Grace Mariette Agolia
I love sharing meals with other people, especially around the dinner table with my family. In this sense, family, while including the biological, extends beyond that to a spiritual communion of persons, who express vulnerability by welcoming each other to the table, preparing a place for each person, serving each person, and embracing each other as he or she is in God. You behold the body before you, you receive it, and you give of yourself in return. It is both a physical and spiritual act. I learned this experience of family in a special way during my time this past summer at a L’Arche home.
L’Arche is an international organization founded by Jean Vanier through which people with and without intellectual disabilities share life in community, build mutually transforming relationships, celebrate the dignity of each human person, and make known each other’s gifts by working together to build a better world. 
At the beginning and end of each dinner meal at L’Arche, we pray together. We thank God for the gifts of family, friends, and food before we eat, and afterwards, we light a candle and pass it around to each person at the table as they express gratitude for certain experiences of the day and name their prayer intentions. We conclude by joining hands to say the “Our Father.” In gathering together around the table, we share our joys and sorrows, and we acknowledge each other’s dignity as persons created in the image of God. The meal is not only about the food shared but also about the humanity shared with each other in kinship, where those at the margins are brought to the center.
Especially in a world where many are afraid to confront Lazarus begging for scraps at the table of plenty, this understanding of family where all, especially those on the margins of society, are welcomed at the table is essential for us to encounter God in human relationships. We are to come to the feast of heaven and earth exactly as we are in God, and we are to embrace the dignity of all persons at the table, regardless of condition or ability. For people with disabilities, this can be difficult because much of the non-acceptance that they face in society happens because others are not willing to incur a cost to themselves in trying to go beyond their fear in an attempt to understand. Much of the disabling part is actually a social construction – the terrible feeling of isolation that results when other people, who do not understand because they are afraid, treat people with disabilities in a different way that can be demeaning.
Persons with disabilities are human beings. Their experience of disability is a very particular type of challenge that they face in their daily lives. It informs their experience as human beings, but it no way defines who they are. Like every other human being, they seek love, they seek acceptance, they seek friendship, they seek communion. Like all people, they must be offered a place at the table, where the human heart is called to relationship, to “a communion of hearts, which is the to-and-fro of love.” 
According to theologian Henri Nouwen:
[H]aving a meal is more than eating and drinking [to stay alive]. It is celebrating the gifts of life we share. A meal together is one of the most intimate and sacred human events. Around the table we become vulnerable, filling one another’s plates and cups and encouraging one another to eat and drink. Much more happens at a meal than satisfying hunger and quenching thirst. Around the table we become family, friends, community, yes, a body. That is why it is so important to ‘set’ the table. Flowers, candles, colorful napkins all help us to say to one another, “This is a very special time for us, let’s enjoy it!” 
At L’Arche, we take great care in preparing and setting the table for each meal, ensuring that we have the right number of places for all the people coming to dinner and that we can accommodate specific dietary needs. Likewise, at Mass, it is so important to set a place for each person at the table, to invite them, to welcome them because that is true meaning of community. We are to enjoy the beautiful presence of each other, of God coming into our midst.
This is part of the reason why I enjoyed attending Mass with the L’Arche core members. They sat right in front at church, participating as fully and joyfully as they could using their gifts, and the whole parish community was so accepting of them as persons, which is a recognition that goes beyond merely accommodating a physical disability. The accommodation needs to become a spiritual one for both persons in the relationship in order to bring them together, not just as one simply helping the other but as both mutually benefiting and being transformed by the interaction.
As Hauerwas and Vanier wrote,
“The Word became flesh to bring people together, to break down the walls of fear and hatred that separate people. That’s the vision of the incarnation – to bring people together. In his prayer for unity Jesus prayed that we might all become one. We have this incredible vision of peacemaking, two thousand years in the making.” 
We are called to break down barriers of misunderstanding that separate us by giving and receiving the kiss of peace each day, and especially so during a family meal by taking, blessing, breaking, and sharing the bread that sustains all.
