A few weeks ago, I went on a road trip to St Louis with four other members of our community. We went to visit some friends in the L'Arche community there, but also to listen to Sister Sue Mosteller give a presentation. Sister Sue is a Sister of St Joseph who lives in Toronto, Canada, and has been a part of L'Arche since the 1960's. She served for a time as the Community Leader of L'Arche Daybreak near Toronto, where she became friends with Catholic priest and author Henri Nouwen. She also was the first International Leader of L'Arche after our founder Jean Vanier. After her presentation, I had the opportunity to chat with her. She asked me a question about if my time at L'Arche was beautiful, and I answered with a very honest, "Sometimes."
"I understand," she answered. "I have always said that L'Arche is both beautiful and terrible."
And she's right. It is both things at the same time.
L'Arche, in its essence, is beautiful. It's a community of people of differing abilities who have come to share life together. It's the strong helping the weak. It's the weak helping the strong. L'Arche clearly states that we are not out to save the world, but that in our own very small way we are called to be a sign of hope. We are called to show the world a different, more compassionate, more human, way to live.
And I think that's beautiful. Henri Nouwen also believed that it was beautiful. In his book "Adam: God's Beloved" he shares about his own relationship with a core member (L'Arche's term for community members with intellectual disabilities) and how this man who was nonverbal and needed assistance with almost every aspect of his life was a manifestation of Christ, and how his relationship with Adam impacted his own life. That is all very beautiful, and a very real part of what it means to be in L'Arche.
To be a part of L'Arche is to experience that beauty: The joy a core member expresses when his favorite song comes on the radio, or he does a good job at bowling. The unconditional love that is offered, not because you've deserved it or earned it, but just because a core member loves you. Constant comments of how handsome or skinny you are, and how much you need a vacation. The connections that are formed by sharing life with core members, being present with them daily. These are all things that I have experienced, and which have made my time at L'Arche to be a very beautiful thing.
But, sometimes, if we are honest, L'Arche can also be pretty terrible. When you form relationships with anyone, you are opening yourselves up to the beautiful parts of them, but also the not so beautiful parts. If we are honest, we can admit that we all have some not so beautiful parts. It's just that most of us have spent years learning how to cope with them, or to hide them. People with intellectual disabilities are often much more open with and about this part of themselves.
So, sometimes L'Arche can be terrible because a core member acts out in violence towards you or someone else. It can also be terrible when you realize that it is a very human place, filled with broken and hurting people, with and without disabilities. It can be terrible when you find yourself feeling lonely, even though you are constantly surrounded by people.
It can also be terrible when you are unable to help the core members in a way that you want. When you talk with a core member about how he wants to be seen as important and popular, but because of his disability he is ignored or disregarded. Or when you sit nearby as a core member experiences a seizure, knowing there isn't anything you can do to make it stop. Or when one of the core members is given a life altering health diagnosis, and you can only do so much as you accompany them through their sickness and death. And then you are faced with the reality of life in a community that is now different, because they aren't there anymore.
To be a part of L'Arche is to also open yourself up to experience that which is not beautiful. To experience the very real, and sometimes messy, loud, chaotic, troubling, painful lives of people with disabilities. To live day by day, side by side, with people with developmental disabilities (and, let's be honest, people without them, too) is to invite all that they are to be in relationship with all that you are.
And that's where it gets beautiful again. Because you can't have an encounter like that and leave unchanged. Living in L'Arche will broaden your mind, open your heart, increase your capacity to love, change how you view the world, even change how you view yourself. Living in authentic relationships with people with and without disabilities, recognizing that each has something valid and unique and important and special to share - including yourself!! - helps us all to become better, stronger, more compassionate versions of ourselves.
So, yeah. L'Arche is beautiful. But L'Arche is also terrible. It is both things at the same time. And I think that's pretty beautiful.