As part of my training to be a Jesuit Priest I was working in the L'Arche Community, An Chroí, in Cork in 1993. L'Arche is a community of able-bodied and people with disabilities who live together in community. It was an eye-opener for me in terms of understanding humanity- the founder, Jean Vanier, in his book The Broken Body, explains that we are all broken but we often are unaware of it or hide it. The freedom that comes from realising that you don't have to pretend! [this article was published in the Irish Messenger magazine in 1994]
The house-leader, Declan and myself knelt down on the bathroom floor to inspect the crack in the toilet bowl. "Looks bad" said he, "and replacing will be difficult as we've already used up most of our maintenance budget." "I wonder if it's cracked all the way round" said I, shaking the bowl and seeing the crack opening and closing with the movement. "My God, it's totally cracked all the way around, we're going to have to get a new one", says he. To cut a long story short we ended up supergluing the toilet back together again, a creative and brilliant solution to a 'messy' problem.
Somewhat tongue in cheek, I want to use this story as an example of the essence of what I found the L'Arche community to be all about. Firstly it is about 'brokenness', that is people that are hurt, in pain and somehow seen as less than 'perfect'. In L'Arche they are people who have been labelled and excluded by society as having mental handicaps. Secondly it is about community, about people coming together to create a healing environment, to create wholeness where there was only emptiness and pain. And finally it is about miracles, the elusive joy and peace that springs from doing the impossible, the God-given force towards beauty and wholeness.
THE L'ARCHE COMMUNITY
The six 'residents' in L'Arche Cork, where I went on my Jesuit placement, were mainly rescued from the local psychiatric hospital. It was harrowing to hear of their rigid, impersonal treatment in these institutions and their accounts of their own response in lashing out in anger to hurt themselves or others. Their sense of being slightly different or being below average intelligence had been brutally turned into a "REJECT" stamp where they are physically removed from society. The almost impossible task that L'Arche has set itself is in making a home where these very hurt and broken people can once again discover their own uniqueness and beauty. The communities are made up of volunteers (assistants) who are matched one-for-one with the residents to provide a supportive 'family' environment composed of shared meals, prayer, work, living and celebrating together.
I was privileged to be able to spend two months in L'Arche 'An Croi', to witness the incredible atmosphere of healing that puts people on the long road back to wholeness and to feel some of the effects of dynamic community life for myself. I was continually struck by some profound paradoxical truths during my time there: that often it is we so-called normal people that are the most broken and the most unaware of it; that these special people are freer, happier and more authentically themselves than we could ever be; and that it is often they who heal themselves and teach us about what is important.
ENVIRONMENT OF LOVE
The most significant thing about L'Arche is the loving, caring environment that makes for personal growth and self-esteem. It works to heal the damage done by institutional conformity and the result is larger than life characters, all with their own hobbies, idiosyncrasies and uniqueness. They are treated as individuals, they take responsibility for their lives and they make their own decisions. They have their own 'work' in the L'Arche craft workshop for which they get paid and they are free to spend the money as they wish.
One beautiful story concerns Angela and her cat Bunty. Angela is very fond of Bunty and looks after her very well, feeding and caring for her. Bunty had been getting a bit rowdy at home and had to be taken to the vet to get neutered, so she wouldn't have litters. Both Angela and Bunty were upset on the way to the vet, Bunty getting loose in the car at one stage. When the vet took her in she asked us "Are you sure it's a girl?". "Of course" we said. But when she examined her, she turned out to be a he! Angela was very shocked saying "but she must be a girl because when I call 'Bunty' she always comes to me"!
It would be misleading however to assume that L'Arche is a somewhat unreal or 'cushy' place. Like a truly loving environment it is also extremely challenging and tough going at times. I believe this is largely due to its openness, honesty and up-frontness in dealing with the real issues of life. Whereas most of us are able to disguise the 'ugly' sides of ourselves and bury the unpleasant emotions, in L'Arche everything comes out. In a very refreshing way the residents have no pretence at 'having it all together'. They come straight out with whatever they are thinking or feeling. It is amazing to witness just how constructive this can be; emotions are all out in the open, dealt with and left behind with staggering ease. Some of these people have been deeply hurt and are only slowly re-learning life skills. L'Arche has an impressive system of one-to-one referencing or accompaniment where they can talk out and get help from assistants on problems they are experiencing.
