To Be Befriended: A Meditation on Friendship and the Disabled

In the communities of l’Arche we live and journey together—men and women with disabilities and those who feel called to share their lives with them. We are all learning the pain and joy of community life, where the weakest members open hearts to compassion and lead us into a deeper union with Jesus. We are learning to befriend them, and through and with them, to befriend Jesus.[1]

1. On Changing the Subject

Jean Vanier begins his book, Befriending the Stranger, with these familiar reflections, at least familiar for anyone who has read Vanier. To hear or read Vanier describe his friendships with core members of the L’Arche communities is to be persuaded that he is describing authentic friendships. But that he is so persuasive can make us miss the challenge entailed in the attempt to describe what it means to be befriended by people who are intellectually disabled. What follows is my attempt to provide examples that describe what such friendships might look like. In the process, what we mean by friendship may be transformed.

This is a tricky matter. To begin with examples might seem an attempt to avoid philosophical accounts of friendship that call into question the possibility that the relation between the intellectually disabled and those that are not can be a genuine friendship. I am not avoiding argument; rather I am interested in allowing an account of friendship to emerge as an illustrative counter-example to such accounts.

The very descriptions of we use to describe those who are intellectually disabled is part of the problem. As Brian Brock argues in his moving book, Wondrously Wounded: Theology, Disability, and the Body of Christ, the very description “disability” inevitability “smothers” the relationships that are essential for genuine human love and friendship.[2] Instead, Brock suggests we use the description “people who carry the label disabled” as an alternative to the unhappy description “the intellectually disabled.” He does so because, as he points out, ironically the most severely intellectually disabled do not struggle with their disability because they “are wondrously free from pondering what others suppose them to lack.”[3]

It is not clear whether or how those that carry the label “disabled” suffer, or do not suffer, from their disability. They suffer from the attitudes and behaviors of those of us who imagine how we would feel if we were them. In short we project on to the disabled how we think we would regard our lives if we were disabled. We do so, however, as people who are not disabled. Thus the sentiment seldom said but often presupposed—“I would rather be dead than suffer from X or Y.” But people who are mentally disabled are not people other than who they are, and accordingly can and do enjoy who they are.[4]

Often present, but unacknowledged, is the role of fear in the relationship between persons with intellectual disability and those not so disabled. We are fragile creatures whose vulnerabilities produce fears that make our being befriended by the disabled frightening. Such fears remain in those who have are befriended by the disabled. That is why, as I will suggest below, friendship must be communal because only a community that is made of those aware of their limits can create the peaceful space for all to flourish.[5]

Hans Reinders identifies another problem in his important book, Receiving the Gift of Friendship: Profound Disability, Theological Anthropology, and Ethics. We often assume the profoundly disabled will be cared for because by doing so those providing the care become better people. Reinders argues such a justification is perverse because it is a denial that we—that is, each of us—receive our lives as gifts.[6] No human can merit a greater humanity for herself. And it is dangerous to suppose otherwise. We can become more human, but we cannot become better humans. The difference hangs on whether we receive our life as gift. Whether disabled or abled, we receive our humanity it is from this posture of reception that our shared human dignity springs.

Brock argues his way of describing people who are intellectually disabled is entailed by a theological perspective. He observes that Christian communities often offer rival understandings of the roles and gifts of those called to be the church. We should not be surprised, therefore, that the disabled have a role to play in God’s story of his people. Brock’s book is an extended exercise to perform that project by focusing on his down syndrome/autistic sixteen year old son, Adam. Brock understands his task is to witness to Adam’s witness by telling the stories of what it means for Adam to be “wondrously wounded.”[7]         

Brock is admirably clear that his argument is theological all the way down. Accordingly, he understands the Christian gospel to offer a way of life that enables our ability to live as vulnerable beings who have made peace with our limits and are able to delight in the unexpected. Such a way of life can be joyous and free because we no longer seek to be gods but are content to be creatures whose flourishing does not mean that we will not suffer. As the stories of Scripture often make clear, it is through suffering that we discover our place in God’s story.[8]

Brock’s argument is quite clear: if we receive the friendship God offers us in the gift of people with intellectual disabilities our understanding of friendship will by necessity be enriched.[9] Also at stake is that what we mean when we say God may have to be rethought. Or, perhaps better put, we may discover the radical implications of what we have been saying when we have been saying “God.” It is not hard to sense that the work of Karl Barth has informed Brock’s proposals.

