by Skye Jethani
Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche communities who died just a few weeks ago, often used a simple metaphor to explain his ministry with the mentally handicapped. With his hands cupped he would say, “Suppose I have a wounded bird in my hands. What would happen if I closed my hands completely?” Vanier waited for his audience to say the bird would be crushed and die. “Well, then, what would happen if I opened my hands completely?” The bird might attempt to fly but it would fall instead and die. “The right place is like my cupped hand,” Vanier would say with a smile, “neither totally open nor totally closed. It is the space where growth can take place.”
In a world enamored with extremes, Jean Vanier’s simple wisdom is worth remembering. There are some who are eager to throw off the constraints of Scripture and theology in their spiritual development. The Bible has been used to hurt so many, they say, and it’s moral boundaries don’t work anymore. This attitude can lead some to embrace an unstructured, free-flowing spirituality of experience. They advocate prayer and reflection as the best way to grow. This approach is like Vanier’s completely open hands—it is a freedom that leads only to death.
To avoid this fate some have overreacted by insisting upon a rigid, suffocating spirituality. Knowing the Bible, parsing theology, and the expulsion of all ambiguity is seen as the only legitimate path to maturity with God. Not only does this ungracious environment cause many who are genuinely seeking Christ to abandon the faith, those who endure long enough usually develop critical and self-righteous attitudes.
Vanier’s cupped hands—the right combination of structure and space—is what’s needed for growth. I’ve come to see Scripture as an important element of structure in my life with God. Its authority holds me up and puts helpful definition on my vision of God. It functions like roots providing nourishment and structure. Prayer, on the other hand, brings light, oxygen, and space—the elements necessary for any growth that will eventually produce fruit.
As you reflect on your Christian tradition and experience, what has more often been missing? Have you been in communities where hands were tightly closed in a smothering grip? Or have the hands been so open that you’ve fallen into a formless, silly spirituality? What do you need to create the space for growth to take place?