Jean Vanier’s l’Arche community is a very special place at this time of year; but then again, it’s special all year round, as Joanna Moorhead discovers.
The live nativity at Christmas midnight Mass at the l’Arche community has something different about it: Mary, Joseph and the shepherds are all played by people with disabilities. It’s entirely in character with a place that sums up, and lives out, what it means to treat those who are handicapped as equals, and to see them not as people who need looking after, but as individuals with a great deal to teach the rest of us.
L’Arche, which lies in a sleepy French village in the middle of a forest, feels particularly remarkable at Christmas. Its founder Jean Vanier, who set it up after feeling appalled by the way he saw disabled people being treated in institutions, has spent more than half a century championing the idea that the secret to happiness is to learn from those who are physically challenged, to concentrate on what we can do rather than on what we can’t, and – quite simply – to enjoy our time on earth. ‘Christmas is the moment when all that comes together, because l’Arche is about celebrating, and Christmas is one big celebration,’ he says.
There are a lot of people to accommodate at the Christmas Mass and festivities at l’Arche, because the community now numbers more than 200 people, out of a village population of around 2000. And this village, Trosly-Breuil, while still the heart of the L’Arche movement, is now but a small part of it: there are 150 more communities, in countries as far-flung as Japan, Poland and Brazil, which adds up to many thousands of individuals, physically challenged and able-bodied, whose lives have been influenced, and often transformed, by the movement Vanier started.
It was back in 1964 when he first came to this village, which is a few kilometres outside the town of Compiègne in Picardy. An ex-naval officer who was searching for something meaningful to do with his life, he was invited to the village by a priest friend who lived here. But it was when he accompanied the priest to the institution where people with handicaps were looked after that Vanier realised this was his life’s work: the patients were badly treated, dehumanised, and not seen as the individuals they so clearly were. ‘They were condemned to a lesser life,’ says Vanier. ‘But the truth is that each person is a treasure, and in discovering the treasure in others we discover it in ourselves, too.’ The first l’Arche community was born when Vanier took two young men from the institution to live with him in a house in the village: in a family-like setting they flourished, and Vanier’s life was also deeply enhanced. ‘We are transformed by living with people who are different and who have been humiliated,’ he explains. ‘The great pain of our world is that it is obsessed with competition and the need to win. But if you go down the ladder rather than up, you find people who are interested not in wealth and success but only in relationships – and you discover that is the secret to great happiness.’
Rooted in Christianity – although those who work for it come from all faiths and none – l’Arche has always been counter-cultural, but in today’s world it seems to stand out more strikingly than ever. Does Vanier – an immensely tall man, who I met on his 89th birthday – feel worried about the effect of the Trump era on the philosophy he has spent a lifetime trying to spread? Predictably enough, the ever-optimistic Vanier is still hopeful, even though he concedes that ‘Donald Trump is the perfect example of the person I wish to change. But even though he says he doesn’t want migrants and seems to be turning away the very people I say we could all learn so much from, still we are in a world where, thanks to information technology, people are talking to one another more than ever before. And I believe that is where hope lies. We also have to pay heed to what’s going on: Trump is a cry for something, and that’s what we have to listen to.’
He also has hope in today’s young. ‘Many of them come to work in l’Arche, and what I see are ferocious individuals who want to learn how to live together. They’re interested in how to make the planet more beautiful, and in working out how we can all be together. The young people are different from the generation before, and that gives me a lot of hope.’ As always, Christmas at the l’Arche community in Trosly-Breuil will involve many youngsters who have volunteered to spend part of their lives alongside people with disabilities: the partnership between the young and the handicapped is one of the movement’s many strengths.
Fittingly enough, happiness seems to radiate out of Vanier, and his favourite word is ‘super’ (Pope Francis is ‘a super person, an amazing man, and you get the absolute sense with him that everyone is precious’); but the one time his smile fades is when I ask him how it feels to be the Catholic Church’s most pre-eminent living saint. Like Mother Teresa, who was his friend, many expect him to be fast-tracked to sainthood when he dies: how does it feel, to have that sort of accolade? He shakes his head and looks, for the first time, a little sad. ‘The problem is that when people talk about me being a saint, they aren’t thinking about what they should be doing, who they should be helping,’ he says. ‘Talking of me as a saint suggests I’m doing something other people can’t do, which is the exact opposite of what I want to suggest. Everyone can do what I’m doing, which is to welcome the disadvantaged into their lives and to realise we have much to learn from them. Doing this work hasn’t been a hardship: I’ve had fun, we have fun together. I’ve had the most marvellous time.’
Being with Vanier feels like being with someone who’s very close to God; but it’s only later in the day, when I’m invited to have supper in one of the l’Arche houses, that I start to properly understand what his contribution to caring for the physically disabled is really all about. Life at l’Arche is modelled on family life: disabled people and carers, known as assistants, live in houses that are as close as possible to ordinary homes. There are grab rails and wide corridors for the wheelchairs, but the sitting-room looks like an ordinary family sitting-room, with a large TV, sofas, armchairs and a rug. The house I’m in is home to seven people with disabilities and four assistants; in an ideal world, explains Gail, one of their number, there would be six carers.
Supper is served around a huge table: four of the residents are in wheelchairs, and three are severely disabled. What’s immediately striking is how the disabled people are at the heart of the meal and the conversation: they’re as much participants as the assistants and the less disabled residents. Everyone helps everyone else: one resident helps his neighbour with his spoon, another offers hers a drinking cup from time to time. The vegetables are served by Amelie: it takes her a bit longer to negotiate the spoon and to ladle the leeks in cheese sauce onto the plates, but time is not of the essence here, and enabling people to contribute is.
There’s no sense of exclusion around the table at l’Arche: being unable to communicate verbally doesn’t mean being unable to communicate in other ways, and it’s clear there are some big personalities among the residents. The three-course meal takes over an hour to complete, and involves a fair amount of mess: but mess, as Vanier would say, is part of the reality of life, and there’s no attempt made to sanitise or prettify the proceedings. One resident, who clearly loves his pureed spinach, ends up with it all over his face, neck and hands; but he’s clearly relished every minute of eating it – and everyone else has enjoyed sharing in how much he’s enjoyed it, too.
Christmas dinner will be another meal just like this, a meal in which the disabled and able-bodied sit side by side, understanding the advantages of both states of being, and knowing that both can learn from the other (especially, Vanier would say, the advantaged from the disadvantaged). At a time of sharing gifts, it’s clear that l’Arche is a place where the gift-giving is a two-way street, and where paying attention to those who may seem to have least can turn the world around in an entirely positive and joyful way.
Summer in the Forest, a film about life at l’Arche and what we can all learn from it, is available to download at www.summerintheforest.com