A visit at L’Arche in France

To read on Globe and Mail website:

Jean Vanier’s comfort and joy: ‘What we have to do is find the places of hope’

IAN BROWN  Dec. 19, 2015

Jean Vanier visits the residents in one of the L’Arche homes in Trosly, France.

Jean Vanier visits the residents in one of the L’Arche homes in Trosly, France.

Jean Vanier created L’Arche – a unique community for mentally disabled adults – to nurture a different kind of life: one focused on connection rather than commerce. More than 50 years later, Ian Brown goes on a journey to understand how simply admitting our weaknesses can make us strong.

Photos by Alex Crétey Systermans for The Globe and Mail

I don’t want to overamp this, but at the end of a long dark year – after Charlie Hebdo, the Paris massacre, San Bernardino, thousands murdered by terrorists in Africa and the Middle East, passenger planes blown out of the sky, unstoppable climate change, unprecedented rates of species extinction, 12,747 U.S. gun deaths (and counting) in a single year – I can’t help wondering, and I don’t think I’m the only one: Is this the way we’re going to live now? Surrounded by threats, terrified but resigned, exhausted but furious? Welcome to the holiday season.

How are we supposed to proceed in this new, diminished normal? How do you get up and go to work and pay your bills and raise your children if you can’t look forward to the future?

How do we believe in the way we live if it doesn’t seem to be working? Here’s a theory: Maybe we could stop pretending that we know how to fix it. I know, for me, that might bring some peace of mind.

Jean Vanier is shown in his living room in Trosly, France.

Jean Vanier is shown in his living room in Trosly, France.


I first met Jean Vanier, the 87-year-old Canadian founder of L’Arche, a network of communities for the intellectually disabled, seven years ago. I was looking for something that was hard to find: a place of love where my son could live without me. Walker was born with an exceptionally rare genetic syndrome that has left him severely disabled, intellectually and physically: Now 19, he looks 12, and has the mind of an infant. He always will. He can’t speak or take care of himself, though he loves to walk. He’s a sweet guy, and a lot of trouble: I spend some part of every day wondering why he feels so valuable, given how little he can do, and where he will live when my wife, Johanna, and I are no longer here to look out for him. L’Arche was one of the possibilities we considered.

Every L’Arche houses sign is made by the residents..

Then, earlier this year, Mr. Vanier was awarded the $2.3-million Templeton Prize, awarded for “an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s breadth of spiritual dimensions.” Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu had won it before him. I figured Mr. Vanier might know how to find a sense of peace in a time as dark as the one we live in. We seem to have lost the habit. Lexicographers estimate that the word peace occurs half as often in common usage today as it did in the year 1800.

So I flew to Paris and rented a microscopic Renault and drove 90 kilometres northeast to the village of Trosly-Breuil, where Mr. Vanier lives in a small one-storey house.

It was in Trosly, in 1964, having resigned his commission as a naval officer and earned a PhD in theology and philosophy, that 35-year-old Jean Vanier quit his job as a lecturer at the University of Toronto and moved into a small stone cottage with Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux, two intellectually disabled middle-aged men. He had met them in one of the crowded psychiatric institutions that convinced him the intellectually disabled were the most oppressed among us.

The cottage had neither indoor plumbing nor electricity. I once asked why he thought he could care for two disabled men on his own, with no training to speak of.

“I thought we might have fun,” he said.

“And how did you plan to do that?” I asked him.

“Well, I had a little car, one of those little two-horsepower Citroëns. I thought we could go for drives.”

It was 10 in the morning and 35 degrees in the countryside by the time I pulled up to Place des Fêtes, a tiny square in Trosly. I parked and instantly fell asleep in the car.

I woke up half an hour later dazed and groggy, like a housefly trapped behind a window pane. I staggered out of the car, and was immediately greeted by Régine Kerhuel, a slim, grey-haired woman. Ms. Kerhuel arrived at L’Arche in 1976, at the age of 25, as a schoolteacher from Paris. She intended to stay a year, then get married and return to work. She never left. “I was so happy,” she told me. “I realized there was a place I could learn to love.” I’d known her two minutes when she said this.

