Sunday 29 March 2009

'Can't you see my Church is in ruins?' The witness of L'Arche and the Barnabas Community

A post by Scott Stephens

The most venerated of all the saints of the holy Catholic Church is Francis from the Italian village of Assisi. The sheer force of his Christ-like devotion has inspired millions of Christians to ‘go and do likewise’. Equally, his transparent humility has rattled Church structures at their very foundations. Francis, more than any other single figure in the history of the Church, is a saint for all times, and a challenge for each generation.

But there is conundrum that goes to the heart of Francis’ identity. At what point did Francesco Bernadone, the lecherous and lazy son of a wealthy cloth merchant, turn his back on that life and become ‘Saint Francis’? What was his ‘Damascus Road’? Was it when the young Francis, still despairing after his dreams of chivalry evaporated, knelt before a crucifix amid the ruins of the Church of St. Damian, and a voice said to him, ‘Francesco, do you not see that my house is in ruins? Go and rebuild it for me!’ Francis obviously took these words seriously—he went and sold most of his father’s stock of fine fabrics and used the proceeds to rebuild the aging shrine.

Or was it when Francis abandoned the familiarity of human society and made his home in a leper commune? According to Francis himself, this event was decisive. He reflects in his Testament, written shortly before his death: ‘for when I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me even to look upon the leprous. But the Lord himself led me among them and I showed mercy to them. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body. And afterwards, I delayed a little and then left the world.’

We tend to forget the place lepers occupied in the early Middle Ages. In the 12th century, those with ‘leprosy’—a designation that covered a range of deformities and communicable diseases—were restricted to decrepit communes outside city walls. By decree of the Church, they had to cover themselves entirely to prevent contact with others; they had to use clappers to warn whenever people came near; they were banned from speaking to children; they were even consigned to their own churches, their own sacraments, their own cemeteries.

Doesn’t this cast the command that Francis heard in St. Damian’s in a whole new light? The Church which had fallen into ruins was not the dilapidated, crumbling shrine, as Francis believed, but rather the very Church that had forsaken its Lord by segregating and abandoning the leprous. Thus Francis’ act of rebuilding the Church wasn’t his repair of St. Damian’s, but rather his establishment of a community with the lepers themselves.

So who today are ‘the lepers’, into whose company the Church should follow its Lord? As Michel Foucault chronicled in History of Madness, the sad story of the Church’s treatment of the leprous took a truly horrific turn in the 15th century. The Church liquidated the leper communes, and used those now vacant hovels to house the mentally disabled—out of sight and away from human society.

There are communities today who, like Francis, have set about rebuilding the Church. Such communities are nothing less than sacraments, testimonies of grace, which bear witness to a Church that similarly finds itself in ruins. The Barnabas Community in Durack, Queensland, was founded in 1995 as an act of obedience to Jesus, and in solidarity with L’Arche, the network of communal homes established by Jean Vanier in 1964.

Barnabas House is a suburban home in which residents with a disability are enveloped by a loving community of people who live and eat with them, who share life with them, who celebrate the beauty of God in them. As Vanier has often said, it is the presence of such communities in which the able and those with a disability live side-by-side, eating together and celebrating the holiness of one another, that comprises our best picture of what the Kingdom of God looks like.

The infectious joy and warmth of the Barnabas Community is not just in stark contrast to the sterility and institutionalized ennui to which people with a mental disability are subjected in Australian society. This community is also a living protest against the suppressed resentment that our society feels concerning the very existence of the mentally disabled. Stanley Hauerwas is surely correct when he claims that the mentally disabled embody the ethical limitation of our liberal humanism. ‘Our humanism entails we care for them once they are among us, once we are stuck with them; but the same humanism cannot help but think that, all things considered, it would be better if they did not exist.’

In our time, not only is the Barnabas Community an unforgettable protest against the institutionalized death and decrepitude of federally funded disability services; it is a powerful witness to a Church that has abandoned its Lord by placing its confidence in its buildings and in the idols of investment and in the immoral practice of usury—all the while outsourcing its care of the mentally disabled.

And so our Lord addresses us with the same summons that haunted St. Francis: ‘Do you not see that my house is in ruins? Go and rebuild it for me!’

If you would like to find out more about the Barnabas Community, or how you and your church can support its communal life, you can contact Glenda Hall or Scott Stephens.


roger flyer said...

Brilliant! Bravo. May our courage to be neo-Franciscans arise out of our tears and songs.

Joanna said...

Thank you, Scott! So glad you are supporting and commending this ministry.

Ian Aitken said...

Very good, but be careful. To identify St Francis rebuilding the Church solely with his work amongst lepers would be to miss the point (I'm sure you don't mean it in such an exclusive way). Nor would it be right to link the 'way of Francis' with the forming of institutions or even movements (though they may grow out of following the way of Francis). Jon Sweeney in his excellent book on Francis and Claire (Light in the Dark Ages) puts it thus, "if Francis had been given a large sum of money in order to fund a chain of leper hospitals across Europe, he probably would have turned it down....They [Francis and Claire] did not build orphanages, hospitals, or schools; they did not create foundations or fund philathropies that would outlive them. Their work was of a much more personal nature. The influence of the dynamic is more difficult to characterise than is the influence of those who organise and administer...They were not as interested in changing institutions as they were in impacting individual lives." (p70/1) To be fair the same can be said of Jean Varnier. In rebuilding the church Francis did not call people to change the church but to change their hearts; not to serve lepers but to serve Christ which meant, as you so rightly say, finding the last and the least and acknowledging that they are the first. Bless you. Ian

roger flyer said...

This is right.
and good.

roger flyer said...

At the end of the day, we are all leprous and in need of one another's love and care.

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