Xavier Le Pichon, Honorary Professor at the Collège de France
Member of the Community of L’Arche

Xavier le Pichon helps us enter with respect into the mystery of the wounded,
so that a true encounter takes place, the first step on the road to healing.

Before healing, before being saved, comes an encounter. It is a question first of all of healing a man or woman, of saving a man or woman. For a healing or a saving to occur there must be an encounter. This is the mystery of the encounter with the suffering person, wounded in a way I would like to explore with you, knowing that real clarity can come only from a personal experience. We can live this mystery only in so far as we have personally lived this encounter.

Luke, the beloved physician

I would like to begin by sketching the figure of Luke, evangelist of mercy, he whom Paul called the beloved physician. It seems to me that Luke had made with the suffering and wounded Jesus an interior encounter which revolutionized his life and changed his whole point of view. After all, Luke is the only evangelist who reports that during the Agony of Jesus, ‘his sweat became like drops of blood, falling to the ground.’ This detail must be the reflection of his experience of encounter with Jesus as the poor, the suffering servant, who ‘had no form or charm to attract us, despised, abandoned by all, a man of sorrows, familiar with suffering, like someone from whom we veil our faces.’ It seems to me that only this interior encounter can explain that he should have become the evangelist of pity, the friend of the poor and afflicted, the evangelist who set out to illustrate the depths of the mercy of God, the evangelist of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Rich Man and Lazarus, the Good Thief. He must have been transformed by this encounter with the suffering Jesus, which must have enlightened all his life and all his ministry. All his gospel can be seen in a new light if we accept to meditate with him in the light of this encounter with Jesus in his Agony. Let us ask Luke to help us penetrate into the mystery of the encounter with the wounded, suffering man whom Pilate pointed out to the crowd, ‘Behold the man!’, the man veiled in his mask of suffering, whose dignity was, so to speak, revealed by the stripping away of all that hid his true resemblance to the God of mercy.

The encounter with suffering humanity is as old as humanity itself

I illustrate this claim by giving some examples of human behaviour in prehistoric societies. The most extraordinary example that I know is that reported by Ralph Solecki in his 1971 book, Shanidar, the first Flower People. Solecki reported his discovery in the 1950s of a series of Neanderthal tombs some hundred thousand years old in the cave of Shanidar in Zagros (Iraq). The Neanderthal people had been buried on beds of flowers, which explains the title chosen by Solecki for his book. One of the skeletons, Shanidar 1, was that of a man about forty years old, who was so badly handicapped that he would have been able to live only with the support of the group to which he belonged. Solecki explains, ‘This man, with one arm, one eye, and crippled, had no possibility of contributing to the acquisition of his own food by hunting or gathering. That he survived all those years is a witness to the compassion and the humanity of the Neanderthal people.’ At the time of publication most experts doubted his conclusions. Prehistoric man, and especially the Neanderthal people, simply could not have behaved this way! Nevertheless, later discoveries have confirmed that Shanidar 1 was no exception, and that the Neanderthal people provided food for those members of their community who were too handicapped to contribute to the provision of their own food, and looked after them in general. The scepticism of the experts seems to me to demonstrate how difficult it is to accept what seems to be in contradiction with Darwin’s theory of evolution. For him to survive it must have been necessary for Shanidar 1 to be completely looked after by his community. And what was his community? It cannot have been more than fifteen or twenty people, living by hunting and gathering, lacking any permanent dwelling. Every day they would have had to move to find new resources. It is not easy for us to imagine the effort it must have taken over the years to carry this man from one camp to another, to feed him and simply to enable him to survive. Why should this little group have made the decision, which seems to us quite crazy, to organize their lives completely in such a way as to enable the profoundly handicapped person to survive? What reward would they have had for continuing to do this, year after year? Why did they decide to bury him? Burial was a very special mark of respect.

Shanidar 1 shows us that the experience of caring for a sick person has been at the heart of our human identity from the very beginning. In fact I think that the care we bestow on one another is the gift of our humanity. Our humanity is a potentiality which we must discover in order that it may grow, and such a discovery can be made only in the course of experiences of encounter with a sick person. It is a mutual gift which is at once the fruit and the reward of the encounter.

The Encounter with the Sick

The mystery of this encounter is therefore at the heart of our humanity. We must pay close attention to it. I would like to begin with some reflections which touched me deeply. They are narrated in the tractate Shabbat of the Babylonian Talmud of the sixth century. I was introduced to them by a Jewish scholar, Claude Birman, on the occasion of a Colloquium at the Collège de France.

Rabah B. Bar Hana said, ‘When I was accompanying R. Eliezer on his visits to the sick I heard him say to them, “May the Omnipresent remember you, to bring you peace.” On other occasions he would say in Aramaic, “May the Merciful One remember you to bring you peace.” How could he say these last words? Did not R. Judah say that one may never make a request of God in Aramaic? And R. Johanan also said that whoever makes a request in Aramaic will not be considered by the officiating angels, because they do not understand the language. Nevertheless, if one is speaking to a sick man it is different, for the Shekinah is with him.’