I ate dinner that first night at Les Fougères (translation: the ferns), a big, open house for people who have both physical and intellectual disabilities. Mealtimes at L’Arche are when everyone interacts, the disabled and their able-bodied assistants alike, three times a day. Everyone sits up to the communal table. A man named George met me at the door and led me inside. He decided he wanted to keep his spoon in his mouth throughout the meal. He considered this amusing, and I have to say I agreed. I was a little nervous, as I always am at first in a room full of intellectually disabled people: I never know what to say or how to behave, though I usually get less nervous fast, because no one else in the room behaves the way they are supposed to, either. We thus become equals: them equal to me, me equal to them. When you are equal, and equally inept, and can admit it rather than pretending the opposite is true, you have nothing to hide, and are less defensive, freer. That is a far more unusual experience for me than it was for my dinner companions that evening.

Then an older resident, I think his name was Christophe, coughed, and a woman, another resident, said, “Ooh la la!” which everyone thought was hilarious, whereupon Christophe coughed again, and everyone at the table coughed along with him, in sequential solidarity. Then George made a loud noise, and a woman named Emilie blew him a kiss. George seemed unaffected by this, but I was not. Then a man named Davide looked at a young woman whose name was Alexandrine (I think: for a table at which hardly anyone spoke, there was a hell of a lot going on), and Alexandrine, so as not to be distracted by the sight of Davide, held her hand up to the side of her face, as a barrier. I have often wanted to do the same at dinner parties.

Another man was holding the hand of the woman next to him, and put it down for a second, whereupon she wiped her nose on her palm and offered it back to him. She was making a joke, another good one. The people at the table were 24, 30, 29, 22, 24, 34, 47, 31, 21, 35, 59 and 69, but it didn’t seem to make any difference, the way it might have at a so-called normal table. I turned to one of the assistants, and Christophe walked over and sat on my knee. Then we said a prayer about L’Arche. Then we sang some songs. Sometimes the byplay was even slightly boring, until someone tried to connect with someone else, at which point it became vivid and unforgettable.

A resident in one of the L'Arche homes in Trosly, France.

A resident in one of the L’Arche homes in Trosly, France.

These moments of unscripted grace occurred at every L’Arche house I visited in Trosly. At La Vigne (the vine), a wiry 65-year-old guy named Dominic showed me his room: It housed his pet rabbit, Fanfan.

“Is it a girl?” I asked.

“Don’t know,” Dominic said, matter-of-factly. His mother and father had sent him to L’Arche as a young man, and had never visited him. “It wounded me,” he said. But his best friend, Jean-Louis, lived down the hall. Jean-Louis was blind.

“What do you guys talk about?” I asked.

Dominic thought for a moment. “Coffee,” he said then. “Whether it’s cold or not.” He paused. “How much would it cost to visit Toronto?” he asked.

“Three hundred euros.”

“Oh! 300 euros! Ooh la la!”

We’re losing something about community, about accepting people who are different. If we have a culture of winning, a culture of success, a culture of knowledge, those who have less knowledge are not winning. So we’re in a culture of huge divisions.

Jean Vanier

The cook at Les Rameaux (the branches), another L’Arche house, is a middle-aged woman named Gabrielle. Gabrielle was a nun in Mexico City for 35 years before she quit and came to work at L’Arche last year. “I came looking for a new spirituality,” she said, one that was more hands-on, less theoretical. Still, she spent her first day at L’Arche in her bedroom, crying. “Because I was so afraid of handicapped people. Then I walked out, and into a home. Now I’m so happy.” What she likes most about L’Arche is that everyone is included in every decision, even if it is difficult for some residents to make one.

“The idea of liberty is such an important thing,” Gabrielle said, passing me a loaf of bread. “They have their own personalities, their own way of being. Their own tastes. The assistants never take a decision without asking the residents’ opinion. Even if it’s to choose a movie.” Intention is choice; choice is dignity. (…)

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