Alison Joyce Rector of St Bride's Church Fleet Street London

The most unpromising of seeds

Written by
The Revd Canon Dr Alison Joyce
Rector of St Bride's
Sunday 13th June, 2021

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I am not generally in the habit of quoting posts from Twitter during my sermons, but I did spot the following the other day, which was too painfully accurate to ignore. It is an imagined dialogue between the individual and Jesus on the subject of book purchasing. Some of you will recognise the Gospel incident upon which this little exchange was based:

‘Jesus, should I buy this new book?’
Jesus replies: ‘Show me the latest new books you have read.
Answer: ‘I have no new books I have read.’
Jesus: ‘You are right in saying, ‘I have no new books I’ve read, for you have twenty-six new books, and the ones you now own you have not read.’

I must put my hands up at this point. In so far as I do have an abiding vice, it is in the purchasing of many books. I do actually read them – well, most of them – eventually – but my basic life situation can at times feel rather uncomfortably close to the incident described, with ever-growing mountains of those books-that-I-haven’t-quite-got-round-to-reading-yet in my study, my living room, and my bedroom.

So just occasionally I discover a real treasure amongst books that I have even forgotten that I have in my possession. And one of those that I discovered not too long ago, was a little book written by one of my favourite authors on Spirituality, Henri Nouwen, which I had never got around to reading before. It was called Adam: God’s Beloved. ‘What a peculiar title,’ I thought to myself, automatically assuming that the Adam of the title must be the Adam whose story is told in the book of Genesis. ‘How on earth could anyone describe him as ‘God’s beloved’, when he is surely most famous for his catastrophic fall from God’s favour and his eviction from the Garden of Eden?’

So, finding myself intrigued, I had a quick dip inside, and soon found myself completely and utterly hooked. Indeed, because it is a slender volume, I ended up reading the whole thing pretty much in one sitting.

I swiftly discovered that the Adam of the title was not in fact the Adam of the Book of Genesis. It was a man called Adam Arnott, who died in Toronto in 1996, at the age of 34. But his story, the story that Henri Nouwen tells in this book, is, nevertheless, a remarkable one.

A word about the author before I say more: Henri Nouwen, the author of this book was a Dutch Roman Catholic priest and a distinguished academic, who worked as a university lecturer for over twenty years and was a highly successful writer in the area of Christian spirituality. So it astonished all who knew him when, in 1986, he said goodbye to that life and went instead to join the L’Arche community in Toronto.

For any of you who are unfamiliar with it, L’Arche was and is a groundbreaking group of Christian communities originally founded in France in the 1960s. The name means simply ‘The Ark’. They are houses in which a core group of people with learning difficulties live alongside able-bodied volunteers in a fully integrated community. L’Arche has successfully overturned most of the assumptions people have traditionally had about people with learning difficulties, and their care, recognising that its core members often have much to teach their able-bodied co-residents. Even though the founder of L’Arche has since fallen from grace, the vision of L’Arche and its extraordinary work has continued. And it was in one of the L’Arche houses that Henri Nouwen encountered Adam Arnett.

Adam had been severely epileptic throughout his life. He had very restricted mobility. He was unable to speak or to communicate through any normal channels; he was unable to express affection or love in any conventional way; he needed constant assistance and support with the most basic of tasks.

And when Henri Nouwen first arrived at L’Arche he was charged with the task of helping Adam with his early morning routine. This meant getting him up, dressing him, shaving him, brushing his teeth, taking him to the dining room, and helping him to eat his breakfast. Because of the severity of Adam’s disability, the whole procedure could take two hours. And Nouwen admitted that he was aghast at being entrusted with this duty. Surely this was a task that needed specialist skills that he didn’t have? – especially as Nouwen regarded himself as one of the most impractical human beings on the planet.

Initially Nouwen was forever calling on the assistance of one of the other volunteers to help him with the various tasks he had to do for Adam; and he felt deeply frustrated and annoyed by the sheer length of time that everything took – all that time every morning simply to get this man up. But whenever Nouwen asked why it was that he of all people had been asked to undertake this particular job, the cheerful answer that he received from the other members of the community was always the same: ‘This is so that you can get to know Adam,’ he was told. At the time, that answer baffled him.

But gradually, in the process of being there with Adam for that length of time every day, Nouwen describes how he began to learn. He began to discover things, not simply about Adam, but about himself. In particular, he learnt about his own impatience: he soon found out that it did not do to rush Adam. If he tried to do so, Adam simply couldn’t cope. Adam’s routine had to happen at Adam’s pace, or not at all. And so, gradually, Nouwen began to adapt what he did to follow Adam’s rhythm, and adapt his own ways to Adam’s ways.

And something else started to happen as well. Nouwen began to talk to Adam. He was never sure quite how much Adam could hear or understand, but Adam was there and, in his own peculiar way, he was always very attentive. Before long, Nouwen was not only speaking to Adam, but baring his soul to him. He came to value Adam as a trusted listener, to whom he could tell absolutely anything. Nouwen writes this:

What was amazing about all this was the very gradual realisation that Adam was really there for me, listening with his whole being and offering me a safe space to be … As the weeks and months went by, I grew attached to my one or two hours a day with Adam. They became my quiet hours, the most reflective and intimate time of the day. Indeed, they became like a long prayer time.

And Nouwen began to learn other things from Adam as well:

[Adam] was the one who opened me to the realisation that the greatest gift I could offer to him was my open hand and open heart to receive from him his precious gift of peace. In this exchange I was enriched and so was he.

Adam had an astonishing capacity to transform the lives of those whom he encountered. Those who spent time with him found themselves able to discover and reflect upon their own vulnerabilities and disabilities, in a way that was profoundly liberating. Men such as Adam could not speak … and yet, as Nouwen started to recognise, he himself spoke far too much. Adam couldn’t walk; but Nouwen reflected that he was himself forever running around as if life was one emergency after another. Adam needed help with the most basic daily tasks, and yet it was Nouwen who was forever shouting for help. Again, he wrote:

When I had the courage to look deeper, to face my emotional neediness, my inability to pray, my impatience and restlessness, my many anxieties and fears, the word ‘handicap’ started to have a whole new meaning. The fact that my handicaps were less visible than those of Adam and his housemates didn’t make them any less real.

And he observed in Adam – that quiet, peaceful, steady human being – an inner light that was radiant; that was of God. he came to see that Adam’s way, the way of vulnerability, was also the way of Jesus.

Adam Arnett died of heart failure at the age of 34. At his funeral, hundreds of people turned up. Hundreds of them. The people whose lives he had touched in his own quiet way, and who mourned his loss deeply.

Two of our Biblical readings this morning describe how the most unpromising of living things can yield the most astonishing results: in Ezekiel we heard how the tiniest, most tender sprig from the highest branch of the cedar tree grows and bears fruit, and becomes a mighty tree, giving shelter to every kind of bird. And in our Gospel reading it is the mustard seed: the smallest, most insignificant seed of all, that becomes the greatest of shrubs, so that birds can, similarly, nest in its shade. The most insignificant of seeds can bear the most extraordinary of fruits.

And in the same way, the Christian faith constantly challenges us to rethink our assumptions and attitudes about the things that matter in life, and the things that do not; to look for new life and new hope in precisely those places where such things appear to be marked by their very absence.

And sometimes, as Henri Nouwen discovered, we need people like Adam to remind us of that.


congregation sitting for service


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