Several years ago, a group of theologians met at Trosly-Breuil in France, the site of the original L’Arche community, to discuss the impact of Jean Vanier‘s work. A Lebanese priest named Youakim Moubarac delivered a paper in which he compared the experience of living in a L’Arche community with the experience of the ancient Syrian monks in the wilderness. According to Moubarac, the L’Arche community is like the desert experience in that it balances almost perfectly the active and contemplative life, the life of prayer and the life of social action. Because of this, he wrote, the L’Arche community has become “a privileged place for meeting God” in the modern world. But this “privileged place” is not as rosy as it sounds. Here’s exactly what he said:

In as far as I understand Jean Vanier, daily dealings with people who have handicaps makes those involved face their own violence. Confronted by the irreducibility of the other, the one whom they mean to serve but whose condition they cannot ameliorate, they discover with horror that they are capable of striking them, or even wanting to do away with them. It is this, then, that I call a privileged desert place. The anchorites took themselves off to the desert, they said, to fight with Satan on his own territory. We know now that it is enough to pay attention to the most defenseless people among  us to find ourselves given up to our interior demons. But if only we force ourselves not to lose heart, if only grace comes to the aid of our weakness, we apprehend that to spend time with the poorest of all is not to do them charity, but to allow ourselves to be transformed by them and to apprehend God as gentleness.

At the Lotus House, we do not minister to the disabled directly as do those at L’Arche; nevertheless, we often find ourselves frustrated by our inability to “fix” each other or those who come to us in need. Indeed, many of those who come to us (and many of us as well) come broken and in need of some fixing. Yet the longer I live among the broken, the more I realize that I am wrestling with my own interior demons – either the active desire to control others, to heal them, to make them like myself or simply the passive sense of inadequacy, helpless, and failure which accompanies the task. This, I suppose, is why the desert fathers practiced something called apatheia, or detachment.  To be “apathetic” in this sense is not to stop caring or feeling, but rather to put some distance between oneself and others in order to better serve them. As Francis Young, another theologian who attended the gathering with Fr. Moubarac and Jean Vanier, put it, “Love requires a degree of detachment, an ability to let the other person be, to be ‘other’, to be what they are rather than what you want them to be.” It turns out the “letting be” is not as simple as Paul McCartney would have us believe, but living with others provides many opportunities to face our own inner violence and find healing through our grace-filled relationships. Our goal, then, is simply to be. Together.

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