Making a home with others
My Experiment in a L’Arche community
Ian Jackson, a novice in the Society of Jesus, describes how 'a mission of laughter' in L'Arche helped him understand where he is called to make a home with others in his life. We might ask ourselves this same question.
“Experiment.” That’s a term that Jesuits use to refer to the various activities that, for centuries, have been used to test, stretch, clarify, and confirm the Novice’s vocation. The first Experiment for a Novice dwelling in the British Province is the 30 day retreat of the Spiritual Exercises. It was one of the most profound experiences of my life, but not as a standalone period in my life, but more like a door between my life before and after the Exercises. It served as a platform to take the graces that God gave me in contemplation, and to see how they gave life to my vocation in action.
After a time of allowing the first experiment to sink in, I was given the news of my second experiment: I was to be sent to live for eight weeks in a L’Arche community. The News came as a pleasant surprise for me; I was still processing the first experiment, still savouring the experience of the Exercises. I had not given the second experiment much thought, and I’m actually quite grateful for that.
Just to be with them
My time spent as a live-in assistant with L’Arche, in one way, could be described as one of simplicity and fun. I came with the mindset that I would be ‘working’ to ‘serve’ those with intellectual difficulties. But that couldn’t have been further from what I actually experienced. I lived with those with intellectual difficulties, and I was to just be with them. L'Arche isn't there to just provide a service; as the founder of L’Arche, Jean Vanier, says; “It's there to answer the question ‘Will you be my friend?’”
The members of a L’Arche community enjoy a simple routine. They spend some of the day out of the house doing various activities. They would come home later, spend time with the other members of the community, enjoy time with them, share a meal and have fun. Then go to sleep to be ready to enjoy the next day.
Enjoy being together
It’s a simple life, but then at the same time quite an active one. The week is structured and filled with interesting activities for the core members to enjoy. But most of the time I felt that the main activity, or the main goal of a L’Arche community is to enjoy being together. It may be a simple life, but every day was completely new and full of memorable moments, everyday had surprises, laughter and warmth.
L’Arche in French means The Ark and this word describes exactly what L’Arche is set up to do. The Ark in the book of Genesis floats above the raging and overwhelming deluge. L’Arche is a refuge where people with intellectual difficulties can discover who they are and not just what they can do. It provides a float for those that would otherwise sink in an overwhelming world that values success and function, sometimes valuing that more than human life.
But the word refuge is not enough in my opinion. L’Arche gives those with intellectual difficulties a home rather than just a place of care. It gives this to people with intellectual difficulties, not just because people with these difficulties need a home, but because every human being deserves one, and people with intellectual and physical difficulties are people just like those without those particular difficulties.
In L'Arche you will never see staff rushing around in white coats, with blue gloves on, providing ‘assistance’ for ‘patients’. You don't have wards to work in and all those things that come with institutionalised care. Ok, maybe they still have the blue gloves on sometimes! It is a home and a community. Sometimes some of our community members need a helping hand and we are happy to provide them service. Service is never without community in L’Arche.
Their happiness is contagious
So what’s it like to live in a place like this? It’s fun! Laughter was a normal part of my day as an assistant. In the first week I found it difficult to control my laughter. The core members and the assistants had such a funny way of interacting. You could be sitting down, peacefully on the couch with two of the core members. One would turn to you slowly with the cheekiest look on his face and with a smirk say “bacon and eggs.” Then while you’re busy trying to process this, another taps you on the shoulder to show you his imaginary beard that he extravagantly straightens out and then blows away, like some magical wizard. You can’t help but laugh with them. Their happiness is contagious, and I felt at home quite quickly.
But, fun doesn’t mean easy. It was a challenge, and transitioning into this way of life was a new thing for me. Life in L’Arche is very slow and, as a member of the Society of Jesus, that’s not my style at all. Personally, I like things done quickly and efficiently. Working at this slow pace was a task and living at this slower place was a big challenge for me.
What does home feel like?
Despite the healthy challenges, I started to settle into the life of a live-in assistant and after getting used to the joy and the pace of life. I started to question what a home really was. What does it mean to be at home with someone else? What does home feel like? When have I felt at home and when have I not? It was a very deep time of questioning for me. Home goes much deeper than just imaginary beards, wake-up routines and pizza. Although those things are signs of a great community, home is much deeper.
I think home is seen more clearly when it grows, or when someone begins to feel at home when they might not have felt at home before. If we didn’t feel at home today and tomorrow, we would feel a qualitative difference between the two. We can also experience that for ourselves but also when someone else starts to feel at home. Certain barriers are let down, trust increases, joy increases. I experienced this growth of home in L’Arche, especially in situations when I was invited to make someone else feel at home with me.
What is laughter?
I think the reality of home is quite a complex one, but I think the simplest and best case of feeling at home with someone is sharing laughter together. You may chuckle at me for asking this, but what is laughter? The eyes squint, the cheeks lift, and we let out this strange sound that doesn’t really communicate anything other than a sound that defines the laugh itself. In laughter we communicate in one of the simplest ways of communicating appreciation. No words, just laughter. The best way to describe laughter to somebody would be to laugh with them and it always follows a pleasant surprise. I have never laughed at something unsurprising or something that wasn’t fresh. So where did I feel this home growing? Let me tell you about one of the core members in more detail. For reasons of privacy, let’s call him Chris.
