If we have an archive of Speaking of Faith "classic" programs, this is one of them. It is quite unlike anything else we've done, but we have broadcast it every winter for the past few years. It touches people in profound and unexpected ways.
I first became aware of L'Arche, as many people do, through the writings of the late spiritual teacher Henri Nouwen. After teaching at great universities and publishing many successful books, Nouwen found himself burned out. And in his signature way, he probed the heart of that self-diagnosis. "I woke up one day with the realization that I was living in a very dark place," he wrote, "and that the term 'burnout' was a convenient translation for spiritual death." In the person of Jean Vanier, the French philosopher and Catholic layman who founded L'Arche, Nouwen heard a call "to go and live among the poor in spirit" and find healing there. "So I moved from Harvard to L'Arche, from the best and the brightest, wanting to rule the world, to men and women who had few or no words and were considered, at best, marginal to the needs of our society."
Henri Nouwen spent the last decade of his life at Daybreak, the L'Arche community in Toronto. There, as at every L'Arche home around the world, he became an "assistant" to mentally handicapped adults known as the community's "core members." The books he wrote from Daybreak continue to draw pilgrims to this network of small intentional communities that have spread quietly, over four decades, into 30 countries.
As I set out on a "radio pilgrimage" to the L'Arche community in Clinton, Iowa — the second oldest of the 16 communities in the United States, and the most rural — I was fascinated by the great religious paradox behind Jean Vanier's movement and Henri Nouwen's life choice: the notion that the power of God reveals itself in weakness and humility, in what is outcast and discarded. But I learned less in Clinton about disabilities than about what people with disabilities can teach others of what it means to be human. I have never forgotten L'Arche regional director Jo Anne Horstmann's description of how the mentally retarded members of the L'Arche community instruct her in the virtue of gentleness, and in the original meaning behind the politically incorrect word "retarded" — slowing down. Every time I hear this program anew, I am moved and challenged by assistant Eric Plaut's frank account of his long road to living in expectation of finding beauty in things that go wrong.
To say that the people of L'Arche are "happy" is too simple. Here is the truth I experienced: spending ordinary time with them is like spending time with family at its best. I've rarely been in a place where there was so much laughter and where the rhythm of life included such real joy in that deceptive phrase "the simple things of life." Joy comes through palpably in this hour of radio.
But an underlying sense of grief also ran through my stay in Clinton. I could see the struggle and loneliness left on people by the hardness of life, especially before they came to live in this place. And between us there were many moments of awkwardness, gaps in which we all were helpless as I failed to understand the words they tried to speak. The core members didn't hide their pain in these moments, but they lived with it gracefully, forgiving me for not getting it, forgiving themselves for not managing it, forgiving God for this design flaw. This generosity of spirit towards oneself and others makes community possible at L'Arche on a new level.
Jean Vanier was not in Clinton when I was there, but we have his voice in this program. He embodies L'Arche's rare mix of manifest authority and disarming gentleness. At one point he asks a question that stays with me — arguably one of the most important questions any of us could pose in our individual lives and on the largest scale of our common life: "The whole question," he declares and reiterates, "is how do we stand before pain?"
As I left L'Arche, the paradox of beauty in brokenness, of strength in weakness, appeared to me less as a theological mystery and more a raw reality of life — a reality that might heal us if we dare to stand before it with reverence rather than fear.