What could I possibly mean by referencing Barth? Just this. That Barth’s anthropology is Christological, which means to be human is determined first and foremost by the relationship that exists between God and each creature. A reminder that to be a human being is to be a creature. Joan O’Donovan rightly draws out the implication of Barth’s position by observing that Barth was the champion of “those individual beings at the border of human life: the unborn child, the severely defective infant, the very old and senile, the comatose patient.”[10]     

Whatever one may think of Barth it remains the case that most assume that friendship is not possible between people who are intellectually disabled and those who are not. It is hard to overcome the presumption that friendship in the most basic sense names a relation between people in which there is a reciprocal concern for the welfare of the other and it is assumed that those who bear the label of being the mentally disabled lack the agency to be in such a relation.[11] This is compounded by the challenge of the unequal power relation between the mentally disabled and those that care for them. In his attempt to give an account of friendship that is lasting Aristotle argues a kind of equality constituted by virtue is required. That condition seems to make impossible friendship between people that are intellectually disabled and those who are not.

Vanier and L’Arche, as the passage with which I began intimates, challenges that judgment. Crucial for sustaining that challenge is that the assistants’ task in L’Arche homes is to learn to be with rather than to do for those who are dependent on others. L’Arche is based on the presumption that the desires and wishes of core members have first priority, but it nonetheless remains unclear how such a transformation makes possible friendship between assistants and the core members.[12] Nonetheless, Vanier’s friendships with the core members with whom he lives stands as a stark reminder that friendship between people who are intellectually disabled and those that are not is a reality. The question is how to describe and account for that reality. It is to that task I now turn. 

2. Friendship: To Share a Common World

James McEvoy has provided an account of friendship that helps us see how friendship between people who are intellectually disabled and those who are not is possible. According to McEvoy, “dialogue is intrinsic to friendship because behind the dialogue of friends lies the natural aspiration to share the same world and to build upon it the same hopes.”[13] The emphasis on communication may seem odd for an account of friendship with those who may be limited by their speech, but as I hope to show the body can speak eloquently.[14]

We are, people that are intellectually disabled and those who are not, bodily beings who share a vulnerability that makes us storied creatures. Our bodies can be storied by friendships that are constitutive of the relationships that characterize the narratives that we call our lives. The telling of stories to one another turns out to be a crucial activity for the making and sustaining friendship because it is through stories we are able to recognize what it means to live in a common but complex world.

What this might mean has been displayed by Patrick McKearney. McKearney is an English anthropologist who lived for fifteen months in a L’Arche home in what he describes as a minor English city. McKearney begins his paper, which is tellingly entitled, “Receiving the Gift of Cognitive Disability: Recognizing Agency in the Limits of the Rational Subject,” by calling attention to Peter Singer’s argument that those who are mentally disabled lack the ability to be autonomous moral agents. Singer draws the conclusion that the intellectually disabled can or should only have limited moral worth to others.[15] McKearney notes that Eva Kittay has countered Singer’s views by observing that people can learn to value others even if they are incapable of “giving back.” Though McKearney thinks Kittay’s response is strong it does not sufficiently account for the agency the intellectually disabled in fact have.

McKearney argues against Singer stating that while the core members may not be autonomous moral agents they have an agency that is often not recognized because we fail to understand the different ways they inhabit the world. McKearney suggests that difference was recognized by Vanier who began assuming his living with the intellectually disabled was a religious duty but discovered that he had become a friend with those with whom he lived (3). In short, Vanier had discovered they shared a common world.

