Timeful Friends

Living with People with Mental Retardation


“L’Arche is special, in the sense that we are trying to live in community with people who are mentally handicapped. Certainly we want to help them grow and reach the greatest independence possible. But before ‘doing for them’, we want to ‘be with them’. The particular suffering of the person who is mentally handicapped, as of all marginal people, is a feeling of being excluded, worthless and unloved. It is through everyday life in community and the love that must be incarnate in this, that handicapped people can begin to discover that they have a value, that they are loved and so are lovable.”1


Mental Retardation Down Syndrome Character Friendship Categorical Imperative Protestant Church 
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  1. 1.
    J. Vanier, Community and Growth. London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1979, p. 3.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Ibid., p. 80.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Ibid., p. 106.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    M. Berube, Life As We Know It: A Father, a Family, and an Exceptional Child. New York: Pantheon Books, 1996, p. 248. Berube may not appreciate the considerable differences between the accounts of justice by Rawls and Habermas but I think he rightly intuits that such differences in the face of people with mental retardation do not amount to much.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Ibid., p. 247.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Ibid., p. 47.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Ibid., p. 48.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Ibid., p. 264.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    For my reflections on these matters see my Naming the Silences: God, Medicine, and the Problem of Suffering. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990. The second edition of the book was retitled as God, Medicine, and Suffering.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    I. Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, tr. Lewis White Beck. New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1959, p. 47.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    It is important to note that Kant quite sensibly assumed that it is sometimes permissible to treat people as means. What the imperative excludes is that treatment as a means occludes their status as ends. Of course this but creates the problem of how we are to know when someone has ever been treated as a “means only”.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Berube, p. 112.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Ibid., p. 113. Berube observes that what saves the unavoidability of Jamie being a subject is they as parents have the benefit of seeing Jamie’s agents face to face. “They are agents: they are defined by their agency (in both senses), and Jamie is their agentless object, the name repeated a thousand times in the eight-inch stack of medical prognoses, cognitive evaluations, and assorted therapy reports that constitute the subject known as Jamie Lyon Berube. But they also happen to be our neighbours and friends. Rita Huddle, Jamie’s first speech therapist at DSC, is also the mother of two of Nick’s friends in a tae kwon do class, where we run into her regularly; Nancy Yeagle, his first occupational therapist, is also the mother of one of his playmates at day care as well as the spouse of the chef at a local Italian restaurant Jamie’s quite fond of. And Sara Jane Annin, his case worker, is not only a friend and confidante, but the mother of two children with Down Syndrome”, pp. 113–4.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    This question is the title of Wendell Beny’s wonderful book, What Are People For? San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990. The essay in the book that bears this title concerns the view by the “governing agricultural doctrine” of the government, universities, and corporations that there are too many people on the farm. Berry argues that this doctrine continues to be held even though the migration of people from the farms hurts the land and the cities. Yet “the great question that hovers over this issue, one that we have dealt with mainly by indifference, is the question of what people are for. Is their greatest dignity in unemployment? Is the obsolescence of human beings now our social goal? One would conclude so from our attitude toward work, especially the manual work necessary to the long-term preservation of the land, and from our rush toward mechanization, automation, and computerization. In a country that puts an absolute premium on labour-saving measures, short workdays, and retirement, why should there be any surprise at permanence of unemployment and welfare dependency? Those are only different names for our national ambitions.” p. 12.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    A. MacIntyre, After Virtue, Second Edition. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984, p. 52. MacIntyre observes that Kant in the second book of the second Critique does acknowledge that a teleological framework is necessary for his ethics to be intelligible. (p. 56) The teleology Kant presumed was, of course, anthropocentric, not theocentric.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Put metaphysically, the practices that constitute l’Arche rightly assume that being is prior to knowing. Questions about what “meaning” people with mental retardation may or may not have are questions shaped by habits that assume the priority of epistemological questions. Berube’s “now that he is here” reveals that the priorities of being cannot be repressed. I am indebted to Dr. Brett Webb-Mitchell for calling my attention to this connection.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Vanier, p. 200.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    One cannot help but think Vanier is thinking about his own role in l’Arche when he observes, “I am sometimes a bit worried by communities which are carried by a single strong shepherd or a solidly united team of shepherds. As these communities have no traditions, no history and no constitutional control by a recognized legal authority, there is hardly any check on their activities. The leaders may develop a taste for their role, seeing themselves as indispensable, and so unconsciously dominating others. There is also the risk of mixing community and spiritual power. It is good and useful if these spiritual shepherds quickly hand over direction of the community to someone else, so that they can be freer to exercise their gift of priest and shepherd.” Vanier, p. 176. He observes he is concerned about communities without any traditions who refuse to accept external authority. They will not outlive their founder for long and, if there is no external control, the founder will be in danger of making some serious mistakes. (p. 86.)Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Ibid., p. 2.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Ibid., p. 197. Vanier observes that to welcome is not primarily to open the doors of our house, but to open our hearts by becoming vulnerable.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Ibid., p. 88.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Ibid., p. 80.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Ibid., p. 135. Vanier’s remarks on friendship are particularly interesting given his philosophical training. He wrote his dissertation at the Institut Catholique in Paris on Aristotle’s ethics. He knows well that for Aristotle character friendship would be impossible between those thought to be “normal” and the “handicapped”. One cannot help but think that Vanier’s life exemplifies how Aquinas’ contention that the goal of life is to be befriended by God explodes Aristotle’s understanding of friendship. I am indebted to Brett Webb-Mitchell’s account of Vanier as well as his study of l’Arche in his L’Arche: An Ethnographic Study of persons with Disabilities Living in a Community with Non-Disabled People. Ph.D Dissertation: University of North Carolina, 1988. Since writing his dissertation, Webb-Mitchell has published a series of books that explore the theological significance of people with mental retardation and, in particular, how friendship with them is possible. See his God Plays Piano, Too. New York: Crossroads, 1993; Unexpected Guests at God’s Banquet. New York: Crossroads, 1994; and Dancing with Disabilities. Cleveland: United Church Press, 1996.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    Vanier, p. 26.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    Ibid., p. 139–140.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Ibid., p. 220.Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    Ibid., p. 106.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    Vanier observes, “As I think of all the communities throughout the world, struggling for growth, yearning to answer the call of Jesus and of the poor, I realize the need for a universal shepherd, a shepherd who yearns for unity, who has clarity of vision, who calls forth communities and who holds all people. I was deeply touched by the election of John-Paul I and even more touched by the election of John-Paul II. How long will it take before people realize this deep need? How long will it take for Catholics to understand the depths of their gifts and to be confounded in humility? How long will it take Catholics to recognize the beauty and gift in the Protestant churches, especially their love of Scripture and of announcing the Word? And one day will Protestant churches discover the immensity of riches hidden in the Eucharist? Yes, I yearn for this day.” (p. 104).Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2000

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