The heart of L’Arche

Tracy Niven
Thursday 29 October 2020

Preacher: Revd Fiona Smith, L’Arche
Readings:  Psalm 139: 1-14;  Luke 14: 12b-14

Let us pray

May the words that I speak and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing and acceptable to you Lord, our saviour and our friend. Amen

A painter, a poet and a critic were crossing the desert.

One night, to kill the time, they decided to describe the camel that was accompanying them.

The poet took ten minutes to describe the animal’s nobility in beautiful verses.

In a few rapid strokes, the painter offered his friends a drawing.

Finally, it was the turn of the critic.

Two hours later, by which time they were all annoyed at how long he was taking, the critic was done.

“I tried to be quick, but I discovered flaws in the animal,” said the critic.

“It doesn’t run. It’s uncomfortable. It’s ugly.”

And he handed his friends a wad of pages with the title:
“The perfect camel, or how God should have made the camel.”

You only need to spend a few minutes on any social media platform today to realise that everyone is a critic

– we are bombarded with views and opinions on every aspect of human life and what it means to be a human being. (story by Paulo Coelho)

Every human flaw and failing are dissected against a manufactured ideal of what a perfect human being should look like, be like and live like.

Within this human construct the world is saying: this is how God should have made human beings…

But rising quietly above the cacophony of noise that dominates our daily lives are the ancient words of the Psalmist who wrote:

“O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
 You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.”

You, yes you, and me and Kerry, Lil, Simone, Tracey, Susie, Mark, Sid, and all my other friends who are core members of L’Arche Highland – are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’

‘Fearfully’ here means to inspire reverence and awe because every human being has been wonderfully made by God

This means that every human being irrespective of their physical looks, abilities, intellect, gender, sexuality, skin colour, language, culture, beliefs, success, or failures has first and foremost an intrinsic worth because they – we – are created by God in the image of God.

Fundamentally, more than simply ascribing a set of human rights upon a person, it moves us to embrace with our heart and our soul the mystery and the wonder of what it means to be a human being.

And it is this truth which is at the core of what L’Arche is

L’Arche communities are where people with and without learning disabilities share their lives together in mutual relationships where the unique value of every person is celebrated and our need for one another is recognised.

Trust in God is also central to the life of L’Arche. People of all faiths and none are welcomed.

L’Arche is an international federation of 153 communities in 38 different countries. In the UK we have 11 communities – L’Arche Highland is in my parish in Inverness.

This community has five shared houses in which people with and without learning disabilities live together; there are also two flats in which two core members are supported to live independently

and there is the workshop where more than 40 people travel in to take part in sessional activities ranging from woodwork, to candle making, horticultural and craft activities, and one area focused on independent life-skills.

But to understand the heart of L’Arche you need to experience it in all its joyous messy reality! For over 10 years now I have walked with L’Arche Highland and I can honestly say that I have received far more than I have ever given them.

L’Arche formed part of my calling to be the Minister of Ness Bank Church which had links with the community and our church building is where the annual community gathering on Maundy Thursday for a meal and the L’Arche ritual of feet washing happens.

I had first discovered L’Arche while studying for my BD at St Andrew’s University – the writings of Henri Nouwen and Jean Vanier had a profound influence on my formation as a minister – now I had the opportunity to become part of the life of a L’Arche community.

Over the past 10 years that I have walked with L’Arche Highland I have led community prayers, worship and formation training on faith and life; been part of many community gatherings; held hands and listened to members; conducted funerals; provided a safe space called ‘Time for you’ for live in assistants to explore and reflect on their lived experiences; I am the Church of Scotland’s representative on the Scottish Church leader’s reflection group which accompanies L’Arche;

I am also part of a small support group for the community leaders and I have sung many songs and eaten lots of cake!

The community now call me their pastoral minister – oh and when I am introduced to new folk the words – ‘she is also mad’ quickly follow!

But this description of what ‘I do’ does not capture the heart of what it means to be part of this community and that heart comes from the core members – the people with disabilities.

