Saturday, April 29, 2017

Notes From a L’Arche Retreat

For the Second Week of Easter (April 23–28), I was on retreat at the Villa Maria Education and Spirituality Center in Pulaski, Pennsylvania. The retreat was an “exploratory” one for L’Arche assistants from the northeast region who have been “in community” for one or two years.

We were thirteen men and women from St. Louis, Chicago, Cleveland, Erie, and Haverhill, home of my own L’Arche Boston North. The average age, in the 30s, was skewed upward by two of us over 60. At 65, I am something of a statistical outlier, as I wrote here for our community’s web page.

Unlike the USA, L’Arche was founded long before its founding documents were written. Jean Vanier began L’Arche in 1964 by inviting three men with disabilities to live with him in a small house in a French village. The Charter of the Communities of L’Arche was written 29 years later. By then there were something like 100 L’Arche communities. Today the number is about 150.

So then, the L’Arche charter was a description of what worldwide communities had been living for three decades, under the guidance of Vanier, other humans, and the Holy Spirit—all before the need arose for a statement of principles. I have been “living L’Arche” for something less than two years, and I too am discerning—slowly—what L’Arche is for me.

First, let me begin with what L’Arche is not.
  • L’Arche is not a bunch of group homes. 
  • L’Arche is not a cult.
  • L’Arche is not (like) the Peace Corps.
  • L’Arche is catholic, in the sense of all-embracing, but it is not Catholic, in the sense of Roman.
It is almost impossible to deliver a fifteen-second “elevator pitch” for L’Arche without falling into one of these pigeonholes. The reality of L’Arche resists pigeonholing, so forget elevator pitches. 

L’Arche was, in its origin, a charism of the Catholic Church, but it soon evolved into something inter-religious after communities began opening in predominantly non-Catholic countries. It remains a community of faith, or faiths. The photo above is the table in our retreat room, with various ecumenical symbols, objects, and images, some Christian, others not. 

L’Arche does involve homes where groups of people with disabilities live, but these homes are not “staffed” by hourly workers, however qualified. L’Arche homes and L’Arche life are “shared” by “assistants” who embrace the calling of forming community with “core members,” those with developmental disabilities. The fundamental goal of L’Arche is to create community, of a kind that can be shared by people of differing abilities.

L’Arche is like the Peace Corps if you mean that at least half of assistants live in L’Arche for two years or less. Yet each community is blessed with longer-term assistants who have effectively made L’Arche their life’s calling, for now anyway. Jean Vanier, still active at 88, is the paragon for all L’Arche assistantship. 

And no, L’Arche is not a cult. I’ve known a cult. If you are interested in the fine points on cult vs. community, read Jean Vanier’s magnum opus, Community and Growth, where he contrasts the healthy community with the unhealthy, cultish kind. 

As for what L’Arche is, well, mostly I have stories. Here’s one from the past week: 

A retreat of assistants “exploring” what L’Arche is for them and they for L’Arche—this is not L’Arche. It is a prayerful gathering of people who have chosen to serve others in the same fashion and want to deepen their understanding of what the heck they are doing.

Our retreat only became L’Arche on Wednesday afternoon, when six visitors joined us from a L’Arche community close enough to drive from. These were six adults who share life in one L’Arche home. Three of the visitors were assistants. Three were core members. The core members, of course, were the missing ingredient.

As we gathered in a circle made larger to accommodate our visitors, one of the visiting core members took a chair beside mine. I shook his hand and told him that my name was Webster. With a shy sideward glance at the name card on my chest, as if to process and confirm the truth of what I had said, he told me that his name was Richard. 

Richard and I are close in age. He has lived in L’Arche for nineteen years, or since he was about 40. Before then he lived with his parents. Richard is a gentle man with a full if halting vocabulary and the balding, bespectacled look of a librarian. While I sat beside him, he periodically seemed to retreat within himself as if to verify his thinking, and sometimes his lips moved in silent speech.

After only a few moments of sitting side by side, I felt a sincere, emotional connection with Richard. Here is my understanding of why I felt this.

