We recently had the chance to talk with David F. Ford about his book The Drama of Living: Becoming Wise in the Spirit.
David F. Ford (PhD, University of Cambridge) is Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, where he has taught for more than twenty years, and director of the Cambridge Inter-Faith Program. He is also a Fellow of Selwyn College and the author or editor of more than fifteen books, including The Shape of Living. Ford is one of the founders of Scriptural Reasoning and has been extensively involved in generating new modes of engagement for inter-faith relations in the post-9/11 world.
Part 1 of this interview is available here.
Part 2 of this interview is available here.
In your book you write about L’Arche communities. What is L’Arche, and how has it affected your life?
The L’Arche communities began about fifty years ago when the French Canadian Jean Vanier invited two men from an institution for those with severe learning disabilities to live in community with him in the village of Trosly-Breuil, near Compiegne in France. The central idea is of a family-like community of those with and without learning disabilities. There is now an international federation of around 150 communities in all continents. I have been involved with L’Arche for twenty-five years, and recently my wife, Deborah (an Anglican priest and a psychotherapist, who figures at various points in The Drama of Living), has led an initiative to found a small residential community in Cambridge inspired by L’Arche. “Lyn’s House,” as it is called, is not part of the L’Arche Federation because it is not a residential community for those with disabilities, but, with encouragement from Jean Vanier and L’Arche UK, it is a place where four young people are living and creating a place of hospitality and friendship for people with learning disabilities.
The Drama of Living has a good deal to say about L’Arche, and also quotes from Vanier’s remarkable meditative commentary on the Gospel of John, Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John, in which he distills decades of experience of L’Arche and a lifetime of reading the Gospel. For me, L’Arche is an important sign of a deep truth: that it is only by putting those who are disabled, elderly, poor, or otherwise marginalized at the center of our communities that we can have truly healthy social life. Usually, our communities center on the powerful, successful, wealthy, healthy, well-educated, and beautiful. We need to be in communities of the weaker and stronger in which what matters most is not whether a particular person is weak or strong, abled or disabled, but whether it is a community of love and service—face-to-face and (referring to the ritual of footwashing that is practiced in L’Arche, following the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet in John chapter 13) face-to-feet.
The appendix to The Drama of Living is an address I gave at the funeral of Micheal O’Siadhail’s wife, Bríd. She had Parkinson’s for over twenty years, and in writing the address I realized afresh how the “community of the weaker and stronger” can apply in marriage and also to society more widely.
A final point about L’Arche is how celebration is central to it, not least in birthdays and the various festivals through the year. It is the joy (often alongside much suffering) at the heart of L’Arche communities, Lyn’s House, and a marriage such as that of Micheal and Bríd that is to me a key sign of the trust, hope, and love that our world most needs.
What place does repetition have in what you call “the sphere of meaning”? Why is rereading so fundamental for learning?
I am intrigued by how much of life is repetition—in bodily functions like breathing, waking, and sleeping; in nature’s patterns of light and dark, seasons and life-cycles; and in so many routines, regularities, and habits. The chapter of The Drama of Living on “Rereading and Rehearsing: Classic Surprises” was a lovely one to write, and all sorts of things came together for me for the first time. I now tell our first-year students in Cambridge that one of the most important things they can learn is to read slowly and to reread good texts time and time again. I love the preface to Paul Griffiths’ book, Religious Reading: The Place of Reading in the Practice of Religion, which I quote in the chapter. I deeply appreciate the way the Gospel of John is steeped in John’s Bible, the Septuagint, which is the translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Greek (the language of most Jews in the Roman Empire) that happened in Alexandria a couple of centuries before Jesus and became the Bible of most of the authors of the New Testament. John’s way of reading his Bible teaches us how to read his Gospel, and clearly involves much rereading.
I am also intrigued by preparation and rehearsal, “repetition in advance.” A great deal of life is taken up by preparation—for events, projects, careers, interviews, meetings, performances, meals, sporting competitions, holidays, and so on. The Drama of Living asks about wise preparation, and connects it to religious habits of prayer, study, and worship.
Then there is the great Jewish contribution to the patterns of repetition in our culture: the week, with a Sabbath. That is meditated upon as one of the wisest institutions of all. The sabbath can be seen as a preparation for the week ahead, or the week can be seen as a preparation for the sabbath. Above all, it is a time when life can be enjoyed for its own sake, and God for God’s sake.