Sometimes, we have experiences of disruptive meals because of hostility and unreconciled differences among persons. Those meals often go unfinished, with one person leaving in anger, the food wasted, the other sinking at the table, either no longer hungry, or eating in a futile attempt to fill the emotional emptiness. Or there is an awkward silence as we cover ourselves by focusing on our food, anxious to get the meal over with so that we can escape the embarrassing situation. There is no giving or receiving; only fear, and the walls go up. We are left alone in isolation, in a division that threatens community. This happens all too often in family life. Some of us grow up not being able to be vulnerable, and it affects our relationships with other people.
When we are unable to accept the limitations of others, it is often because we are unable to accept our own. For many of us, it is difficult “to accept our limits and our handicaps as well as our gifts and capacities. We feel that if others see us as we really are they might reject us. So we cover our weaknesses.”  Each of us has a strong desire to be valued and regarded as a person of worth, and when we discover those things which inhibit us from aspiring to our full potential or those things that are looked down upon by others, we want to hide them so that we may be accepted. It is hard to expose our true selves because we run the risk of being rejected and hurt. To give of oneself freely and to be accepting of another comes at a cost, but the rewards reaped can be great when love is returned.
When we accept each other as we are with all our weaknesses and strengths, and continuously come together to partake of the same meal, we grow together on our journey to God. When one gives to another, he or she allows the gift to be received, creating areas of inner spiritual growth.
For Jean Vanier, accompaniment is very much a part of life at L’Arche, but it is ultimately at the heart of all human growth.  We are to assume dispositions of humility and mercy for each other, so that we may walk together on this journey, encouraging the other to grow in loving relationship. This mutual trust and belonging in communion is the “to-and-fro” movement of love between two people where each one gives and each one receives. Communion is not a stagnant reality; it is continuously growing and deepening but “can turn sour if one person tries to possess the other, thus preventing growth.”  Both are enabled in freedom because they are allowed to be themselves. As we partake of the meal together, we accompany each other in our spiritual journeys to union with God, which involves forgiveness and growth in understanding of each other.
In acknowledging and accepting each other’s vulnerability, we participate in this “to-and-fro of love,” a communion of hearts, where vulnerability and tenderness abounds. By sharing the same meal and being incorporated into Christ’s loving act of self-gift, we are called to do the same in our lives when we are sent forth into the world after Mass. We become a living body, unified in love through vulnerability in relationships.
By emphasizing relationships as brothers and sisters in Christ, L’Arche identifies itself as not just a service provider but also as a Christian community. It is not just assistants caring for persons with disabilities; it is persons with disabilities caring for assistants as well. The relationship is mutually beneficial and transforming, where both are called to vulnerability and to an ever-deeper love. This is the nature of self-giving love that is intrinsic to family life. There must be a selfless desire to give, and a humility to receive, both of which require vulnerability. The love of husband and wife, the love of mother and father for their children, the love of siblings, the love of children for their parents, especially as they grow older and in turn, now need their children’s care. We are formed in this love at Mass, at the Eucharistic table, and leaving, our lives become “Eucharistized,” as we share meals at our own family tables in our homes, welcoming all and preparing a place for all, especially those on the margins.
Gratitude is a fruit of this vulnerability of persons gathered together around the table. Just as one core member at L’Arche expressed that his vision of heaven would be like the “First Thanksgiving,” pointing to a depiction of the Last Supper on the wall above the dining room table, we are called to enact each meal as a sacrifice of thanksgiving, honoring God and those human beings around us with sacred dignity. We are called to give of ourselves in relationships of humble service and gratitude, as an offering of self-gift modeled on that of Jesus’ own gift on the cross. Our hospitality to each other is a genuine example of how we should emulate Christ’s vulnerability in our lives. In coming to the table, we do run the risk of allowing ourselves to be changed. But unless we are transformed in love, how will we ever be able to kiss the crosses of others? Our hearts become both the table and the altar where we encounter others and experience the person of Christ, who implores us to do this in his memory.
 I participated in the Summer Service Learning Program offered through the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns. The theme of this year’s immersion experience was “Kinship at the Margins.”
 Jean Vanier, Becoming Human, p. 63
 Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved
 Stanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier, Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness
 Jean Vanier, Becoming Human, p. 100
 Jean Vanier, Becoming Human, p. 130
 Jean Vanier, Becoming Human, p. 28