This is tricky business. It always has been and always will be given diversity of age, experience, spirituality, self-awareness, and history within the community. L'Arche is first a home where fragile human beings gather together to become whole in the midst of our brokenness. Vanier wrote: "One thing that people with disabilities have revealed to me is their incredible capacity for creating community and bringing people together. Experience has shown that one person, all alone, can never heal another. A one-to-one situation is not a good situation. It is important to bring broken people into a community of love, a place where they feel accepted and recognized in their gifts, and have a sense of belonging. That is what wounded people need and want most." (Brokenness to Community, pp. 28-29) As he has said elsewhere: l'Arche has been given a gift by God to show how our common brokenness can be healed in peace through trust and tenderness.
Simultaneously, l'Arche provides essential life services to people with intellectual and/or physical
disabilities. Therefore, social service requirements also make up part of the community's identity. Many who come to l'Arche as assistants are first guided by altruism and compassion. These are noble aspirations - and God knows the world needs more tender-hearted men and women - but abstract ideals often crumble in the crucible of conflict. In spiritual formation, a theoretical calling without deep practical application is a desire driven by consolation: in this case, doing good for others in order to feel loved. Vanier offers a sweet but piercing critique of this based upon his 50+ years of living in the spirit of Christ's love in communities of the wounded:
Those who come close to people in need do so first of all in a generous desire to help them and bring them relief; they often feel like saviors and put themselves on a pedestal. But once in contact with them, once touching them, establishing a loving and trusting relationship with the, the mystery unveils itself. At the heart of the insecurity of people in distress there is a presence of Jesus. And so they discover the sacrament of the poor and enter the mystery of compassion. People who are poor seem to break down the barriers of powerfulness, of wealth, of ability, and of pride; they pierce the armor the human heart builds to protect itself. (Community and Growth)
Doing nice things has its place, but it doesn't open us to our own brokenness. Nor does it move us into our second calling.
The second call comes later, when we accept that we cannot do big or heroic things for Jesus; it is a time of renunciation, humiliation, and humility. We feel useless; we are no longer appreciated. If the first passage is made at high noon under a shining sun, the second call is often made at night. We feel alone and are afraid because we are now in a world of confusion. (Community and Growth)
Ripening beyond the level of novice in transformational compassion takes time. It is painful. Humbling. And hard. Not everyone in community wants to sustain such a life-changing journey. Consequently, there is significant annual turn over among l'Arche assistants and volunteers. This alone is reason enough to regularly revisit the balance between theory and practice. The 2008 Key Elements of a L'Arche Community document puts it like this: "A l'Arche community grows and develops when we can identify, articulate and be accountable for the fundamental elements and core values which define who we are and who we want to become. We recognize the need for a continuity of common principles, goals and practices..."
Community retreats create engaging and enriching experiences where we can "critically reflect upon praxis" through song, story-telling, silent reflection/prayer and conversation over meals. My personal experience was simple: I wept and laughed, I learned a little about myself, l'Arche and my friends in community - and I realized that I had a lot more to learn.
That our entire experience was saturated in grace was essential: unless we know - and are regularly reminded - that first and foremost we are ALL the beloved of God, however we might choose to express this, burn-out is inevitable. Trusting that we are personally and collectively created in the image of God is a work in progress. We may "know" this in our mind, but not trust it in our heart. This is often true for me so I know it is true for others, too. Learning to love like Jesus takes practice - and time - and community retreats model this truth in spades. Psalm 139 in Peterson's reworking, The Message, is instructive:
Oh yes, Lord, you shaped me first inside, then out; you formed me in my mother’s womb. I thank you, High God—you’re breathtaking! Body and soul, I am marvelously made! I worship in adoration—what a creation!
You know me inside and out, you know every bone in my body; You know exactly how I was made, bit by bit, how I was sculpted from nothing into something. Like an open book, you watched me grow from conception to birth; all the stages of my life were spread out before you,
The days of my life all prepared before I’d even lived one day.
As Jesus heard at his baptism - and tells us throughout his ministry - WE are God's beloved, created in God's image to love one another as Christ loves us. On retreat our gifts were named and claimed. Our unique beauty was affirmed and reaffirmed, too. We spoke openly and vulnerably. We practiced trust. We held one another up in love. We called out to God for guidance in prayer. We celebrated birthdays, sang crazy songs, and laughed so hard it sometimes hurt. I left our two days together grateful for what someone called "l'Arche time" - refusing to rush so that we took the time necessary to honor each beloved body in the community in grace - for in doing this, we model our deepest values and core principles.