A couple of years ago I attended an event sponsored by the L'Arche community in Saint Louis. They had brought in a speaker to lead a workshop in the afternoon and then speak at an event that evening. The speaker they had brought in was Sister Sue Mosteller, a Sister of St Joseph, who is affiliated with the L'Arche Daybreak community in Canada. She was going to be presenting and speaking about accompaniment in community. Sue had spent the previous 30 or so years as a member and community leader of L'Arche Daybreak, and so she knows a thing or two about life in community.
She shared a lot of stories about how she has accompanied people in community life, and shared some practical ways that we can accompany others. There is one thing that she said that has stuck with me for quite some time, and it is something that I have found to be true. In one of her talks she compared life in community to a rock tumbler.
When I was younger, I had a rock collection. These weren't special rocks, at least to anyone other than me, but they were rocks that I had found and I thought they looked cool, or that they were an interesting color or pattern. I kept most of them in a box in my bedroom. I never really did anything with them, but I remember looking in a catalog and seeing a rock tumbler and how it was advertised to make your rocks shiny and smooth. I remember thinking that I really needed one so I could polish my rock collection.
The way a rock tumbler works is that you put a group of rocks into a barrel, and then you add some sort of abrasive element and then a bit of water, or some other lubricant. Over a span of time, sometimes multiple weeks, the barrel slowly rotates and the rocks tumble around. They bump into each other and rub against one another, often through different stages of tumbling involving abrasive grit of varying hardness. The length of time that a rock remains in the tumbler depends on the hardness of the rock and the smoothness that is desired.
I can appreciate this analogy. After living in L'Arche for the past three years, I can say that it sometimes feels like a rock tumbler. There are days when we bump into each other, when we rub one another the wrong way. There are times when even the slightest action can cause someone to get upset. It's when someone else has bumped into one of our rough edges. It hurts. It reminds us that we aren't perfect.
But even just three years in, I can see some of the results. The way I might have handled a situation even just a year ago might not be the way I would handle it today. A community member who may have gotten on my nerves in the past is now a friend (or at least tolerable). Something which seemed completely awful before doesn't elicit quite the same dramatic reaction as it once did. After living with people in community, after bumping up against the others, even for such a short time, some of my rough edges have begun to wear down.
With a rock tumbler, the end result is a rock that has become smooth and shiny. The rough edges have been worn down through the process of the rocks tumbling into one another and the result is something beautiful.
I'm not saying that I'm a smooth and shiny rock. Pretty far from it, most days. I think that someone could live in community for years upon years and people could still find some rough edges to bump up against. I would even dare to say that Sister Sue Mosteller, or even Jean Vanier (the founder of L'Arche who has been living in community for 50 years) have some rough edges of their own left. But life in community makes us into something better than we are on our own. It rubs away that which detracts from our inner beauty and it brings forth that which shines. It helps us reveal those things inside of us which are special and colorful and brilliant. I think it also makes us aware of our own rough edges, so we are more forgiving about and willing to turn a blind eye towards the rough edges of those sharing life with us.
Community as a rock tumbler. It isn't easy. It can even sometimes even be painful. But it calls us toward being the best versions of ourselves, and it brings out the beauty in each one of us. And, for that, I'm thankful to be bumping around in this barrel we call L'Arche.