L’Arche at 50: Half a century of kindness and care

  • September 7, 2014

L'Arche has been with us for 50 years. A half century ago, in a very different world, Jean Vanier started something in the French countryside that has made the whole world think about what it means to be human, what we owe to our humanity and how we care for the broken and fragile among us. Fifty years of kindness and care, hope and humanity is worth celebrating.

Almost 20 years ago, in the pretty little city of Spokane, Wash. I lived in a L'Arche community for six weeks with Hal, Leona and Agnes. They were the core members, the people the rest of us supported and the reason the community existed.

We lived together in a house a couple blocks from Gonzaga University, probably built just after the Second World War, big enough for an old-time Catholic family. It was a safe place for a few intellectually disabled men and women. I turned out to be a kind of stop-gap assistant, who arrived just as the house leader was leaving.

My closest relationship was with Agnes, who had Down's. She was about 30, gentle and sweet, always curious but sometimes sad. She loved to have her back rubbed between her shoulders in the evenings and sat beside me in the kitchen and told me how to rub her back.

Once a month Agnes had to go to a local clinic for a blood test. Regular tests kept tabs on her thyroid and heart. She was terribly, uncon-trollably afraid of needles.

As the young, strong male, it became my job to help Agnes give blood. I sat on a chair in the middle of the room and Agnes would sit on my lap. I wrapped my legs around her ankles and my arms over her forearms and wrists. The nurse came at us from the side and tried to hide the needle from Agnes. 

She inevitably saw it and, besides, Agnes knew it was coming. As the needle came near, she would scream and writhe and struggle and kick. I had to keep her still enough and calm enough for the nurse to insert the needle and take a vial of blood. 

Agnes knew the needles were necessary and good for her. She had been asked over and over whether she wanted to continue and always said yes. Outside the clinic she said it didn't hurt. Agnes liked the nurse and liked me. She was just afraid of the needle. 

Collins leads people through vespers and lectio divina once a month at Toronto's St. Michael's Cathedral.

After the first scream and as she struggled in my arms, Agnes repeated over and over, "Sorry, sorry, sorry…." As she apologized, I told her, "It's OK, it's all right." Within a couple of minutes the nurse had the window of calm necessary to fill a vial. 

When it was over Agnes would stand up, pat me on the head and again say "sorry." I would give her a little hug and again tell her it was "all right." 

There could be nothing more human than those trips to the clinic. Agnes was afraid and grateful and remorseful and happy all at once. All four corners of human being — fear, gratitude, regret and joy — were brought together in a brief, awful but necessary struggle. There were still tears in the corners of her eyes as she laughed and pushed me on the walk back to the van. 

In his book Becoming Human, Jean Vanier wrote, "Every child, every person needs to know that they are a source of joy; every child, every person, needs to be celebrated. Only when all of our weaknesses are accepted as part of our humanity can our negative, broken self-images be transformed." 

Agnes accepted her weakness with joy. She knew she was afraid of needles. She was grateful for the people who helped her get through it. I don't think I will ever accept my own weakness as simply and completely or courageously as Agnes. 

The most frequent mistake made about L'Arche is to imagine it is a solution for a problem. 

Fifty years ago Jean Vanier, a young University of Toronto philosophy professor, discovered how the intellectually disabled were warehoused and often mistreated. His Dominican spiritual director, a chaplain at a small institution, introduced him to the sad reality of how being human counted for so little in the asylums of that era. Looking for something meaningful and radical to do with his life, the 36-year-old Vanier invited Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux to come live with him in a cold, drafty stone house in the French village of Trosly-Breuil north of Paris. Even though the house had no hot water, it was better than the institution in which they had lived for years. 

But Vanier never imagined he was reforming the treatment of so-called mongoloids, imbeciles and idiots. He had no theories about mental retardation. Vanier wasn't so much trying to solve the problem of neglectful institutional care as he was trying to find a way to live with his own weakness, to come to terms with his own humanity. He never imagined that he was founding a global movement. Today he is unsure how L'Arche came to be in 38 countries and home to more than 5,000 core members. 

