Hello, my name is Mike Hanck, and I am a fourth-year seminarian. I should also add that, although my seminary has a four-year program for MDiv Students, I still have two more years until I will complete my degree. The reasons for this are muddled at best, but the main reason seems to be that I keep finding myself looking for God somewhere just off of the tracks.
My latest journey has landed me here, in a L’Arche Community, as made famous by the late Henri Nouwen. Of course, there’s a long and winding story that leads to my being here, but to simplify that as well, I will just say that, somehow, I followed the Theology of the Cross here, looking for God in an unexpected place.
The reality of a L’Arche Community, however, is that it is nowhere near as interesting or academic as the Theology of the Cross. I have mopped a lot of floors. I have cleaned a lot of toilets. I have cursed Brother Lawrence many a time. I have cooked some pretty interesting meals. (Did you know that just a little bit of red food coloring will work its way through an entire pot of cauliflower, and that this can actually be a good way to get someone who hates vegetables to forget about their dislike of them and eat them?) I sat through four seasons of the TV series Smallville with a 50-year-old man with Downs Syndrome. And yet, I can’t claim any sort of revelation from most of these events, other than the food coloring realization, which has absolutely nothing to do with theology and everything to do with unconventional cooking.
When I started out here, someone from the Theological World (a strange and distant planet) suggested to me that such a move, a move to L’Arche, was sentimental at best. There are many times during which I have thought that, perhaps, maybe, possibly, he was right.
In fact, throughout Epiphany and Lent, my doubts increased. I would wonder, “What am I doing here? I’m no good at this.” The triviality was killing me. I was going through what Eugene Peterson would call “The Bad Lands,” where the scenery is boring and one direction seems just as banal as another. It was insanity that I had done this to myself. I would look on facebook, and I would see that, while I was trying to figure out if a scab was just a scab or if a scab was actually the onset of shingles on another man’s forehead, people just a little older than me and people just a little younger than me were joining interfaith groups, participating in church musicals, joining in big campaigns against gun violence in the inner city, taking long trips into the wilderness, and developing finer preaching skills. I developed what I would like to call “Holy Envy,” but really, it was just Envy.
And then, Easter broke out. I have heard, countless times, that leaving well is important, and I was intent on starting this process a little early, to prepare all of these fragile and wonderful people for that moment when I wave goodbye and drive off. I was getting ready to head out for a new life in a few months. But, as I did this, I found that leaving a place is much like how you have been living in it – and sometimes, it is all of that but much more direct and inescapable as people may tell you exactly what they think.
And from the Core Members here (adults with developmental disabilities ranging from mental retardation to Downs Syndrome to Acquired Brain Injury), I found that, although my tasks felt meager, and although I could not write a “rock-star-theologian” book about it all, and although it could be labeled anything from “sentimental” to “trivial,” it was anything but this.
It’s about the Spirituality of Christianity being played out in the everyday lives of people and their bodies.
Every night is the Eucharist, where six to eight people in this house, all very different, with a variety of gifts and challenges that would make the Corinthian church look like a monoculture, come together to share their food, all of which comes from the goods that we all hold in common (See the Book of Acts). And, during this time, we laugh, recount the day, and offer up prayers in our best ways. For example, one of our members, who is nonverbal, will lead prayer with only a harmonica, and it is as though you can hear his soul through the music, dancing in gratitude to God. Or, for another example, Jane, who, although she was rendered disabled by a car accident in her twenties and has since spent the rest of her life confined to a wheelchair and is unable to process thoughts as she used to be able to do, offers up some of the most poetic prayers I have ever heard, with a sincerity for which I also have a “Holy Envy.”
And it occurred to me the other day, as I was giving John, my friend with Downs Syndrome, his medicine in bed, that the seemingly mundane, in places with “ordinary” people doing “ordinary” things, we have a location from which to practice, with great importance, our spirituality, to see Christ out in the world and to even have Christ, sometimes, seen in ourselves.
John took the little cup (which is like something you’d put ketchup in at Five Guys: Burgers and Fries) with his pills in it. He said thank you and then downed the pills. Then, I gave him a mug of water, which was difficult for him to bring to his lips on his own, so I held the cup and tilted it as he brought his lips to it and took a sip. He said thank you again, and I realized that, despite the fact that, according to my denomination, I’m not supposed to do something like this until I’m ordained, I just gave and experienced communion with John (though I had no pills or water for myself). For the past so many months, he has relied on me to give him this, this thing that he needs. And he has given me a lot as well, including great pictures (did you know that Big Bird can also look like a camel?) and plenty of forgiveness (which I need since the main trait that I share with Nouwen is my uncoordinated clumsiness). In the seemingly mundane, we often receive just what we need, a healthy dose of reality tinged and infused with a sense of the holy – if we’re open to such grace.
But, it occurs to me, too, that we don’t all need a L’Arche (or Mission Year or Lutheran Volunteer Corps or Jesuit Volunteer Corps…you get the idea) to do this. These are, of course, all great projects in their own ways, but the essential, the place where God is most easily accessible yet sometimes most hard to see, is all around you, in this place and with these people. The place for Christian Spirituality is everywhere. To add, just a bit, onto a very old conception of God, it is not only God who is omnipresent; it is also this Spirituality that senses and worships and praises and seeks God that is omnipresent.
Though I couldn’t have predicted it, though I came by here by one route, which is a very good route too, I have come out on another route, the one of seeking an omnipresent spirituality (and I presume that, with the four years that I’ve already mentioned above figured in, I have only thirty-six more years left in the wilderness…).
But I have to go finish Jane’s laundry now, so here ends the reading.
May you experience such grace at your table as I have at mine.