McKearney observes that Vanier’s assumptions about disability and vulnerability meant he could no longer see those with whom he lived as “problems.” Neediness turns out to be a source of life-giving relationships. McKearney, who has a theological background, observes that once Vanier ceased being afraid of his vulnerabilities he rightly began to understand that God comes to us not in our strengths but in our weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

McKearney confesses that he began his work in L’Arche with a presumption not unlike Vanier had at the beginning of his being with the men with whom he had been charged to live. That is, he assumed they that the young women he encountered who were described as intellectually disabled were passive dependents without agency. Such presumptions were reinforced by his first encounters with the core members of the home in which McKearney was to live. There he encountered Rachel who was making random hand gestures, Sarah rolling herself around and around in her wheel chair, and Martha who spoke constantly but did not seem to make sense. McKearney assumed these women were incapable of active engagement with the world.

But McKearney came to see these young women in a very different light. He discovered they were exercising agency of a very different kind than that assumed by those of us who think we are in control of our lives.[16] To recognize the agency of core members requires training that comes from learning, as the core members must learn, that the essential dependent character of our lives does not mean we are without agency. 

Such agency begins with the acknowledgement of our vulnerability. Such acknowledgement entails exercises such as asking the assistants to recognize their dependence on others. And that requires training if they are to discover the many ways they have relied on others to live out the gifts that have made their lives possible. These insights are tested by their being asked to reflect on the sheer difficulty of helping a core member shower and dress in the morning. The difficulty of providing such “help” can serve to create in assistants the vulnerability that the core members already embody. McKearney quotes one of the experienced assistant’s observation that “L’Arche was never about ‘us’ helping ‘them’ . . . There may be differences in our cognitive abilities, but no difference at all in our shared humanity” (6),

Stories about the relations between assistants and core members are crucial for the development of friendships. Meals often provide the context for the telling and retelling of stories about core members as well as stories told by core members. For example Maria, a long-term assistant, tells the story of her early confrontation with Sarah who could not verbally communicate. Maria was given the task of helping Sarah have a bath. This was no easy task. Maria confesses she did not know what she was doing but she assumed that neither did Sarah know what was happening. Finally after some time Maria figured out what to do. She reports, addressing Sarah directly, “And you just sat there very patiently and quietly. When I finally worked out what the right thing to do was, you looked at me dead in the eye—and then you laughed at me” (7).

McKearney reports that such stories, which are often told many times, serve to challenge the preconceptions the assistants bring to their work. For the stories are often told by the core members in a manner that makes them active subjects “capable of authoring actions that affect others.” Through these exchanges the core members’ “gifts” of the heart are discovered. Among those gifts is their keen insight into those that care for them. Rayna, a very experienced assistant told McKearney, “You can’t hide your personality from people with learning disabilities. You have to open yourself. They find your weaknesses and strengths very quickly, and that confronts you with your own disabilities and inabilities” (9).

McKearney reports on the importance of the language of “gift” to describe core members. In particular, McKearney suggests one of the aspects that “gift” names in the core members is a kind of unusual honesty. Hilary, one of the assistants, describes Sarah smiling and enjoying herself as she looks into a full-length mirror. She smiles because she thinks she looks amazing. Hilary reports she is far too self-conscious to smile at herself while looking in a mirror as Sarah does. She would be too afraid that others would find her behavior too self-involved. But Hilary says Sarah can enjoy looking at herself in the mirror because “She really loves herself, and she helps me to start loving myself” (10).

Sarah’s gift of joy reflected by her image in the mirror is, according to McKearney, the source of a particular kind of agency that is easily overlooked. Sarah, and the other women in the L’Arche home, have the “gift of ignoring the judgments of others and loving themselves” (10). Because these core members are incapable of embodying some of the social and moral ideals that characterize the life of those of us that are cognitive abled, they can be particularly perceptive and honest. Sarah, and her friends, do not recognize that looking into a mirror and smiling at themselves might make them appear self-obsessed. Yet because they are not afraid of being so understood they bring a spontaneity to their life that makes friendship possible.

