deeper reflections on l'arche ottawa retreat - part two...

In the day-to-day roller coaster ride of living with real people our deepest values and goals for community life will be tested. There are times when we are not our best selves, encounters when our brokenness rises to the surface, or experiences when habit, fear or prejudice become stronger than our intentions. Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche, has noted two paradoxical truths about living in community that shaped our recent formation retreat:

+ “I am struck by how sharing our weakness and difficulties is more nourishing to others than sharing our qualities and successes." 

+ “Love doesn't mean doing extraordinary or heroic things. It means knowing how to do ordinary things with tenderness.” 

I hear this as a spirituality of humility and love guided by a fierce opposition to sentimentality. For two days we used four practices to try and go deeper: a) vulnerable story-telling; b) celebrating one another's gifts out loud; c) singing, praying, laughing, weeping and sharing silence together; and d) eating our meals in common. Vanier put it like this in Community and Growth:

(Our) first call is frequently to follow Jesus or to prepare ourselves to do wonderful and noble things for the Kingdom. We are appreciated and admired by family, by friends or by the community. 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 in a world of confusion. We begin to doubt the commitment we made in the light of day. We seem deeply broken in some way. But this suffering is not useless. Through the renunciation we can reach a new wisdom of love. It is only through the pain of the cross that we discover what the resurrection means.

One day was set aside especially for community assistants and leaders to honor their experience of "the second call." Fr. Kevin modeled this by telling his own story. "I wanted to share compassion and be a good servant," he said over and again, "only to find out I didn't know how to listen. And I really had to be taught how to wait." Later, L'Arche assistants shared part of their stories, too: stories of heart-break and love, stories of fear and trust, stories of humiliation as well as tenderness. Together we were young assistants and senior citizens, folk from all around the world including South America, Africa, Asia, Europe as well as North America, and people of differing spiritual insights. By evening of the first day a sense of our respective vulnerability was palpable. 

On day two, the core members and some of their families took us deeper by speaking of their journey into L'Arche. Some courageous and tender words were spoken on Saturday, words born of suffering, love and hope. There were songs and prayers, soup and bread, and later Eucharist. The reading for Ascension Sunday was fitting: after Christ is lifted into the consciousness of creation, an angel says to the first disciples, "Why do you have your head in the cloud? Jesus is not up there. Go out into the world in his manner and make his love flesh within and among you. Go do it!" (Acts 1) Vanier reminds us that our calling to make God's gracious love flesh among us is slow work - and requires that we become friends of time.

Individual growth towards love and wisdom is slow. A community's growth is even slower. Members of a community have to be friends of time. They have to learn that many things will resolve themselves if they are given enough time. It can be a great mistake to want, in the name of clarity and truth, to push things too quickly to a resolution. Some people enjoy confrontation and highlighting divisions. This is not always healthy. It is better to be a friend of time. But clearly too, people should not pretend that problems don't exist by refusing to listen to the rumblings of discontent; they must be aware of the tensions and then learn to work on them at the right moment.

As I drove for six hours to get back to Pittsfield, MA by midnight on Saturday, I returned again and again to the marriage of laughter and tears I felt during this retreat. Often I was full to overflowing listening to the anguished descriptions of life in a world that fears and often punishes people with physical and/or intellectual disabilities. I wept, too when these same friends suddenly burst out in bold laughter describing their current delights. And some of the spontaneous comments - or song requests - were wildly unpredictable, totally hilarious in the sweetest ways possible, and kept us grounded in reality. St. Paul was speaking to me during this time away saying:

Remember, the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scholar? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? In the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, so God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to make whole those who trust. Some demand signs and others desire wisdom, but we look to Christ crucified, a stumbling block to some and foolishness to others, but to those who are trust, this is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.... God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in anything but the love of God.

I look forward to working more closely with spiritual formation at L'Arche Ottawa in the coming program year. I have a few musical and liturgical gifts to share. And a whole lot of learning about tenderness through the wisdom of my wounds, too. 




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