Another method that I was witness to was a meeting of the whole house called to give feedback to one of the residents who had been abusive and disruptive for several weeks. Everyone was asked to give this person direct feedback on how they had found him during that difficult period. People shared both on how difficult they had found it and how much care and concern they had for him. It was an amazingly effective message of love for the person while also giving feedback on aspects of his behaviour that were unacceptable. Once again it was an totally honest and loving interchange; in a miraculous way the community was healing itself, the feedback of peers being positive and constructive in allowing everyone to put the event behind them.
A SAFE PLACE
What is constructed in L'Arche is a supportive family environment where healing and re-construction can take place. People can come out from behind their barriers of fear, safe in the knowledge that they are loved, protected and 'held'. Relationships of trust are built up where people are valued, listened to and respected for who they are. The result is an atmosphere of real growth where people are free to reveal and develop gifts and talents that were previously hidden. There are many opportunities in community life to develop skills, whether it is helping with the cooking, drawing, singing, acting or participating in one of the many celebrational events. Many of the residents have never been able to celebrate their birthdays before and revel in the chance to have people over, have their favourite food and choose their own entertainment.
I found many of my own gifts drawn upon as I too came alive in that creative environment. At home one night during Danny's birthday party, we had a major crisis when the sewerage system overflowed into the kitchen. Far from being devastated the team responded with great flexibility. I found myself playing guitar in the living room to keep the party swinging while only a few feet away other people worked to get to the bottom of the problem in the kitchen. The main thing was it turned out to be a great party with Danny really enjoying his special night. The good crack wasn't even dampened the next morning as we laboured to clean up a very unpleasant mess!
I found in L'Arche a great simplicity of life and direct, effective ways of dealing with things. Some of the most effective and welcoming aspects of the place such as the hand-made welcome card, signed with greeting messages by the whole house, were very inexpensive to do and prepared with care. The dinners in L'Arche are a wonderful example of the delights of community life -simple food, well presented, with everyone joining hands and singing together for grace. It is obvious that the being together with one another is much more important than the food.
During one very special 'passover' meal we had on Holy Thursday, we all waited at the table (with the food in the oven) for over an hour while everyone shared their story on how they had come to L'Arche. On an earlier occasion when I was cooking, not being used to such a large number, I misjudged the amounts and left none for myself. Somewhat embarrassed I went in to admit my fault to the diners where I was greeted with "Don't worry, it happens all the time" and they each gave me food from their own plates! I was humbled by such generosity and lack of ceremony.
L'Arche is a vibrant example of community life that even Scott Peck would be envious of. It is very much based around people; there is time to listen, to spend time with and to get to know people. All the events of the day, meals, prayers, outings and celebrations are shared events. There is no separation of the residents and the assistants in lifestyle or standing as there might be in hospitals. In fact L'Arche is a remarkably democratic, non-authoritarian and open structure which suffers little from crippling bureaucracy. While being tolerant of a whole range of diversity in the member's ability to contribute it manages to integrate people's gifts and talents into the life of the community. It is very much a rich interchange of values as everyone helps everyone else. Ironically it is often the assistants who have most to learn from the residents!
I was cooking Shepherd's Pie with Angela one night and arriving back late from town we had to do everything in a hurry. To my horror I realised I'd forgotten to thaw the mince and as I set about doing this and cooking the vegetables, I asked Angela to peel the potatoes. About twenty minutes later I came back to find that she had only peeled about three of them! My nerves were screaming at this point and as I launched into helping her I realised that I couldn't blame her for the fact that I was late and ill-prepared! Of course she happily worked away while I calmed down and the dinner was delivered successfully and on time!
EXPERIENCE OF GOD
My own impression of L'Arche is that of a God-filled time of breathtaking beauty and simplicity. It was the paradox of the Gospel that talks about the poorest among us as being closest to God, the wisdom and glory of Christ revealed in these very broken and rejected people. Their ability to transcend their own difficulties and 'handicaps' reminds us of our own mostly hidden brokenness and the potential of the risen Jesus to work his miracles in our hearts. Simply put, it is the miracle of love. I found that love can overcome all human limitations and barriers, that it is in being instruments of Christ's healing for others that we are healed ourselves. It is a shining light in what Jean Vanier calls the 'broken world', an invitation to reassess our priorities as to what is important in life and to create communities of mutual support and love.