McKearney observes that the descriptions of agency he has tried to provide reveals the paucity of our existing language for describing the possibility of forms of agency other than those forms assumed by people like Singer. McKearney, however, directs attention to Veena Das, an anthropologist of ethics who provides a different understanding of the self and ethics. Das argues ethics is not so much about the technologies of self-making as it is “an attentiveness through which one ties one’s own fate to that of the other.” Ethics so understood means the moral life is not constituted by cognitive activity but rather is an “attitude to the soul” (a phrase Das attributes to Wittgenstein).

McKearney draws on Das’s account to suggest that training in L’Arche teaches the assistants to see the intellectual disabilities of those with whom they live not as impediments for their acting morally, but as enabling aspects of ethical interaction that is charismatic. Their lives have more in common with the unruly saints of the church than the rational moral agents of a Peter Singer. Those who have learned to be their friends value the way they transgress assumed norms of behavior and “express the value of a liminal community” (15).

3. Adam Brock’s Witness

McKearney’s stories are sufficient to sustain the point I am trying to make, but I cannot resist providing a brief account of Adam by his father. I cannot resist not only because Brock’s account is theologically astute but it is also the case that I am Adam’s godfather. I hope to say just enough to tempt you to read the book. 

Brock wants us to see Adam as he has learned to see Adam. Such a seeing entails theological discipline in which we learn to use the word “God” well. For as Brock argues, God is not an idea or essence that can be extracted from events, but God is a name revealed in the drawing a people into a congregation. The people of God have been called out of the world which is organized by other names that refuse to acknowledge that human life is a gift from God. Adam is such a gift.[17]

Brock makes the striking observation that if the Kingdom brought by Jesus is shalom then Adam may be the healthiest person he knows. Adam is able to live without worry about the future. Secondly, there is no gap between what Adam says and what he does. He simply cannot lie even though he communicates through his body. When he puts his hand on a visitor’s mouth he is genuinely wishing them a good hello. He is, moreover, emotionally sensitive often breaking into tears when his parents and brother and sister argue. He is, moreover, in constant enjoyment of other people.[18]

These are hard-won insights about Adam by his father. For Adam to survive has taken extraordinary sacrifices and tried the patience of his family. Yet, Brock is surely right to suggest that when he is with Adam he cannot forget how different and beautiful the social order is to which Adam witnesses. Adam is content to be a creature who is able to inhabit a time and place that challenges the surrounding culture.[19] Surely one cannot help but desire to have such a friend.

Adam is a Christian. During worship he walks to the center of the church, the cathedral at Aberdeen, takes off his socks and shoes, sits rocking back and forth, swinging something repetitively in his hand and gutturally vocalizing, all the while sitting at the feet of the priest. His father observers Adam insures that St. Andrews is not a church for anyone who thinks that to worship God you must always be quiet.

Recently on his 15th birthday Adam was confirmed. Brock includes in his description of Adam’s confirmation a letter I wrote in celebration of that event. I wrote:

I only wish I could be there to witness your becoming a stalwart of the church. I put the matter that way because confirmation means the church will depend on you to be fully embodied in  Christ. These matters are tricky because you have for some time represented Christ for the church through your dancing. Some may say that is a strange description of your presence in worship. You just cannot be still. But I have always thought when I have been with you in worship that you are dancing to the music God’s angels make as they glorify God. My hunch is you were granted the grace to be closer to those wonderful creatures than those of us who are identified as normal and grown up. So on this wonderful day dance for the gathered body of believers because we all need the joy that animates your movements.[20]

4. Ending With Vanier

This brings me back to Vanier and the passage with which I began. One of the dangers Vanier’s work represents is that Vanier’s prose can invite the presumption that he is far too pious and idealistic. When Jean Vanier writes that “We all need to deepen our love for Jesus, hidden in those who are often unwanted” the temptation is to read such thoughts in a sentimental manner.[21] Yet, as I suggested above, there is nothing sentimental about Vanier. The high humanism that shapes many views of the disabled is absent in Vanier because he does not engage in false stories about his friends. He knows his friends are sometimes difficult. Their demands will not allow sentimental claims about innocence.

