Who’s Really Handicapped?

Henri Nouwen wrote a letter to Paul Walsh, a parish priest who has started a program to welcome mentally handicapped people into his church. He was especially interested and touched because he had made his home in the L’Arche community in France that ministered to the handicapped.

For the largest part of my life I have been rather unaware of the great gift which handicapped people have to offer us. Since I have been living and working at L’Arche, I have become convinced that every Christian community that gives part of its energy to the care of people with a mental handicap will soon discover the special graces connected with that care. After many years of studying and teaching theology, it truly has been a blessed discovery that many of the broken people of L’Arche have revealed more about God’s love to me than much of my studying and teaching ever did. … Mentally handicapped people, who can “do” so little, can “be” so much … I have learned that the heart is more important than the mind.

Love, Henri pp. 148-149

Some names come to mind as I read this and I realize it is true. There is no smile like the smile of one who has no guile, no need to pretend, no sense of covering or building walls. Just joy. What trust they have for those who care for them. The beauty of unguarded love should remind us of how we are to be in the presence of our Father. And of course, they are not one-dimensional boys and girls, men and women. None of us are.

Those of us with greater mental capacity can sure make life complicated. We can create our own messes in ways that can barely be untangled. If they can be untangled. We can be so smart, and still find ourselves off the tracks. We can find it hard to love, hard to trust, and hard to commit. In all of our mental acuity, we build walls to keep others out and sometimes cover up our own wounds until they create relationship disasters from which we do not recover. Who’s really handicapped?

We should listen to Henri as he tells what he discovered.

Mentally handicapped people, who often cannot be as mindful as others, are uniquely gifted to bring us in touch with the treasures of the heart. … By revealing to us that being is more important than doing, the heart is more important than the mind and community is more important than individual stardom, they are truly messengers of the Gospel and witnesses to the Lord who became poor for us.

Love, Henri pp. 149-150

“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” -Matthew 18:3