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Jean Vanier’s legacy: What it’s like to be a L’Arche assistant

Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche (Getty Images)

Beth Porter tells Francis Phillips how life in a L'Arche community can be so rewarding

The news of the recent death of Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, has sparked renewed interest in this apostolate to those with learning disabilities. When, in 1964, Vanier opened his small house in Trosly-Breuil, north-east of Paris, to two men who had been cared for an institution, he could not have known that this act would develop into a worldwide organisation dedicated to a radically different approach. Instead of simply administering care, Vanier realised that what mattered was entering into a reciprocal relationship with such people: befriending and living with them.

Beth Porter has been a member of the L’Arche Daybreak community in Canada for four decades. Reading her life story, Accidental Friends (published this year by Darton, Longman & Todd) prompted me to contact her to ask her some questions about it. She relates that in 1979, aged 35 and with a secure academic position, she happened to read Vanier’s Community and Growth. She tells me that “He wrote with the authority of one who knew his subject intimately, having lived through many of the ups and downs of communal living. He had identified the major problems that can lead to disintegration of a community and he knew the elements that made for success.” 

She reflects, “He intended the book as a kind of road map for communities in which people lived together, pointing out that such a community needs to have a strong common purpose that calls people beyond themselves. In the case of L’Arche, this purpose means providing stability, care and opportunities for people who clearly cannot care for themselves. Given these conditions, they soon come to make their own contributions to the fabric of community life. He stressed that a successful community needs clear structures, and also times of shared reflection, prayer and celebration. Vanier’s emphasis on the spiritual life also attracted me.”

Beth Porter visited Daybreak, initially for a short period. What led her to prolong her stay rather than return to her old life?  She says candidly, “I had not met anything with an intellectual disability before I came for my first visit, a dinner invitation. I had no expectations but I was open to discovering this particular kind of community. I was disarmed and charmed by the simple friendliness of the home’s members.”

“I returned for three months, then decided to stay for a year and put my teaching post on hold. Very quickly in L’Arche, new assistants are given responsibility, are drawn into the life of the household and then into the larger L’Arche community. The needs of the disabled were obvious but they also called me beyond their needs, to enter into meaningful relationships.”

Beth recalls that she “liked and admired the other assistants and soon became part of the family-like life of the household. I felt appreciated. In academia I had felt that my life was too compartmentalised. I had been looking for a place of service where I could live a more integrated life. In L’Arche, in contrast to university teaching, relationships can deepen over time and become lasting. Gradually I realised that L’Arche had become my home and that I belonged to the people with whom I was sharing my life.”

As a member of L’Arche for 40 years, can she describe a relationship with a core member of the community that particularly affected her? Beth remembers her first visit to Daybreak, “where I met Michael who wanted to show me his photo albums. He pointed out his brother Adam who couldn’t walk or talk. He spoke of his longing for his brother to come and live with him at Daybreak. His feelings were clearly as deep as those of anyone without a disability. I glimpsed his heart in that simple encounter. At the end of the evening he urged me, “Come back!” I did and as it happened, I was placed as an assistant in Michael’s house. Sometime later, caught in a sudden snowstorm on a road trip with Mike (as he liked to be called), I discovered him to be a resourceful and resilient companion. Although we eventually moved to different households, we have remained friends throughout our years in Daybreak and I have dinner each week in his L’Arche home.”

In her book, Beth mentioned the “significant sacrifices” that are asked of assistants. She explains that “until quite recently the most obvious sacrifices were of time and money. Assistants did not have much free time. Today the government legislates the number of hours assistants can be asked to “work.” Life in L’Arche can quickly become all-consuming. Although assistants’ salaries have increased over the years, given that they usually have university qualifications, there is a sacrifice of financial security. In addition, being asked to move from one home, programme or role to another can bring a feeling of loss.”

She adds wryly, “And there is always someone in community who would be the last person one would like to live with”, but points out that “All this may be outweighed by the depth of friendships that assistants form with one another and with the core members – and by the sense that they are growing and finding happiness while doing something that makes our world a better place.”

I remind her that in the book she commented that “We were all being transformed by our life together.” Can she expand on this? Beth reflects, “A key incentive to staying in L’Arche is the sense that one is growing as a person – developing personally and spiritually. Where necessary, assistants need to recognise their mistakes, forgive themselves and others and grow in competence. This is true also of the members with disabilities; there is a mutuality or reciprocity in L’Arche relationships.”

She emphasises, “Each person is called to discover their gifts and to use them. Anyone who stays more than a short time in L’Arche will be painfully confronted with the shadow side of their own personality. Many disabled members are experts when it comes to forgiving others, especially bossy assistants. They also often model for others the spirit of welcome for which L’Arche is noted. And, having already accepted themselves and come to terms with their limitations, such as not getting married or driving a car, they help assistants to accept their own limitations.”

In her book, Beth quotes Jean Vanier who believed that “Forgiveness and celebration are essential to any community.” How has this been achieved in her own community? She sees forgiveness as “key to being able to live well as a community and to celebrate together. Nevertheless, reconciliation doesn’t always happen and sometimes people have left Daybreak unhappy. “Celebration”, she adds, “is the natural outflow of forgiveness. This means regular meetings with time for each one to share how they are doing, weekly community prayer or celebration of Mass, and periodic retreat days. These help the community cope with the inevitable tensions. Entertainment, such as skits and mimes also often call forth much creativity and laughter.”

Beth concludes our conversation: “For the main meal each day we try to prepare the table with flowers and a candle and ensure that the meal itself is appealing. Food allergies and preferences are taken into account. A well-prepared meal enhances the sense that it is good to be together and quarrels tend to dissolve. In Daybreak homes, the celebration of birthdays includes naming the birthday person’s gifts as we pass a candle round the table at dinner. And on Holy Thursday, all community members gather for a foot-washing service that is separate from the Church’s liturgy and which allows time to express our care for one another.”