leap day and lessons from l’arche

I planned to seize the year’s extra day with all the gusto I could muster.

When the Winter-That-Wasn’t lobbed one last Hail-Mary of a storm, cancelling my meetings and leaving us with a snow day to enjoy, I envisioned curling up with the boys, a cup of tea and a pile of good books. An idyllic day of at-home mothering.

Instead I woke up to one boy who wet the bed and another who leaked all over the changing table. Two giant piles of laundry and two hungry children cried for my attention. After a long night (used in the loosest sense of the term by those who don’t sleep), a longer day loomed.

I felt as stuck as the car’s tires spinning at the end of the driveway.

How would I turn this day around? It seemed to promise nothing but cranky children and crummy chores. As I stuffed the stinking sheets in the washer and the baby wailed, my poor brain scraped together one lone theological thought: I need a spirituality for stuff I don’t want to do.

And that’s when I remembered Bernard. And Michel. And Claude. And Philippe.

When I lived in France after college, I worked in a L’Arche community. In our house four assistants lived side by side with six adults with developmental and physical disabilities. We shared the daily rhythms that mark French life – eat, work, play, rest – but with a unique spirit of acceptance and inclusivity.

I didn’t have any experience working with people with disabilities before I came to France. When I learned L’Arche would be part of my volunteer placement, I was uneasy. How would I know how to act? What to do? How to help?

And it turned out that I didn’t need to know anything about Down syndrome or schizophrenia or degenerative disorders to serve at L’Arche.  Tale as old as time, it turned out that I was the one who was taught, who was helped, who was transformed.

The way of life at L’Arche is a daily spirituality of stuff no one wants to do. Wiping drooling mouths. Cleaning up messes. Helping someone learn to eat. Or use the bathroom. Simply sitting with a person who cannot speak.

But this spirituality of stuff no one wants to do becomes a beautiful inversion of the normal way of living, in which speed and success rule the game. L’Arche taught me to slow down, to simplify, to see Christ in the beautiful brokenness around me.

I spent my time at L’Arche doing nothing glamorous. Changing Philippe’s soaked sheets each morning. Helping Claude to get dressed. Cooking with Michel every Wednesday night. Listening to Bernard tell the same incomprehensible stories.

Simple tasks like preparing meals and setting the table took twice as long. Getting out the door was an epic event: struggling with coats, shoes, last-minute bathroom needs. People didn’t sit down when they were supposed to, and they hit others out of anger or frustration, and they broke into loud laughter whenever you were trying to have a serious conversation about something important.

In short, L’Arche might have been the best preparation for my life as a mother of little ones.

Life behind closed doors with those whom society dismisses as dirty or demeaning or a drag can sometimes be stifling. But it can also surprise with pure, rich joy.

Living as a family, living as community – these are schools of humanity. Where we learn that simply being made in the image of God is worth enough for our dignity. Where we set aside success and embrace faithfulness. Where we recognize each other’s brokenness but celebrate the fullness of sharing life together.

No matter how much food gets spilled in the process. No matter how many times the bed gets soaked. No matter how many times we struggle to stay patient.

It’s a spirituality of stuff no one wants to do. But it also opens a way to encounter the God we long to love.

12 thoughts on “leap day and lessons from l’arche

  1. Beautiful and inspiring again! I was just reminded of a quote by Mother Teresa while reading “The Domestic Church Room By Room” by Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle. “Love begins at home, and it is not how much we do… but how much love we put in that action.” -Blessed Mother Teresa

    That alone has helped me while dealing with an array of bodily fluids from the littles lately!

  2. I enjoyed your blog. Reminded me of the 5 months I spent at L’Arche Cape Breton after my undergrad program at St FX. In particular, I recall a wintery day in the workshop with Eddie who would regularly pace, sing to himself in almost unintelligible banter and strike out unexpectedly when frustrated. I recall the bleakness of the landscape, the humble surroundings and Eddie’s antics but also the deep sense of peace and privilege to be part of it all. Even after (yikes!) 28 years these and other memories and experiences of L’Arche still sustain me from time to time. Now as chairman of the Board of Directors of L’Arche Halifax I am grateful for the opportunity to help sustain a community here in Halifax where others can create their own sustaining memories.

    1. Thank you for sharing a beautiful L’Arche glimpse of your own, Brian. Such memories do sustain our wonder at how we were transformed and “the deep sense of peace and privilege to be part of it all,” as you so wisely state.

  3. I am so grateful to read your reflections on the spirituality of L’Arche – it truly is the making of the mundane into something sacred in holy. It is the great mystery of God – we struggle all our lives to find God and yet God is right here – in front of us, behind us, around us, present in the everyday. We at L’Arche would love to speak with all of you that have experienced L’Arche. We are trying to gather information about how living L’Arche has impacted your lives. This writing is a perfect example. Thank you! Blessings!

    1. Anita, I have carried your words with me all week: “It is the great mystery of God – we struggle all our lives to find God and yet God is right here.” Such a beautiful yet exasperating mystery! And L’Arche is indeed a perfect example of that. I would love to read more stories of how L’Arche has impacted others. Of course we have the brilliance of Nouwen and Vanier, but L’Arche is a million everyday stories as well. Stories of learning to be human together, stories we need to share.

  4. What a blessing to read your reflections on L’Arche and making the connection to motherhood. My daughter Kati works at L’Arche…I need to start framing that differently after reading your post…it is not WORK..it is LIFE….it is truly ministry, not unlike motherhood.

    Your posts resonate with me and feelings from afar rush over me and it feels like just yesterday. Just know that your journey is made so much richer by your reflections and your authentic expression. So much of mothering “in the day” was about repressing the feelings that were about “stuff no one wants to do.” By naming the events and your response, you truly free yourself…it truly does open…”… a way to encounter the God we long to love.”

    I love how you are finding God in the little moments and let’s face it, at this point in your mothering journey, most are little moments!!

    1. Midge, your wise words warmed my heart this week (and on our shared birthday, too!). You remind me how truly freeing it is to bring the shadow sides of my own mothering journey into the light that is writing and sharing them with others. And we do need to affirm the ministries that we are each called to, no matter the work or the title or the life circumstances in which we find ourselves. Beautifully stated.

  5. Very lovely. I’ve always been so intrigued by L’Arche and it is fascinating to see the parallels that you draw to motherhood. Both remind me of that quotation by Mother Theresa, about how there are no great things, only small things done with great love.

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