October 1980. I had been in Braerannoch, the L'Arche community in Inverness, for about a month. It was a Saturday, and for the first time, the house leader had asked me to go down town with Cathol for a haircut. We didn’t know each other much at that point, Cathol and I. That would come later. So that Saturday, understandably, I was a bit nervous. The questioning looks we attracted on the streets of Inverness didn’t help to set me at ease, either. They were new for me, but probably not for Cathol, who had Down’s Syndrome. Looks of pity, then steps of avoidance. I was glad when we eventually arrived at the barber’s so that we could shut the door on these unfriendly streets for a while, at least. On entering the barber’s, and finding no queue, Cathol immediately made a bee-line for the big chair facing the mirror. He’d obviously planned it this way- Cathol always prided himself on his appearance. Focusing his full attention on the mirror, he sat right up and began adjusting his jacket, tie and collar. I looked at him. He was taking a lot of care. The message couldn’t have been clearer: «I am Cathol of the clan Sutherland, and I am proud of who I am ».
The barber, Mr Gelli, just stood there, scissors and comb in hand, patiently letting Cathol make himself comfortable. The ceremony went for some time. After looking and waiting for a good while, Mr. Gelli turned to me and said, ‘This guy, he’s the whole cheese, isn’t he?’It was a funny thing to say, and I remember laughing. But it slowly dawned on me that he’d hit on a profound truth: Cathol really was the ‘whole cheese.’ Looking at him, you could see immediately what Mr Gelli meant: Cathol was second to nobody. Not for a second. Every fibre of this highlander proclaimed loud and clear: ‘I am proud to be a Sutherland; I am proud of my life. I am immensely proud to be Cathol!’ But how came it that Mr Gelli grasped what the people on the street had missed? For both saw exactly the same Cathol- still unmistakeably a man with a difference. Perhaps the answer lies in our human prejudice, preventing us from seeing the full reality, out of fear: our insecurity does a very efficient job of screening off and sanitising the world. Surely only prejudice makes it possible to see Cathol and immediately conclude, ’not-all-there,’ as the saying goes. If each one of us, at some point in our lives, could be the whole cheese, what a revolution that would be ...Mr Gelli also looked. He also saw exactly the same disability. But then he saw something more: a sudden flash of insight revealed one of Cathol’s great gifts: Cathol was very much all there: fully present, in fact, in a way that many people without intellectual disabilities are often not. If each one of us, at some point in our lives, could be the whole cheese, what a revolution that would be: being the uniquely gifted individual that we have always had the potential to be. Living the full fullness of life, and knowing that we were loved and welcomed for being ourselves.
In the eyes of many, blind to Cathol’s real gifts, his difference would mark him as ‘less’. Eyes of pity and feet of avoidance. And so life can go on, undisturbed, and therefore tragically un-enriched by Cathol’s fantastic transcendence of his outward limitation. For those who do stop just a second longer, whose hearts are open even a crack, Cathol holds out great hope, just by being himself: for by being so fully himself, he reveals the core vocation of each one of us, which is surely this: to become most fully ourselves. For if him, why not you, or even me? Whoever we are, and however limited our possibilities, however deep our disappointments, however long we have lived, Cathol’s life shows that he’s discovered that transcendence of his limitations is a fact. A real possibility for us as well? Surely, the answer is ‘yes’. Cathol and other masters of transcendence have much to teach us. If we can’t learn from them, what is stopping us? It seems to me that one thing stopping this from happening more often in our world, is that people live very separated lives: by this I mean that society is structured in such a way that we are cut off from those who are different. To take an obvious and universal example, the richer people live near each other, removed from the poorer people. In the same way, we most often make friends with people who are like us. No surprise there: we become friends because we have something obvious in common, maybe sports, music, work or perhaps religious outlook. And rich people often only have rich friends; black people have black friends; and white, white. So far, so normal, so comfort zone. But this does end up making the world very divided and keeping it that way. ‘There is an ‘us’ and there is a ‘them’, and I know where I belong!’ It is too much to expect us to be like-minded in L'Arche, but we can at least try to be like-hearted... But look at us in L'Arche: we are all different: different countries, different genders; some of us use wheelchairs, others run marathons; gay or straight, some work in the office, others in a workshop or house, Catholic, Protestant, Muslims and Hindus and Jews. Some with an unnamed source of inspiration. Some richer materially, and some poorer.
Many, many are the differences between us. And yet, in a place we call community, and bonded together in a federation of such communities, we come together and try to have friendly relationships with each other, accepting each other, treating each person with great respect, even if we might not get on with them, and disagree with their views. Obviously, it is too much to expect us to be like-minded in L'Arche, but we can at least try to be like-hearted. This is no donkey ride on the beach experience, as we know. It’s a tough trek at times. But in the very opening of our hearts to each other across these divides, the moment we stretch a hand outside the comfort zone, that is the moment that we become a community. I refuse to believe that this is anything other than a sign of God’s revolutionary love for the world, even if we name that reality differently. Why? With friends, and people we are close to, listen to their experience of life, and we start to see the world through their eyes: but if a rich person only has rich friends, his view on the world will only be that of the rich. But in L'Arche we have the opportunity to develop a much broader vision, as a result of making friends with people who are often very different to us. When we see the world through their eyes, it can never look the same again. We call these covenant friendships because they transcend the ordinary bonds of friendship. Some of the original such relationships that we know about, were between Abraham and God [ and believe me, relationships don’t come more different than that between creature and creator!] It is good news that such covenant relationships are not just found in L'Arche, thank God. They can be started anywhere, wherever you find people who are very different to you. What it needs is an attitude of openness of heart. Here is an exercise worth trying out: when you next come across a homeless person, or perhaps even someone whose views annoy you, in fact anyone who looks very different to yourself: try saying to yourself, “he/ she is one of us!”
Hearing a new message.
When we say this in our hearts, our hearts hear a new message. And that message simply cannot leave us unchanged. For what happens then is this: the “us” starts becoming much bigger: it is no longer confined to ‘people like me.’ Now it includes people who are in fact very different from me, but who, we claim, are somehow now ‘one of us.’ This has several consequences. One of them is healing our broken hearts. For we know that there is a level at which we are all poor; but we often fear our poverty, and try to hide the things we cannot do, or the mistakes we make.
A new image, a new revolution.
Making friends with someone who is very different from you, helps you to have a different picture of life, and of yourself. It always amazes me that over 2,500 years ago, a guy we call Isaiah also realised this, and wrote it down like this: ‘when you share your bread with the hungry, and do not neglect the homeless poor, then will your light shine like the dawn, and your wound be quickly healed over.’ It’s a revolution in our way of thinking, and in our way of life. But isn’t this the way that peace slips quietly into the world? Unforced and unphased. And to think that my friend Cathol was waving his banner years ago: a pretty unlikely revolutionary, I’ll grant you, but it takes all sorts, and the one who used to play his bagpipes round Braerannoch in all weathers, proudly clad in the Sutherland tartan kilt has changed more lives than…