British Ph.D Candidate, Nicola Santamaria Researching at Nouwen Archives
We asked Nicola to share with us a brief description of her research . . .
My research looks at the question of what life in heaven will be like for people with disabilities, and in particular for those with learning disabilities. I am examining the ideas of Augustine, and of L’Arche in the writings of Jean Vanier and Henri Nouwen, looking to see where they correspond and where they differ. One reason for this research is to answer the question of continuity of identity for people in the next life. Will someone be recognisable as themselves if their disability is removed in heaven? Another is to consider how eschatology impinges on pastoral practice for people with disabilities.
In spite of the great differences in approach between the L’Arche voices and the voice of Augustine, there are some areas where they can speak to each other. One of these relates to community since for both Augustine and L’Arche, community is a key feature of human life. Another area is one we can call illumination or vision. Augustine’s ideas of vision, and in particular of what he calls intellectual vision relate to the L’Arche belief that people with learning disabilities have a positive and beneficial influence on the people around them. The way in which people with learning disabilities are able to illuminate the lives of others mimics divine illumination. This is relevant to the responsibility Church communities have not only to welcome people with learning disabilities into their midst, but also to appreciate the gifts that those people bring. Such gifts can enable the whole community to gain enlightenment and a sense of the divine presence in the here-and-now, as a foretaste of the joys of heaven.
By looking at two very different approaches to the study of eschatology, placed in the context of people with learning disabilities, my hope is that my research will enable us to re-examine previous ideas about the perfection of human life. When Henri Nouwen writes about Adam Arnett he says:
Simply being with him, without anything to do or discuss, brings me to a place in my heart far beyond words or feelings: the place of unity and communion, the place of inner purity and simplicity ... the place of God.1
For me it is not too fanciful to imagine that heaven will be like that place of God, where we are beyond words or feelings. Henri felt, as did the abbot of a contemplative monastery, also described in this article, that people like Adam helped them on their spiritual journey towards God. In this sense they are prophets who help others to come closer to God, and to have a vision of what their heavenly home might be like.
Being able to explore the Henri Nouwen Archives has been immensely valuable for my research. Sometimes I can be reading something which strikes a chord because it echoes something that Jean Vanier wrote. Sometimes I read something from Henri that I’ve read before, but I see it in a new light. Sometimes I am just encouraged that so many diverse publications carried articles by Henri, reminding me how wide his influence stretches. It is truly a privilege to be here and I am very grateful to the staff in the Henri Nouwen Archives and Research Collection who have made me so welcome.
12th September 2012
Nouwen Archives, Kelly Library, University of St. Michael's College
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Photo: Jessica Barr, Nouwen Archives Assistant and Nicola Santamaria working in the Nouwen Archives. Photo by M. Wright
Nouwen, H. ‘Home, Healing and Hope’. An article published in 1993 in the Letters of L’Arche, #76, p.3