"You just begin, not knowing what is going to happen," he told me by phone from Trosly-Breuil this spring. "I began in a rather dilapidated house. I didn't realize it was something rather new." 

Simi and Seux had been in a "particularly violent and a bad institution," said Vanier. But they weren't alone there. 

"So for me it was evident that I couldn't do anything except perhaps take one or two," he said. 

That may have been the extent of Vanier's ambition, but this little spark of mercy, kindness and simplicity caught fire. Every time Vanier turned around people asked him to do more, and provided money, set up foundations, volunteered to help. 

"It was just the hand of God, as if somewhere the pain of God was somewhere that the littlest people, the weakest people were being rejected," Vanier said. 

Vanier was not inspired by any new medical or scientific insight. Nor was he an expert in institutional administration. He had learned from Fr. Thomas Philippe a bit of wisdom from the Catholic tradition of religious life — that human beings are born for each other and need community. As God Himself is a community — that is, the Trinity — human beings, who are made in God's image, must be in community to be truly and fully human. 

Vanier forgets the correct terminology because he was never interested in the medical definitions of people, whether they were mongoloids or Down's syndrome, imbeciles or intellectually challenged. In L'Arche they were none of these things. In L'Arche they were human beings and together they made a community. 

When Jesuit Fr. Bill Clarke arrived at Trosly-Breuil in 1968 he was captured by how the unassailable theological truth of community came alive all around him. 

"The authenticity of the friendships I made was just quite moving for me," said Clarke. "There is a block to relationship when you can't share some of the deepest part of yourself with people. I was liberated a little bit by that — the desire for community." 

Clarke's provincial superior sent him to L'Institute Catholique, where the young Canadian had intended to write a thesis based on the Jesuit Relations of St. Jean de Brebeuf and his companions about the historic, Jesuit concept of community. As he read the volumes of letters and reports that 17th century missionaries sent home to Paris from Canada, he discovered those old Jesuits never really talked about community. 

Jazz singer Matt Dusk likens choir school alumni to being part of a group like the Masons, so strong is the bond between its students.

At L'Arche Clarke found a research laboratory that was getting at the fundamental elements of community. 

"They carry a lot of pain, a lot of those people," Clarke told me. "And yet in spite of the pain there is some deep level of joy and ability to celebrate. The celebration in the communities was amazing, I felt, in the face of the pain. That was wisdom for me." 

Clarke didn't just write his thesis about L'Arche and the Christian idea of community. He came home to put those principles into practice with a different kind of community on the Jesuits' farm in Guelph. When that was over, he worked with Jean Vanier to write Enough Room for Joy, a book about the early days of L'Arche. 

"L'Arche is just a tiny, tiny institution in a big, big world," said Clarke. "But it is a sign. I think that's how we understand, how Jean understands, it. It's a sign of hope. There is another way of looking at the world and certainly of looking at people." 

That other way remains distant for most of us, but for the people who get close it can change everything. 

Beth Porter had a pretty clear path laid out for her life before she came to L'Arche in 1981. She was a sessional lecturer in English literature at the University of Guelph. If she took a little time to complete a PhD she could pursue an academic career complete with tenure, prestige, good wages and excellent benefits. 

But, during a year off from teaching, she spent a few weeks at L'Arche Daybreak in Richmond Hill, Ont. that rewrote her future. She lived decades in a L'Arche community, grounded her life in friendships she found there, wrote and edited articles and magazines for L'Arche. Almost 35 years on, she no longer lives in a L'Arche house but she works for L'Arche Canada. 

"I had never met someone with a disability," recalls Porter. "I don't know how I came through life and had not known someone with an intellectual disability and almost no one with any disability." 

Porter had only just become a Catholic when she came to L'Arche. She woke in the morning and prayed with the other assistants, went to Mass in the community where core members served at the altar and read the Epistles and Old Testament. Now it was real. 

She also found out there could be no line in the sand between the Catholics and the rest. Daybreak had been established by a couple of serious young Anglicans, Steve and Ann Newroth — the first L'Arche venture that wasn't specifically Catholic. This tiny step outside the Catholic world of Trosly-Breuil led to ever-widening circles, first to Protestants and then Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. 

