The Spirit comes to help us in our weakness

Ghadir is a young girl with cerebral palsy who joined the L’Arche community in Bethany in the Holy Land. When Jean Vanier, the founder of the community, met her, he was struck by  how beautiful she was, how she laughed with her whole body. She awoke a deep tenderness within him. When he visited her family he saw that people were brought together by this weak and vulnerable little girl. He even dared to say that in her smile there was a glimmer of the look and presence of God.

The L’Arche movement, has created communities around the world, where those with and without learning disabilities live together. They aim to prove that those with such disabilities have just as much to give as they need to receive. L’Arche  does not just attend to physical needs but also deals  with spiritual and emotional needs. Living in these communities, members gain confidence and make new relationships.

St Paul says that the Spirit comes to help us in our weakness.  The Spirit can be described as the paraclete, the one who answers a cry. The paraclete can also be defined as defender, advocate, consoler, all words which reflect the need of a weaker person for someone strong to help them, or speak on their behalf. Whereas the other Greek for spirit ‘pneuma’ suggests a movement and force, ‘parakletos’ suggests a personal interaction, a loving relationship, the Spirit coming to the aid of a weaker person. A mother attending to her baby, can be considered a paraclete, she attends to the needs of the baby and watches over, protects and consoles it. The paraclete, reveals the presence of God and reminds us that we are important and have value.

St Paul says that the Spirit comes to help us in our weakness when we cannot find the words to pray. It is a reassurance that even when we cannot articulate our prayer, the prayer can still happen through the power of the Spirit. We do not have to find the right words, we come before God just as we are, and as Jesus says, God knows our prayer even before we pray. This does not mean that we should not pray as God knows about it anyway. A parent knows the needs of a child, but it would feel strange if the child never asked for anything.

The Book of Wisdom says that because God is tender –hearted towards us we must in turn behave kindly to our fellow men and women. Jean Vanier wrote about the importance of being alongside someone in need. He says, ‘when a mother loses her child, there is nothing we can do. When a mother discovers her child has a severe disability and she is grieving, there is nothing to do but be with her. To be with someone is the compassion of presence. It says ‘you are not alone; I am with you. I am with you, to help you rise up.

We may not have the words to say, but the Spirit enables us to simply be there. The Spirit can enable us to be silent, and not reach for platitudes and false promises.

The L’Arche communities might sound idyllic, but Jean Vanier has no illusions about the difficulty of community life. He wrote that if anyone wants to be a saint, they should live alone. ‘When we live in community we discover very quickly that we are not. Community is a place that is both beautiful and painful; but it is also the place of transformation. Community offers us the opportunity to become men and women who make an effort to grow in love, an effort that will always be crowned by the power of the Holy Spirit who teaches us to love as Jesus loved.

Life can be better lived in community. We here in this church form a community. It may be hard to admit that we need help from time to time; we might feel too proud, or independent, we might not want to impose on the good will of others, and put them on the spot. But unless we admit our need of help, then it is more difficult both for another to give it, and for us to receive it.  We cannot always sense what another needs without being told.

Another member of a L’Arche community, an 11-year old boy with a disability, received his first communion at a church in Paris. After the service, the boy’s uncle and godfather said to his mother how beautiful the service was and wasn’t it sad that the child didn’t understand any of it. The mother was very hurt by this comment. The child, seeing her tears said, ‘don’t worry mummy, Jesus loves me as I am.’ In his simple understanding he recognised and took to heart this central gospel truth, probably better than his uncle.

Those who appear weak in the judgement of the world, often have so much to give and teach those of us who might think ourselves strong and self-sufficient. The Spirit comes to the aid of us all, sometimes in unexpected ways.


Quotations from Jean Vanier, The Gospel of John, the Gospel of Relationship, Darton Longman & Todd, 2016.