A Jesuit Novice Reflects on L’Arche

BY MATT WOOTERS, S.J. | April 19, 2013

“Love doesn’t mean doing extraordinary or heroic things. It means knowing how to do ordinary things with tenderness.”
Jean VanierCommunity And Growth

L’arche is home.

Laughing, sharing life and being amazed with joy and gratitude were part of my daily routine.  It is hard for me to articulate the significance of my time at L’arche. Attempting to name this experience and the effects it has had on me, like any experience, inevitably falls woefully short. This is especially true of an encounter that largely came not from the intellect, but from the heart.

Put simply, L’arche is home. It is a place where I was welcomed and celebrated for exactly who I am. I have never worked with Special Populations prior to L’arche and had little idea what to expect. I assumed some physical care was involved but really didn’t know what I was getting into. I (wrongly) assumed I was there to help. I assumed that I had something to help those who are “broken.” I came to see quite quickly that, it was I who was being ministered to on a day to day basis, and it is I who am broken. Brian, The Davids, George, Victor and Ray welcomed me into not only their home but their lives. Here I am a young, eager stranger who was welcomed with no hesitation into their lives. Jean Vanier, the founder of L’arche, writes frequently about the importance of “welcome” in his various books and I assumed I understood what that was all about. My idea of welcome prior to living at l’Arche implied simple hospitality but not a welcome to who that person is, or what they bring with them. Which brings up another common theme to my time at L’arche. Being wrong and being so grateful I was wrong.

L’arche is authentic.

One of the things I found most compelling about the guys I lived with was how supremely authentic they are. L’arche represents humanity in its rawest form which sometimes takes less than pleasant forms. If the core members are angry, you know it. If they are happy, you are invited to share in that. If they are frustrated, you are told why. How frequently in my life I pretend to act or feel something only to brush it under the rug and fake it, pretend I am fine and carry on. And yet I am the one who is viewed as being without disabilities by our culture. L’arche has helped me see how certain values are skewed in our culture.  

There is very little quantitative outcome to my time at L’arche and yet, in many ways, it was the most real thing I’ve ever done. It flies in the face of our culture of production and efficiency, where we are defined by what we do and what we have rather than who we are. We give value to others based on their tax bracket, zip code or physical ability. Our culture deems some as having more worth which inversely means we give less worth to those people we deem less “successful.”

At the end of the each day the only benchmark for my time at L’arche was a simple question I would ask myself: “how well are you loving?” And in a real way that is something my community mates at L’arche taught me: how to love more authentically. Sometimes this meant not losing my temper, or rewatching a well-loved movie for the 100th time or simply going on a walk. The radical nature of L’arche lies in its simplicity: a group of people trying as best they can to authentically love one another, for no other reason other than the fact that they exist. L’arche is home for me and I am grateful for my limited time there.

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