Chris lives with autism and people like Chris see the world in a different way. He liked to have a structured routine and liked to have things carried out in a certain way. Condition is a word that I’m not going to apply to Chris, this was his life and I respect and cherish the person he is.
But being with Chris could be a challenge, he was very different to me and that greatly affected the way that we communicated and interacted. Chris could only say a few words and most of the time he wouldn’t speak. Another challenge was that if his routine were broken in a considerable way he would become quite nervous and anxious. So great care was needed to spend time with Chris, to make him feel comfortable.
Space to feel comfortable
Chris became nervous when objects touched him unexpectantly. Say if he brushed past a chair with his leg, he would immediately touch the chair back with his leg where the contact was made. With the same leg and with the other in a symmetrical fashion. It would be the same if a person were to touch him. If you were to touch him on the shoulder, he would touch you back on both shoulders in a symmetrical fashion to essentially ‘cancel out’ the touch.
He wasn’t a man for the unexpected or for disruptions to his routine. I was completely new to him at the start of my placement there. Chris was still taking his time to feel comfortable around me. He wanted me to fit into his routine and I’m sure he didn’t want surprises from me. I felt comfortable around him and I settled into a routine with him. But I kept asking myself, how can a man laugh if he doesn’t like surprise? A routine is fine and enough space to feel comfortable with each other is needed sometimes. I felt the desire to make Chris feel at home with me in one of the simplest ways I knew how: it became my mission to make Chris laugh!
Mission of laughter
So how did I carry out this mission of laughter? I knew there was some hope, he did laugh with others sometimes, but only in certain situations. He also came close to laughter with me but rarely. The first time I saw this was when I helped Chris during his night routine. When brushing someone’s teeth, assistants are required to wear disposable gloves. As I comically struggled to put this small elastic glove on, in the corner of my eye, I could see Chris smirking and on the verge of laughter.
Days went by with no success but one day came. Chris was waiting outside the laundry room as he usually did for his ‘quarter past eight’ wash to finish. He was leaning on the radiator in the hallway, minding his own business. I stooped behind a wall, slowly inching my head out into the open and looked at Chris, caught his attention and quickly hid back into cover. I did this a few times until I got his attention with a smirk, then I dashed into the open saying “Chris, Chris, Chris, Chris” in a funny voice, passed him by and then hid behind another wall. I repeated this plan of mine a few times. Chris started to find this very funny. He became more and more happy, excited and slightly bewildered. On about the third pass, he started to chuckle, he put his hands out to playfully stop me. I was slowly coming towards him. Chanting this “Chris, Chris, Chris” song of mine. I had my head down because I was slightly stooping but and when I came close and slowly raised my gaze, I could see this wonderful smile and finally, he let out a wonderful hearty laugh. I couldn’t help but laugh with him. But it wasn’t done, he had to have a tickle of course! His sense of structure and control had completely gone for a moment. He laughed and laughed, I laughed and laughed.
A sense of trust
Although it was a moment that would pass, moments like that were ones where Chris could feel a sense of trust, calm and joy. I could feel this qualitative difference in his mood even though it might last a minute. A brief period of feeling at home was completely worth all the effort I put into building up that moment.
Moments of unpredictability and surprise like this are ways that we can make a home with others. When we lose control and realise that we can trust a person in the unknown and that we don’t need to worry about holding onto the situation ourselves. I think this home is a very mobile one, with many rooms and able to accommodate many people. In those moments of sharing a feeling of being at home with someone, we can start to ask the surprising question, whose home is this? Well, it is God’s house and feeling at home with others in this house, with God present, becomes a draw to feeling at home with God himself.
He is trying to make his home with us
God wants us to put all our trust in him; he is trying to make his home with us. In many ways, we are like Chris. We set up boundaries, routines, structures to keep the world we live in our world. Chris was not against others being at home with him, and maybe we should follow his example, we should ask the Lord to come into our lives and help us realise that the place we call 'Our World’ is his home.
God is a God of surprises and laughter, he’s very funny! I need to keep allowing him into my life, put more and more trust in Him and believe more and more in my place in his Home. And, love of God is not without Love of others. Making my home with others, especially those who can’t repay me, is a part of this love. Everyone deserves a home.
Share the meal in the Kingdom of God
"Then he said to his host, 'When you give a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relations or rich neighbours, in case they invite you back and so repay you. No; when you have a party, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; then you will be blessed, for they have no means to repay you and so you will be repaid when the upright rise again.' On hearing this, one of those gathered round the table said to him, 'Blessed is anyone who will share the meal in the kingdom of God!' " (Luke 14:12-15)
L'Arche tries to be a host like that and for that reason I think that it is a truly wonderful organisation. After two months of living and being with such a community, I have felt a deeper sense of what it means to be at home with others. I want to take this experience and see where God is leading me with this. I ask myself this question, where am I called to make home with others in my life?
I also ask the reader to contemplate this: Where do you feel God is calling you to make home with others?
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