The Shekinah, that divine presence on earth, is with the sick. And the Shekinah understands the language of the sick person, whatever it may be. So this prayer will be heard. ‘But,’ continues R. Anan, ‘how can we know that the Shekinah is supporting the sick person?’

Because it is said, ‘The Eternal, above his bed of sickness, sustains him’ (Psalm 41.4). We also have a baraitha [Talmudic saying] which says, ‘One who visits the sick should not sit down on the edge of the bed or in a chair; he should cover himself completely and sit in front of the sick person, for the Shekinah is above the head of the sick person. Above his bed of sickness, the Eternal sustains him.’

This text attests the consciousness that the Jews of Babylon had of the transcendence present at the encounter with a sick person. The visit becomes Trinitarian. First of all there is the sustaining presence of God, above the bed of the sick person, then the sick person whose language of prayer God understands, and finally the visitor who is to show his respect by covering himself completely, as one covers oneself before God, and sitting on the ground at the feet of the sick person. It is a real liturgy of visiting, which brings home to us that this encounter is a mystery on which one can enter only with profound respect, and that the person who introduces us to the mystery is the sick person. The visitor must efface himself before the sick person to leave that person their due place.

It would be true to say that this visit can truly be lived only if there is a genuine conversion of viewpoint. Under the mask of suffering the visitor finds the beauty of the divine creature, made in the image of God. Of course every man and every woman is in the image of God. But in the sick person the sickness somehow removes everything which could hide this image. As Jesus, presented by Pilate to the crowd in his nakedness of the man of suffering is more than ever ‘the man’, ecce homo, image of God, presence of God among us, Shekinah. For this encounter to take place it is necessary that we discover this human being in the image of God, a discovery which can occur only if we cast out all fear. The visit then gains permanent value and leads to a covenant. It invites us to remain with the person visited.

Communion and liberty

How to leave room for the person encountered? How to avoid imposing on that person our presence, our ideas, our formula for what this encounter ought to be? ‘The poor are our masters,’ St Vincent de Paul used to say. How can we allow ourselves to be educated by them? How can we open ourselves to what they have to teach us about themselves and about ourselves? How to respect the rhythms, the limits, the fears of the person we encounter? If this encounter is to be a moment of communion, there must be space for freedom. Dr John Thompson, a psychiatrist much influenced by P. Thomas Philippe, co-founder of l’Arche with Jean Vanier, used to say that we must struggle to establish anti-concentration camps. Having had to examine survivors of the camp of Bergen- Belsen, he had there discovered the horror of absolute evil, and this discovery had left its definite mark on him. For him the concentration camp was anti-communion, absolute evil. The only effective remedy for suffering and evil is communion. For him the Catholic religion is a religion of communion. This was why he converted. Thenceforth he was determined to consecrate his life to fighting against everything which tends to recreate the concentration camps, segregation, lack of freedom, any kind of restriction, in a word, anything opposed to communion.

Here we touch on the depths of this Trinitarian encounter, which Rabbi Anan evokes. For the communion in which a covenant occurs there must be freedom. Only then can this encounter between two hearts occur, of which P. Thomas Philippe loved to speak. It is in the heart that the mystery of communion by mutual gift occurs. How can we gain access to this space of liberty in the sick person? Furthermore, some doubt the existence of this freedom in those who are most restricted, most suffering. In fact one can penetrate into this space of freedom, however narrow it may be, only by love. To discover this mysterious, hidden world of half-light, which only the Holy Spirit can enlighten, requires plenty of time, plenty of love, to give us the necessary intuitions, to learn when to speak and when to keep silence. Then we can discover that the quality of freedom does not depend on the spatial limits in which it moves. The poorest and the most wounded can possess a freedom of astonishing quality. Unfortunately it is very fragile and easy to crush. P. Thomas Philippe thought that this freedom was anchored in the secret depths of the heart, at the theological level where faith, hope and charity germinate. He thought that at this level every human being has this freedom, even those who do not have the advantage of morality or developed rationality. It is present in little children and the dying, with whom this mystery of encounter is particularly important. He considered, even more profoundly, that in order to discover the Mystery of the Church of Jesus it was necessary to understand that Jesus instituted the Church thinking of the little ones and the poorest of the poor, and those who were prepared to learn from them. Jesus instituted everything in his Church in view of the poor, and most of all the sacraments, very poor and humble signs, intended to grant entry into the mystery of encounter with Him, in order to discover his Father and the Spirit of Love.

In the gospel of John, Jesus said, ‘Once I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself’. The Cross, this great sign of reconciliation, is the very special revelation of the covenant between God and the sick. It is the place of encounter par excellence, which definitively shows that human beings were created in the image of God.