A voice says. “Cry out!”
I answer, “What shall I cry out?”
“All flesh is grass,
and all their glory like the flower of the field.
The grass wither, the flower wilts,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it
So then, the people is the grass.
Though the grass withers and the flower wilts
the word of our God stands forever.”
Like a shepherd he feeds his flock;
in his arms he gathers the lambs,
Carrying them in his bosom,
and leading the ewes with care.
Isaiah 40: 6-8, 11
What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them wanders off, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go and seek out the lost one? And if he happens to find it, Amen I say to you that he will rejoice over it more than over the ninety- nine that did not wander off. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones be lost.”
Matthew 18: 12-14
Today’s readings express striking images of fragility and tenderness. Somehow at the heart of the blessed community, of God’s flock, of the kingdom of heaven lies the reality of our contingency, mortality, and vulnerability. The community that awaits the coming of the Lord is a community of the fragile and the lost. There is in our waiting and our watching a desperate need for a loving and gathering presence that heals what is broken and that “stands forever.”
In recent years, and especially in recent weeks and months, we have experienced in the United States a deepening mistrust of our structures and institutions: law-enforcement, Church, institutions of higher learning, government. As our mistrust of each other and of our institutions seems to deepen, we find ourselves struggling with the inadequacies of our laws and structures. Yet one might wonder if the source of the problem is not to be found in what is missing in our discourse about them. We speak readily about abuse of power, failure of accountability, of consent or lack of consent, of institutional arrogance. Yet what is largely missing in our analyses is mention of the reverence and respect we owe to each other as inspirited human persons. Perhaps we, in the so-called developed world, find ourselves, in our affluence and sense of entitlement, lost from what it is that makes us distinctively human. Do we perhaps need to re-learn our duty to bow in reverence before the Christ-form, the Buddha-nature, the spark of the Divine within each vulnerable yet blessed human person?
Today Isaiah reminds us that it is our very vulnerability, our mortality and our contingency that should evoke tenderness toward each other. God “comes down” to us and our human experience out of such compassion for us . Our culture as secular is, by design, a system of denial of our fragility and mortality. It is only by recollecting, by remembering, that we and all the others are as grass that withers and as flowers that wilt that our capacity for respect, reverence, and care can be evoked. Our stance before each other is not to keep her or him in his place within the constellation of our fears, needs, and desires, but rather to recognize one like ourselves needing to be sought out, fed, gathered, and carried. At our core we are, as human persons, an appeal. That appeal, says Adrian van Kaam, can be simply stated: “Please be with me and for me.” Trust can only come about through the mutual hearing of and response to this appeal in each other.
Jean Vanier has brought together inclusive communities of persons, including especially persons of disabilities. He writes:
The mystery of people with disabilities is that they long for authentic and loving relationships more than for power. They are not obsessed with being well-situated in a group that offers acclaim and promotion. 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.
That was my experience the first time I entered an institution. The cry of the people with disabilities was a very simple cry: do you love me? That’s what they were asking. And that woke something deep within me because that was also my fundamental cry. I knew I could be a success. I had done well in the Navy. I had a doctorate in philosophy. I knew I could go up the ladder, but I didn’t know whether I was really loved. If I fell sick, who would be there? I knew the need for admiration. I knew the need to be both accepted and admired. But something deep down within me didn’t know if anybody really loved and cared for me as a person, not just for my accomplishments.
Jean Vanier, Living Gently in a Violent World, pp. 30-31