Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 13, 2006
Patients mend healers' wounds
Jean Vanier, Dr. Balfour Mount describe their transformations
- CCN photo by Deborah Gyapong
Jean Vanier, left and Dr. Balfour Mount, both healers in their own right, say the disabled and ill people they care for, in turn, heal them.
By DEBORAH GYAPONG
Canadian Catholic News
Jean Vanier, the founder of L'Arche, is often described as a living saint for his work establishing communities of love and care for the disabled.
Yet this saint would be the first to tell you his 41 years among some of the most vulnerable and rejected people of the world have only taught him about his own vulnerability and spiritual poverty - and in doing so have put him on a personal journey of transformation and healing.
A tall man with stooped shoulders, he arrived on Parliament Hill Jan. 31, wearing a casual navy blue jacket, grey woollen socks and comfortable shoes to share a podium with Dr. Balfour Mount, another great healer who founded Canada's hospice movement.
Liberation to love
Both men told stories of transformation and insight that the weak, the rejected and the dying have taught them about love and healing. They shared a message of woundedness, brokenness and vulnerability - a condition that all humans share - and how, as we face it, we are healed and transformed ourselves and liberated to love others.
Vanier told the story of Lucien, a severely disabled man who came to live with him after his devoted mother had died.
Unable to walk or speak, Lucien's only way of communicating his suffering was through screaming.
"I couldn't stand his scream. It was very high-pitched," Vanier told an audience of about 200 gathered on Parliament Hill in an event filmed by CPAC and webcast to L'Arche communities across Canada and around the world. "It met my scream. It touched my anguish. I felt a strength of anger and violence, and discovered that I could hurt someone."
That discovery led Vanier to cry out, "Help me, I am wounded. I discovered in myself that I am a poor person."
Yet in that discovery, Vanier has found the key to breaking down the walls between people, to finding love and community.
Finding a soulmate
Mount, a Montreal-based urologist and surgical oncologist shared a similar discovery. He calls his dying patients his teachers. He told the story of Ken, 34, a bank robber referred from a maximum security prison to Mount's ward.
Even dying of advanced cancer, he was "still surrounded by an aura of danger," Mount said.
But gradually the barriers inside both men fell and they became friends, then soulmates.
Mount realized how blessed his life has been in comparison. A brilliant man, Ken had been born while his mother was in prison. His father was an alcoholic. The deck was stacked against him from birth.
Through encountering Ken's inherent vulnerability, grace and value, Mount's life was transformed.
"To meet Ken came paradoxically to meet Christ," he said.
"To be a healer . . . I must seek to know my own defects," he said.
Human beings have the potential to "transcend suffering in the now," by choosing how they respond to it, he said.
And suffering and quality of life does not depend merely on physical measurements.
He told the story of Chip, who died of cancer at age 30. Chip had been an elite athlete on the national ski team, but over the course of his disease, his "physical magnificence melted," and he looked like someone from Auschwitz, Mount said.
But despite the physical deterioration, Mount said Chip told him, "This last year has been the best year of my life.
"This year I've been stopped in my tracks. I've had time to look inward. It's been the most exciting journey of my life," Chip told him.
Quality of life does not correlate with physical, or biological criteria of wellbeing, he said, instead the existential, spiritual dimension counts the most in determining quality of life.
Even people feeling significant pain or paralysis after trauma may experience no anguish and no suffering.
Mount said all people live on a continuum between wounding and healing, and are either moving in one direction or another, creating "a ripple effect of kindness or wounding" every moment of their lives.
On the "wounded" pole is a sense of isolation, disconnectedness, lack of meaning and preoccupation with the past or the future.
Reach for the healed pole
On the "healed" pole is connection, an experience of meaning even in suffering, and a "capacity to enter the present moment."
"Whoever we are, the need to feel connected lies at the core of our being," he said.
But being connected, daring to love can be scary, because it puts us face to face with our weaknesses. Vanier said that when he sits at the bedside of someone dying, he sees himself lying in that place himself someday.
Vanier was blistering in his assessment of modern culture.
"We want curing but not caring. We want to heal quickly but accompanying, going with, we don't know how to do," he said.