Among Porter's most precious memories of life in L'Arche are the Bat Mitzvah (the synagogue ceremony of coming of age for young women) of her Jewish friend Ellen and prayer with her Muslim friend Alyah attended by the entire community. 

All these friendships with core members were something new for Porter. 

"I thought, 'What kind of conversation can you have with someone who, for instance, can't read? You can't talk about the news. What am I going to talk about?'" she wondered. "But you discover there's a whole different way of knowing people that comes from the heart and isn't intellectual. I think that, for me, was a really remarkable revelation." 

"Everyone in L'Arche is transformed. It isn't just the people with disabilities who kind of grow and mature," said Sr. Sue Mosteller. "The assistants are transformed. My whole spirituality is just marked and transformed by the gifts those people taught me about God." 

Mosteller lived and worked at L'Arche Daybreak almost 40 years, even serving as it's community leader (a sort of executive director). In 1972 living at L'Arche was a very strange thing for a Sister of St. Joseph to do. The sisters ran hospitals and nursing homes, taught school and administered Church institutions. To explore some new form of community life was an odd proposition. 

Mosteller remembers that her mother superior was "open, but she wasn't." In the tradition of St. Ignatius, they talked for months about this possible new direction for Mosteller. At a certain point there wasn't much more to say. 

"Finally, she just said, 'I think you should go and we will meet together and keep talking and praying and see if this is what God wants,'" recalled Mosteller. "I was very, very moved. It was an act of trust on her part to send me in the name of the congregation." 

She was always there in the name of her order, and through her years at Daybreak as the farm was gradually enveloped by the growing suburbs and the community found ways to include more and more people, the experience only deepened her commitment to her vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. 

At L'Arche there were a couple more vows that made sense of life — welcome and unity. 

"People are really sort of steeled against the welcome of people who are very different, but there's a gift that they bring us," said Mosteller. 

Daybreak struggled with how to be welcoming. It didn't come naturally. 

"We wanted to be a Christian community. We wanted to be based in Christian values. It seems that no-one was prepared for an ecumenical, let alone an interfaith, reality — which is what came later," she said. 

Collins leads people through vespers and lectio divina once a month at Toronto's St. Michael's Cathedral.

They couldn't be true to the core members without extending a welcome beyond Christian boundaries. And that is where unity and welcome began to blur together. 

"We realized very early on that working with people who are very fragile, one of the most important elements was to keep unity around them and not to be dispersed and to be separated among ourselves," Mosteller said. "People who are fragile have enough fragmentation in their lives. We needed to find the ways to do things together, peacefully. At the same time, we didn't want to water everything down until there was nothing left, and say, 'Well, we can't have Eucharist and we can't have any Christian practices because now we have some Jewish members.' " 

Mosteller turned to a Catholic priest to help her with the conundrum of diversity. In 1986 she invited Fr. Henri Nouwen, theologian and author, to lilve with them at L'Arche. 

Nouwen's idea was that maybe this isn't a problem. If everybody's ability and disability can be treated as a gift and they are all different, why not treat everyone's religion as another gift they bring to the community. 

"We're not going to solve it, but we're going to try to live it, and to live it according to the teaching God has given us, each in our own tradition," explained Mosteller. 

So the Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs, the Buddhist gongs and the Hindu statues, the Protestant hymns and the Taize chants all find a home at L'Arche. 

The world-wide success of L'Arche in India, Palestine, Kenya, Brazil — in all these different cultures, languages and religions — goes to prove the insight that inspired the whole enterprise: that the beginning and end of whatever we do is our humanity. 

"To be human, human beings are all confronted by suffering, by death, by sickness and so on," Vanier told me. "This has brought us to be with people of different cultures, different religions who are in the same reality, confronted by suffering. It's the paschal mystery of discovering that as we live with people who are suffering we come close to God." 

Vanier has met Pope Francis and the two men of the same generation find themselves sympatico. 

"What we discovered (at L'Arche) — and maybe Pope Francis is helping us with this — is that as you get closer to the poor, that's what the whole of the Catholic and Christian faith is," Vanier said. 

"Go to the peripheries. Go to the extremes. Find people who are in pain and become their friend and let yourself be guided by their wisdom." 

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