildering fog. I experienced my heart to be knitted to the hearts of unbelievers. But this was no barren solidarity, no freefall together into terrifying meaninglessness. Rather, while I clung with one hand to the empty hands of those poor people who had never known the Lord, my other hand – rather my whole being – remained resolutely surrendered to the Lord’s love in utter trust. So this shared meal at the “table filled with bitterness” (SS, 212) was mysteriously, secretly, transformed into a communion of Love!
And speaking of meals, the singing of those angels means it’s time for the banquet!
J: Oh, is that what that is?! I thought I was hearing the members of one of our communities singing!
T: Come and eat, dear Jean. From the way you lived on earth, I have a feeling that the taste of the heavenly banquet is going to be very familiar to you!
2. Maureen O’Riordan, “The return to God of Jean Vanier, May 7, 2019”, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux: A Gateway, http://www.thereseoflisieux.org/my-blog-about-st-Therese/2019/5/7/the-return-to-god-of-jean-vanier-may-7-2019.html
3. See Nate Madden, “Vanier cites St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Gandhi as spiritual role models,” Catholic News Service, 11 March 2015, https://www.catholicnews.com/services/englishnews/2015/vanier-cites-st-therese-of-lisieux-gandhi-as-spiritual-role-models.cfm
4. See, for example, Jean Vanier, Our Life Together: A Memoir in Letters, London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2008, pp. 350, 441.
5. Jean Vanier, Befriending the Stranger, London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2005, pp. 41, 43.
6. Vanier, Our Life Together, 513.
7. Ibid., 1.
8. Jean Vanier, Becoming Human, New York: Paulist Press, 1998, p. 37.
9. Stanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier, Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness, Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, p. 30.
11. Vanier, Befriending the Stranger, p. 85.
12. Jean Vanier, Community and Growth, Homebush, NSW: Society of St Paul, pp.
13. Testimony of Geneviève of Saint Teresa, in St Thérèse of Lisieux by Those Who Knew Her: Testimonies from the Process of Beatification, ed. and trans. Christopher O’Mahony, Dublin: Veritas Publications, 1975, p. 129. 144, 251.
14. Vanier, Our Life Together, p. 513.
16. Testimony of Geneviève of Saint Teresa, in St Thérèse of Lisieux by Those Who Knew Her, p. 132.
17. Vanier, Befriending the Stranger, pp. 61, 64.