In his book, Reconsidering Intellectual Disability: L’Arche, Medical Ethics, and Christian Friendship, Jason Reimer Greig has developed the most complete account we have of Vanier’s understanding of L’Arche as a school for friendship. Greig rightly argues that Christian friendship, and the description “Christian” he rightly assumes appropriate for Vanier’s understanding of friendship, is not simply an interpersonal affair but is first and foremost a communal moral endeavor.[22] No rite embodies that communal aspect of friendship more fully, according to Grieg, than footwashing. To have ones feet washed by a core member joins the bodily and social practices that make friendships in L’Arche between core members and assistants possible.[23]   

The thick analysis Greig provides of friendship, and in particular of the role of the body, in L’Arche homes is confirmed by a story Vanier tells about a core member named in Eric in his commentary on the Gospel of John. Vanier had come to know Eric during a year when he was on sabbatical and living in the home for the profoundly disabled. So Eric and Vanier ended up in the same space. Eric had arrived at L’Arche when he was sixteen. The local hospital, a psychiatric hospital, would no longer care for him. He was blind, deaf, and he could not speak. He was not toilet-trained. Vanier confesses he had never seen so much anguish in one person particularly one so young.[24]

Reflecting on Eric, Vanier observes that many that come to L’Arche have “a broken self-image.” In particular they sense they have been a disappointment for their parents whom they sense do not “want” them because of their disability. They cannot help but conclude they are without value, and even more destructive, they draw the conclusion that they are not loveable. L’Arche is the way Vanier discovered that by welcoming the stranger as a potential friend, though they are in terrible pain, they discover they are able to bear the pain because they are valued and made beautiful by being cared for by friends.

Eric proved, however, to be a challenge. What it might mean for Eric to be loved simply did not seem to be possible. Vanier was not deterred. Though Eric could not see or hear Vanier was sure he could be touched. That is what they did—day after day they held and washed his body with respect and love. Slowly but surely they were able to communicate with him and he communicated with them. He was able to befriend because he had been befriended.[25]

Vanier comments on this transition by suggesting what Jesus commands us to do is be befriended by the weak, those in need, the lonely. For when the poor, the weak, and the lonely claim us as friends they prevent us from falling into the trap of power—especially the power to do good. To be befriended by the poor and disabled saves us from the presumption we must save the Savior and the Church. To accept our own poverty, to become vulnerable by being befriended by those who are filled with need makes this prayer possible: “Dear God, I cannot do this on my own. I need your help.”

I suspect some may find Vanier’s relationship with Eric remarkable but there is no reason to describe their relation as a friendship. Yet given McAvoy’s account of friendship as sharing a common world I think it not unreasonable to accept Vanier’s description of his relation with Eric as a friendship. Friendship comes in many different shapes and sizes. We inhabit many shared worlds. Moreover, it is surely the case that the relation of Eric and Vanier is not as strange as Thomas Aquinas’s claim that God desires to befriend us.

According to Thomas, charity, God’s unrelenting desire to love and be loved by us, makes possible “a certain friendship with him.”[26] For God, like Sarah, McKearney observes, loves and is loved because God delights in the love that created us to be “us.” Such love transforms what Thomas identifies as servile fear into filial fear which only fears losing our friendship with God—a fear that makes us no longer servants but friends with the One who alone is capable of transforming our vulnerabilities into love.

Friendship has always been a major theme in my work but more important in my life. So I need to close with these brief remarks. In 1970 I was hired to teach theological ethics at a school called Notre Dame. I had no idea what I was getting into and I am sure I made many mistakes. But the people at Notre Dame befriended me, a loose cannon Protestant, and in the process taught me how to be befriended. Which is but my way to say: “Thank you.”

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay was delivered as an address at this year's ND de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture annual Fall Conference. The live feed recording can be watched here on YouTube.

