Religion and Spirituality
When religion helps us to open ourselves in love and compassion to those who are [different from us], it is a source of life.
Even with the highly technical and consumer-driven orientation of our society, most of us human beings recognize that at our core we are in some sense spiritual beings. Generally, people find they are at their best when they have both a well-integrated personal spirituality and a communal expression, usually through belonging to some particular religion. In his classic book Community and Growth, Jean Vanier writes:
Many people tend to see the times they have alone as times of revitalization, as opposed to their times of "dedication" or service in community. They have not discovered the nourishment of community. This comes in the moments when together we discover that we make up a single body, that we belong to each other and that God has called us together as a source of life for each other and for the world around us. These times of wonder and awe become celebrations. They are a gift that awakens the heart, stimulates the intelligence and gives back hope.
In our disappointment with organized religion, we still search for spiritual meaning and often we turn to individual spiritualities. The practice of a personal discipline of meditation, for instance, can be extremely important. But just as a communal expression of religion alone is not sufficient to nourish us, neither is even a vital private expression of our spirituality a substitute for the life-giving and empowering experience of belonging to a healthy spiritual community - the kind of experience Jean Vanier describes.
Our challenge is to create outward-looking and open faith communities, whatever religion or spiritual tradition we associate ourselves with, communities where people work together toward the extension of the religious values of social justice, respect and compassion not only within their own group but in the wider society around them. Such communities are characterized by a special attentiveness to those who are easily left out, and by a recognition of the gifts that often lie in relationships of difference, whether these are differences in ability or in religion or culture. They realize that each person has a contribution to make that benefits others, and that each religion can contribute to our understanding of the divine in our world. Where openness is fundamental there is no exclusivity, whether based on ethnicity, ability or economic or social status.
So much is hierarchal in our society. There are those who can participate fully and those who cannot, no matter how others may strive to include them. But in the spiritual realm there is a wonderful equality. Every person can have a spiritual life and a relationship with the God or the transcendent. People who may not be able to talk or, indeed, to express themselves in any way that is visible to others may have a deep spiritual life. I think of Adam, who lived in my L'Arche community. Adam could do nothing for himself, but his peacefulness transformed many lives. The renown Harvard theologian Henri Nouwen wrote of being taught profound lessons of grace and self-acceptance by Adam as he helped Adam with the simple activities of bathing and dressing in the mornings. Frequently, it is a person with a developmental disability who is the most attuned to others and who knows which person is suffering and needs a word or gesture of care. Gord, for instance, who has Down syndrome, is known as a man of prayer and sensitivity to the spirit. He is regularly asked to help give retreats and days of reflection. At the heart of spiritual communities that are balanced and alive to the world around them, one often finds people who are readily marginalized in other social situations.
People who have developmental disabilities have a striking capacity to create unity. They can draw together in a non-threatening milieu people of very different religions and cultures and socio-economic and political outlooks. In our community the presence of Muslim and Jewish members and members of various Christian denominations has fostered ecumenical and interfaith friendships. Relationships based on the mind and the sharing of theological ideas can remain rather brittle and formal, but less intellectual relationships, relationships based on our common humanity, can form a strong foundation for mutual understanding and the building up of society.
Beth Porter is Communications Coordinator for L'Arche Canada. She has written a number of moving stories based on her interfaith work at L'Arche Daybreak, a member community of the International Federation of L'Arche communities. We are pleased to share some of these stories here.
"I never had one of those...You know, with everyone throwing candies to you and wishing you Mazel Tov and everything." The words were spoken by Ellen, a woman who lives at L'Arche Daybreak. She was referring to never having had a Bat Mitzvah, the Jewish coming of age ceremony that marks a young person's public assumption of responsibility to live her faith life as an adult. In this story, Beth tells of Ellen's remarkable journey into Jewish adulthood and leadership, of her own transformation into interfaith awareness, and of the impact of Ellen's faith journey on both the L'Arche Daybreak community and the synagogue to which she belongs. Click here to read this story.
Speaking for Interfaith Dialogue is another story arising from Beth's work with Ellen.
Living Witnesses Inspire Education is a short article about Daybreak's Holocaust Education Week.
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