The following is excerpted entirely from the introduction of Jean Vanier’s Befriending the Stranger. The book packages six reflections (for a six day retreat) Jean presented to members of the community of L’Arche in the Dominican Republic. I provide it for our reflection here because it has much to do with the invitation not to run away. It speaks of pain and fear and hope and the Gospel. The reflections seem appropriate for the holy week we are in… and so I offer them to you.
[I also had the great good fortune to hear Jean Vanier speak to the assembled academic community – faculty, staff, students – at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago when I was a student there. His is a holy presence, informed and formed by the Gospel, especially shaped by the way he has shared his life and journeyed with women and men with disabilities. His words bear repeating because of what they say, but also because of who he is and how his own response to God’s invitation has impacted so many.]
Vanier introduces the retreat quoting for each individual present the prophet Hosea’s promise that God “will allure” and “bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her heart” (2:14). “I will give her back her vineyards…” which Jean says means that God will show her how fruitful her life is, “and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.” See if you find your heart spoken to while reading his words below.
Yes, our lives are called to bear much fruit because Jesus wants to give life to others. We find it difficult to give life, to hold and carry people in their weakness. We are often frightened of reality because reality can be painful and a source of disappointment. We tend to escape into a world of illusions and to seek refuge in dreams. We bury ourselves in ideas and theories or fill our days with distractions.
We run away from our “Valley of Achor”, which is the place of our greatest and most intimate pain. Yet that is the very place that God calls us to enter so that it may be transformed into a door of hope.
The Valley of Achor was situated near Jericho. It was a dangerous place, filled with snakes, scorpions and all kinds of wild beasts; it was a place of fear that people tried to avoid. Yet God declares that this valley of misfortunie will become a coor of hope. What a mystery; a mystery filled with hope!
There is a “Valley of Achor” in each one of us: for each of us there are events or hurts we do not want to remember, look at or come close to; there are people and experiences that we try to avoid because they bring up too much pain in us and we are frightened of pain. Certain people disturb us; they are “strange”, “different”; we cannot bear their pain or the pain they evoke in us. Yet God tells us that if we enter into these places of pain and welcome these people they will become for us a “door of hope”.
If we become close to the people our societies reject, exclude and crush, people who are hidden away in asylums, we will discover that they can become a “door of hope”. So too if we accept the things inside our own selves that we reject: the blockages, the bitterness, the fears, all that we may be ashamed of; if we dare to penetrate into our inner “Valley of Achor” it will indeed become a door of hope for us.
But we cannot do it alone. We need to walk hand in hand with Jesus, to let him guide us and reveal to us the heart of the Gospel.