[1] Jean Vanier, Befriending the Stranger (Mahwah, NY: Paulist, 2010), vii.

[2] Brian Brock, Wondrously Wounded: Theology, Disability, and the Body of Christ (Waco: Baylor, 2019), 195.

[3] Ibid., xvi-xvii.

[4] For a more extended discussion of this observation see my Suffering Presence: Theological Reflections on Medicine, the Mentally Handicapped, and the Church (Notre Dame, IN:  Notre Dame, 1986), 173-175.

[5] These remarks about fear I owe to a former student, Bruce McCuskey, who is in the process of becoming a Jesuit.

[6] Hans Reinders, Receiving the Gift of Friendship: Profound Disability, Theological Anthropology, and Ethics (Grand Rapids  Eerdmans, 2008), 313.

[7] Brock, op. cit., xiv.

[8] Brock, op. cit., xv.

[9] I owe this way of putting the matter to my good friend Sam Wells.

[10] Here I draw on David Hunsicker’s use of O’Donovan to characterize Barth’s significance in his The Making of Stanley Hauerwas: Bridging Barth and Postliberalism (Downers Grove: IVP Press, 2019), 72.

[11] As much as I admire Brock’s way of describing the intellectually disabled it is hard to use Brock’s revision in every context in which people with intellectual disabilities are described.

[12] For my attempt to think through Sam Wells’s account of what it means to “be with” someone applied to the mentally disabled see my Approaching the End:  Eschatological Reflections on Church, Politics, and Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 222-236.

[13] James McEvoy,  “Friendship and Love,” The Irish Theological Quarterly, 50,1 (March 1, 1983): 45.

[14] David Toole has directed my attention to Johnathan Lear’s account of our vulnerability that is a manifestation of our nature as “finite erotic creatures.” Accordingly, courage is and must be always included in accounts of the virtues because the very fragility of our lives requires it. Lear seems to be reading Freud through Plato—something that requires too much attention to be developed here. Lear develops these themes in his remarkable book, Radical Hope (Cambridge: Harvard, 2006).

[15] Patrick McKearney, “Receiving the Gift of Cognitive Disability:  Recognizing Agency in the Limits of the Rational Subject,” Cambridge Anthropology, 36,1 (Spring, 2018): pp. 40+. Paginations to the online text to appear in text.

[16] Jonathan Tran pointed out to me that McKearney’s “discovery” is quite similar to the argument Alice Crary develops in her book, Inside Ethics: On the Demands of Moral Thought (Cambridge: Harvard, 2016). Crary argues that our moral lives depend on empirical discoverable qualities of human beings and animals (88). She suggests, therefore, that a certain exercise of the imagination is required in order to bring human beings and animals into focus in ethics.

[17] Brock, op. cit., 150-152.

[18] Ibid., 162-164.

[19] Ibid., 168.

[20] Ibid., 223.

[21] Vanier, Befriending the Stranger, vii.

[22] Jason Reimer Greig, Reconsidering Intellectual Disability: L’Arche, Medical ethics, and Christian Friendship, (Washington, DC:  Georgetown, 2015), 146.

[23] Ibid., 226.

[24] Jean Vanier, Drawn Into the Mystery of Jesus Through the Gospel of John (New York: Paulist, 2004), 231.

[25] Vanier,  Drawn Into the Mystery of Jesus, p. 232.

[26] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica  (Westminster, Maryland:  Christian Classics, 1981), I-II, 65,5.  For an account of Thomas on friendship see Paul Wadell, Friends of God:  Virtues and Gifts in Aquinas  (New York:  Peter Lang, 1991).

Featured Image: Vanellus Foto8-year-old boy with Down Syndrome, 31 August 2008; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0


Stanley Hauerwas

Stanley Hauerwas is Gilbert T. Rowe Professor Emeritus of Divinity and Law at Duke University. He is the author of many books, among them Suffering Presence Theological Reflections on Medicine, the Mentally Handicapped, and the Church.

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