Tuesday, May 15, 2018

reflections on l'arche ottawa retreat: part three

In his little book, Befriending the Stranger, l'Arche founder Jean Vanier offers six essays re: spiritual formation for those called to embrace the charism of l'Arche. These words began as lectures and conversations first presented in the Dominican Republic "for those immersed in the daily life of l'Arche as assistants." At the close of the week long retreat, "many of the assistants... announced their bonding or 'covenant' with Jesus and with all members of their community, especially the weakest and the poorest." (p.vii) Vanier's printed text stands in concert with Community and Growth, The Heart of L'Arche, and The Ark of the Poor as guides to embodying the grace of God as revealed by Jesus through the ministry of l'Arche. Having just returned from our second formation retreat at L'Arche Ottawa, Vanier's words call out for deeper appreciation.

In his lecture for Day Three, Vanier uses the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well from St. John's gospel as a clue for living in community. "John's Gospel tells us that Jesus is tired, so he sits down near the well of Jacob in Samaria."

It is moving to sense Jesus' exhaustion, his humanity. He is so 'like us in all things except sin."We need to pay close attention to Jesus in his humanity, be close to him in his tiredness. He can show us how to live our tiredness and our humanity... (so notice that when Jesus meets the Samaritan woman) he does not begin by telling her to get her act together, but rather by expressing his own need and asking if she can help. (p. 53)


I am usually my worst when I am tired. Not always, of course, but mostly. To be reminded of Christ's exhaustion eases my personal frustrations when I miss the mark re: compassion. But Vanier refuses to rest on piety, platitudes or sentimentality. Two additional truths are revealed in this essay:

+ First, a worn-out Jesus meets a woman living with her own weariness, wounds and brokenness. "She symbolizes the place of guilt in us from which are born many of our attitudes and actions - consciously or unconsciously. And our sense of guilt (sometimes) urges us to be heroic or generous in an attempt to redeem ourselves. It can also push us into anger and dependence on drugs or alcohol. If we do not let God penetrate the shadow areas of our being, they risk governing our lives." These are clarifying words to those of us who wish to ripen in community. They help us humbly own our own wounds as the source of fear, conflict, judgment, and shame. They invite us to cultivate some type of inward contemplative practice so that we are loved and cleansed from the inside out by God's grace. As Fr. Henri Nouwen writes over and again: living in community is only possible through solitude and contemplation. Resting in God's grace and trusting in God's love is essential.

+ Second, denying the existence of darkness within ourselves makes us adversaries of community.  The charism of community life is a double-edged sword. It cuts through personal illusions of purity or self-sufficiency, and, cuts away our insistence that we are special in either holiness or sin. We are beloved, to be sure, but we are ordinary human beings with gifts and flaws. No more, no less. Vanier writes: "In the story of the woman at the well I understand now that I have to let God meet the wounded, broken woman inside of me and let God enter into all the dirt inside me... If we deny the existence of darkness within ourselves because we think we are pure, then the light cannot come into us. So, too, if we think we are only darkness - unworthy of God - we close up in our darkness, cut ourselves off from the light, and prevent it from entering our being." (p. 55)

Such simplicity for spiritual formation, yes? Humility and trust, solitude and service, compassion and contemplation. My deepest personal hope for the coming year is that I can go a little deeper into each of these simple truths with the core members and assistants of l'Arche Ottawa. As I read Vanier's account of the founding of l'Arche, An Ark for the Poor, and spend time in prayer and relationship with my friends in Ottawa, my heart is not weighed down by the rage and anguish that continues to capture so much of the world. They make me weep, yes, but to paraphrase Job's response to the mystical presence of the holy in his pain: once I only heard with my ears, but now I have seen... seen the "anguish of isolation transformed into the celebration of belonging, (for it is) a belonging that does not crush or stifle freedom, but enhances it." (Ark for the Poor, p. 16)



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