In the second year of the novitiate one faces the ‘long experiment’. It is with a sense of joy and gratitude that I write about my 3 months living in as a care assistant at L’Arche. L’Arche the French for The Ark was founded in 1964 by Jean Vanier who answered a call to be a friend from a man with a learning disability by welcoming him into his home. Since then L’Arche has grown to over 140 communities worldwide with 10 in the UK. L’Arche serves as a sign that people with and without a learning disability can live together in a faith community where everyone is valued and finds a safe and accepting home.
My main role was to support Simon (pseudonym to protect identity). Simon had a great memory and would often make up funny rhymes about people or situations. On the surface he seemed fairly independent with his needs inside the house. Though the reality is that he needed guidance around activities that would all be automatic for me. In this sense he was vulnerable especially when it came to being out of the house. All I really needed to do was to help provide him with some support and structure to his morning or evening routine. In the evening there was time to socialise together and this time was spent as Simon wished. Gradually he would allow me to spend more time with him playing together with his cards or by joining him in watching his favourite DVDs. To see the relationship develop from this trust and respecting his space and decisions was a joy for me.
Over time I was invited to spend time on days out with a local Faith & Light group. Faith and Light is also an international movement that provides friendship and support rooted in a prayer life for people with learning disabilities and their families. I enjoyed this time and feel it is important to be involved with in terms of future ministry.
I was struck by the immediate sense of feeling at home in L’Arche. I felt a strong sense of being alive really alive. That this is where life is. To the outsider our community meals together could appear entirely crazy and lively however, I felt strangely at home in this situation. I was reminded of how Fr. Henri Nouwen found a home in L’Arche and it was with a sense of missing something in my life that I entered L’Arche. I received so many special spiritual gifts from my time at L’Arche.
Firstly I was grateful to be working in the field of learning disability again. I have long held the opinion that everyone has a way of communicating and whilst some people with a learning disability may not be able to have a conversation like you or me the onus is on me learning how the other person communicates and not the other way round. Learning disability first motivated me over 13 years ago to get into nursing. So it was familiar and affirming to be back. The time away from the Jesuits proved beneficial to really examine what I was doing with my life and that sense of vocation to the Jesuits and to nursing. I also looked at my personal values when it came to nursing. I had the space to contemplate both deeply. We were asked to describe what Lent would be for us in as few words as possible. I said Trust. Not to try and trust but to just trust in God. I trust that there is a reason that the past 4 years of my life have been pointing to the Jesuits. With the decision to trust came an immediate sense of peace and joy that I never thought I would be writing about. It is a serenity that although I still have uncertainty in Jesuit life (in that I have no idea where I will be sent in the future) I noticed there was no additional anxiety. This was a turning point for me.
Secondly I was grateful for the relationships growing out of community life at L’Arche whether that was through listening to the young assistants express their hopes and concerns or about matters of faith or just the time together with the core members (those with a learning disability). People were helping me without even knowing it. I learnt more about patience, love, acceptance and kindness from L’Arche than I have space to tell you.
I am left with a strong desire to be engaged with people with disabilities and I think as a Jesuit this could be in terms of ministry and friendship. A sense of encountering God in each other through our own vulnerability started to grow in my awareness. In many ways I as a helper am wounded and have my own vulnerabilities even though these are not necessarily noticeable to others. When I encounter somebody else who has an obvious vulnerability in the form of physical or a learning disability I feel a connection and a desire to nurture, protect and encourage them. I am aware that I am receiving back in the form of trust and friendship. The encounter is deep at the level of meeting Jesus in the other. Whilst I am on this topic Jean Vanier recently talked to UK politicians on why society needs the weak and it worth following some of these links to you tube videos.
To be in a situation again where I can readily feel God’s presence is extremely powerful.
The experience has also helped me to realise the presence of God in other areas of novitiate life that I have previously found difficult. I feel my powers of awareness and detection of God at work in all things are improving, after all I am only a beginner in Jesuit life.
If you have been inspired to consider volunteering in some way with L’Arche please check out their website or Google L’Arche and the country you are based in. As an international organisation you could chose to be placed abroad. Whilst L’Arche attracts the young in search of a meaningful experience pre or post university there is room for older people. Age is not a barrier!
Finally check out & pray the L’Arche Prayer.