Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (John 13:21-38) transports me to Mother Teresa’s Home for the Destitute and Dying in Calcutta, India, where a famous French geophysicist at the peak of his career, Xavier Le Pichon, arrived in 1973 to resolve a major existential crisis of life. Le Pichon, founder of the modern study of plate tectonics and seismic motion, left the world of science to come to Calcutta, convinced he had missed out on the most important part of life while he immersed himself in research. As he cradled an abandoned dying child in his arms and attempted to feed him, he made the most important discovery of his life: the capacity for empathy and the necessity to identify with the weakness and suffering and fragility of humanity. He went back to France and joined a L’Arche community, living among persons with disabilities, and before long the leader of L’Arche, Jean Vanier, convinced him to continue his scientific work. Le Pichon has since spent his life in two worlds, studying the faultlines and movements of the earth’s crust, and living in community with the world of suffering and brokenness. In a recent article, Ecce Homo, and in an On Being interview with Krista Tippett, he made a connection between discoveries he has made in these two worlds – a connection involving the necessity and significance of weakness and brokenness and fragility in our world. Fragility is at the heart of humanity. . . In the lower layer of the earth, where the temperature is high, the defaults that are within the rocks are activated and the rocks are able to move without fracture, they flow. But when the temperature is cold, like in the upper few miles of the earth, then they are rigid. These weaknesses cannot be expressed, and as a result the rocks are much more rigid, they reach their limits of resistance, and suddenly you have a major commotion, an earthquake. So in one case the defaults play a role in making things much more smooth, and in the other case, it’s very rigid. In society it’s often the same way.
When I read the story of Jesus gathering his disciples for a last supper, I sense that he knew exactly what Xavier Le Pichon discovered. Here was Emmanuel, God With Us, the creative Word Become Flesh, facing the culmination of his life’s work and ministry and teaching. He could have stayed on the surface, clashing with the rigidities of his culture, railing and raging against the injustices and abuses of power and colliding along the faultlines of imperial occupation. But he lived his life far beneath the surface. He drew his community down into those regions where the weaknesses and the fragility were incorporated into daily life. And so he called his friends to supper. After washing their feet, he allowed his life to flow squarely into those faultlines of trouble, of loss, of betrayal, and denial. It was in the midst of these weak places that he gave them his final commandment: love one another. In the midst of fragility and brokenness, Jesus speaks of love. He does not chide them for their weakness. Instead, he embodies for them the suffering love that exists far beneath the surface fractures of life, far beneath the rigidities and seismic struggles and collisions.
Xavier Le Pichon writes of the way that initial experience with the dying and destitute forever changed the flow of his life: Suffering has suddenly swept my soul: it has washed away everything in me. How so much suffering that I had not even noticed could be present next to me? As I had been standing on the crest of the advancing wave of our scientific and technologic civilization, I did not even glance at the debris left over by its flow. I was looking ahead. And suddenly, among the debris of my civilization, this child becomes for me a person, the most important person in my life. Le Pichon’s experience challenges and convicts me, as I realize how tempting it is to live life along those cresting waves of seismic struggles, continental drifts, and convergent boundaries, those places of cultural collision, and I often miss those who are cast aside in its wake. Jesus, as Le Pichon discovered, calls us, call me, to live deeper beneath the surface. I am feeling myself more and more drawn to those places where the fragilities are more fluid, where the brokenness and weakness is incorporated into daily life. I’m ready to experience some of what Le Pichon described – growth and movement without fracture.
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.