None of them give a monkeys about the fact I have two university degrees; that I was once a solicitor; that I am a woman minister with an English accent in the Highlands of Scotland; or about what I wear or my ridiculous laugh or whether I have the right answers to life’s questions –

What they care about is simply me – they accept me for being well me, they trust me, and they show me love

Tracey, who has no verbal language, clapped with delight when I arrived to join 20 members travelling from Inverness to Canterbury for the service in the Cathedral to celebrate L’Arche’s 50 year Jubilee anniversary and this remains one of the best welcomes I have ever received from anyone;

To Hayley snuggling into me for reassurance and security on the train; to Lil who always asks after my hubby, my kids and my dogs; to Susie’s concern for my daughter who was going through various operations; to being led in prayer by Mark;

to Kerry trusting me to wash her feet one Maundy Thursday; to Sid for all his hugs and for making me laugh; for the meaningful way Martin says thank you Fiona when I ask after his mum; for the joy that beams from Simone’s face when I drive in; to Kevin wanting to say hi to Fiona on zoom; to the times in which tears have been shed with me as painful memories are shared

Such love, acceptance and trust are so precious

At the same time, I have had to face my own vulnerabilities and insecurities like when I fail to understand what someone is trying to tell me or when I feel that what I have offered is inadequate or when a core member does not want to engage with me and I realise once again how much I still have to learn to let go of my pride as well as how much my self-worth remains dependent upon what I perceive as achievements.

In the eyes of the world people with learning disabilities are often pitied because they cannot live independently or do all the things that make for a successful, happy, fulfilled life.

But time spent in L’Arche transforms that perspective because people with learning disabilities understand life from the place of the heart – time spent with them reveals the truth of Jesus’ words which we listened to earlier from Luke’s gospel.

“when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed”

L’Arche Highland is a community that provides a home in which people with learning disabilities can belong, where they are allowed to be themselves, where they find that they are loved for who they are,

that they have gifts, that they can do beautiful things, that they can grow and flourish and that their lives have meaning but that is not the whole story of L’Arche

The hidden part of L’Arche is that is they – the core members with disabilities are the blessing of L’Arche – for it is they who show me that I am loved and accepted for who I am, that I, like them, am fearfully and wonderfully made, that I have gifts which I never realised I had and that I still have so much to learn about what it means to trust another person and to trust God.

They have shown me new life and they lead me on the path that embraces with heart and soul the mystery and the wonder of what it means to be a human being.

This is the light of L’Arche and it is a light which will not be overcome by the darkness that 2020 brought us in L’Arche  – I am not talking about Covid, although the pandemic is a huge challenge for all our communities

– but rather about the horrendous revelations concerning Jean Vanier the founder of L’Arche.

In February this year, the external inquiry was published, which L’Arche International had commissioned 2 months before Jean Vanier died to investigate allegations of sexual abuse against him by women without disabilities. Its findings remain deeply painful to read.

The report categorically concluded that Jean Vanier had sexually abused 6 women in the context of spiritual direction. This abuse was based upon the heretical teachings of his spiritual mentor Father Thomas Phillippe.

L’Arche International have been unequivocal in their condemnation of Jean Vanier’s abuse of women. They are standing with the women. They have asked for forgiveness for our collective blindness.

I cannot express in words the depth of pain these revelations have caused. What courage it must have taken for those women to speak up given the global esteem in which Jean Vanier was held – he was described as living saint!

At L’Arche we are facing the unpalatable truth that we were blind when it came to Jean Vanier and as a result, women suffered abuse for decades.

We simply cannot reconcile the words that he said and wrote about the dignity of all human beings with the facts that he manipulatively and knowingly abused women in the context of spiritual direction

We cannot bear the truth that when he was asked about the sexual and spiritual abuse that his own mentor inflicted on other women within in L’Arche Jean lied and said he had not known

nor why he said nothing when he was made aware before his death that this investigation into his own conduct had commenced.

We cannot understand how the goodness, beauty, light and hope that L’Arche communities across the world embody could have begun from the deviant theology and practices of these men.

And yet it did.

L’Arche’s leadership is committed to facing up to the painful truth about our founding story and history.

The abuse which Jean Vanier perpetrated was evil. But at the same time the creation of L’Arche has brought liberation, love, joy, wholeness and healing to 1000s of people.

These two truths can never be reconciled – they do not cancel each other out or negate the power of the other instead they sit side by side.

I have not opened one of the many books of Jean Vanier’s that I have since reading the report and I doubt I ever will

but I cannot escape from the fact that his writings still remain a big part of my theology and formation as a minister. Nor can I forget the tears which flowed when I heard him speak and the joy I felt when Sid introduced me to Jean later.

Now I weep for those incredibly brave women whom Jean abused and the darkness creeps back in.

And then I remember the members of L’Arche Highland and my heart is filled with joy for the blessings they bring to my life

and I know that the light of L’Arche has not and never will be overcome by the darkness.

Because the heart of L’Arche is the members with disabilities through whom God blesses us

and calls us to create together a more human world.

Glory be to God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as it was in the beginning, is now and shall be forevermore Amen

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