On a Cult(ure) of Life

At what point does the culture of life end and the cult of life begin? Jean Vanier is the head of L'Arche, an international network of faith-based communities in which developmentally disabled people and non-disabled people live together. The communities are meant to treat the disabled with the dignity and love that the rest of the world most often denies them. L'Arche recognizes, as the late Pope John Paul II once said, that "the difficulties of the disabled are often perceived as a shame or a provocation and their problem as burdens to be removed or resolved as quickly as possible. Disabled people are instead living icons of the crucified Son. They reveal the mysterious beauty of the One who emptied himself for our sake and made himself obedient unto death." Our first inclination might be to peg L'Arche as the ultimate celebration of life, what happens when we choose to show hospitality to people who are inconvenient and different. L'Arche seems like it ought to be a clear answer to those who doubt that the severely developmentally disabled can live with the dignity and love that they deserve and who believe that they are "better off dead." And to some extent, it is. But L'Arche is particularly good at celebrating life in all its fullness, even its end. Vanier writes, "Over the last forty-two years we've had many deaths, and we've spent a lot of time celebrating death. It's very fundamental to our community...We gathered to say how beautiful [a recently deceased community member] was, how much she had brought to us. Her sisters came, and we wept and laughed at the same time. We wept because she was gone, but we laughed because she did so many beautiful things" (32).