For two days, I had been with fellow assistants. As well-meaning as all of us assistants are, assistants in L’Arche have obvious social selves, surface personalities. In a word, we wear masks. With fellow assistants I experience sympathy and camaraderie and admiration, but the missiles of my defenses remain in ready-aim-fire position. I can be wounded, or my pride can, if an assistant looks at me cross-wise or says something critical. As in other social situations, I wonder what other assistants think of me. I vie for social or professional prominence in my community. These and other social challenges are complicated by my being older than most of my colleagues. It’s all very much “like real life.”

By contrast, Richard spoke to my heart, straight from hello, circumventing the defense mechanisms I set up with normally abled folks. This is the thing about core members, and I know it’s a generalization and I know that we aren’t supposed to generalize about any category of fellow humans, but you can take this to the bank—

Adults with disabilities say what they mean just about 100 percent of the time. When they joke—and some have great senses of humor—the joke has no edge, no hidden meaning, no gotcha, no irony. That is, adults with disabilities mostly lack the modern social disease known as irony, also called cynicism or Attitude. 

As a result, I have come to trust that core members say what they mean. What they mean might be, Stay away! I don’t want to be in your space now! But at least, in such a case, I don’t have to wonder. I know. No paranoia. No second-guessing.

It took some time, I admit, for me to reach this appreciation of adults with disabilities. At first, really, I didn’t know what to do or think or try out when seated beside Tom or Phil or other core members of L’Arche Boston North. But all I had to do, I discovered, was be there for a while. That’s all it took, and I was hooked. That’s all it would take for you too. 

Richard and I hit it off. I think this is because Richard and I are a lot alike—on the inside.

This is another thing about the core members I have been privileged to know: They speak not mind to mind, but heart to heart. If you are alert to the promptings of your own heart, you begin to recognize this, and you find that some core members work a sort of magic on your heart. You learn about your heart. Talking with Richard, I was brought into touch with my own heart’s goodness, innocence, kindness, even charity.

Please note that I am not saying that I brought charity to my encounter with Richard. He elicited it from me. I am pretty sure about this. This is one of the gifts of L’Arche.

Of course, Richard and me side-by-side was not the sum total of L’Archiness in that room. Two other core members, more outspoken or just more out there than Richard, stole the spotlight. One, a woman, was up and down all afternoon. When she was up, she was usually en route to hugging someone. The other, a man, seemed very opinionated, although only the assistants who knew him best seemed able to discern most of his opinions.

It was a lively meeting, in which the visitors told us about their lives and their home. Then we broke off into little groups over refreshments, and I sat with Richard to go through an album that was labeled as his Sacred Story. This is a beautiful L’Arche term, Sacred Story, but I will move on with my own story.

We leafed through Richard’s album, which told about his background, about how he came to L’Arche, and about many of his interests. The last ten pages were taken up with song titles. As I processed each page, I realized that each was the song list from a Broadway musical: “South Pacific,” “The King and I,” and Richard’s favorite, “The Sound of Music.”

Richard and I began singing together, since we are of the same generation, I know a bit of old Broadway, and many of these songs are dear to me, too. The rest of the meeting seemed break up around Richard and me as we continued to sing, finally working our way through “The Sound of Music”—“Edelweiss,” “I Am Sixteen,” “(How Do You Solve a Problem Like) Maria,” and our big finish, “Climb Every Mountain.”

Until now, I haven’t told you a couple of the things that might intrigue you most about Richard—that Richard has perfect pitch or that Richard can tell you the day of the week on which you were born (or indeed the day of the week on which any date fell or will fall, past or future). That information begins to pigeonhole him, as possibly an “autistic savant,” or whatever term of diagnosis is currently in vogue.

That’s another thing about L’Arche that I learned early on: We don’t talk much about the clinical diagnoses of core members. Because they are people before they are cases. They are friends now, too.

On the last afternoon of the retreat, each of us was asked to give thanks for something. I gave thanks for everyone this week who taught me to appreciate the meaning of L’Arche, “especially Richard.”


  1. Very inspiring and informative. Thanks.
    Scott Kennedy

  2. Lovely and insightful, heartfelt and inspiring. Thank you, Webster.


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