Life in the Ark

From commentary in the May reading of the Rule of St. Benedict: 

“Why do you need teachers?” the visitor asked a disciple. “Because,” the disciple answered, “if water must be heated it needs a vessel between the fire and itself.”  

Jean Vanier received the call to take Phillipe and Thomas, two mentally handicapped men he met while visiting a large French asylum, into his home and into his life.  Doctor of Philosophy, learned man of letters, distinguished Naval officer…he laid it all aside to live with and care for two men of no earthly prospect whatever.  Vanier died May 7, 2019 at the age of 90.

I’ve no doubt that L’Arche, the international model of life-sharing community that Vanier founded, was the vessel needed between the baptismal waters and the fire of Christ’s call to give up our lives and follow Him in caring for the forgotten and neglected of the world.

In the larger sense, of course, it is the Church universal that functions as the vessel.  Born of the Church, L’Arche sprang forth to give the world a new vision of people with intellectual disabilities.  It woke the world up with the surprising news that these people not only have needs, they have gifts that the world both desperately needs and needs to recognize.

L’Arche means “the ark,” another vessel in which all of humanity, accompanied by our fellow creatures, would survive the destruction of the world and begin anew.  The name is a stroke of genius, its implications perhaps not even recognized at first.  We may see it only as a happy little metaphor of “we’re all in this together.” 

Nice.

At its heart, however, we see its meaning as we consider life on the Ark, which could not have been comfortable—crowded, noisy, smelly, with a relentless workload.  Caring for other people and other creatures doesn’t make for a lot of free time in which to contemplate the mysteries of life.  Any mother and any farmer can tell us that.  The romance wears off quickly in the face of the day-to-day, and we’ve got to trust our call to keep on keeping on.

L’Arche recognizes that very few are candidates for a permanent life shared with a mentally handicapped person.  Wisely, its founders set up a system whereby those who become paid “Assistants” become the anchors of the community.  At the same time, it recruits volunteers—usually young, but not always—who come for 6-12 month stints.  They bring fresh ideas, openness of heart, and joy to their task of walking part-way through their lives’ journey with people who have many fewer options.

Deacon Mark, our permanent deacon at St. Louis says, “Wherever Jesus says ‘love,’ you can safely substitute the word ‘sacrifice.’”   I tried it for a day.  When I said “I love you,” to Jerry, I said in my mind “I’m willing to sacrifice for you.”  It puts a different spin on things and I like it.  It takes a word—love—that we feel we have to drum up a feeling about, and substitutes one that describes something we are expected to do.  It immediately calls the question: “What am I willing to sacrifice for you today?”

The community we created in 1989 was conceived in the spirit of L’Arche.  Now that we’ve “retired,” we still work to continue that spirit.  We don’t have to build another 400 acre ranch, but through Point Rider we still continue embrace our mission to extend the spirit of L’Arche—and the good news that our children, friends, brothers and sisters with mental handicaps have equal claim to respect and friendship, and are worthy of the love and sacrifice it takes.

Judy Horton and her husband Jerry are co-founders of Down Home Ranch and the Point Rider Foundation.  She is in the third year of working with a community dedicated to bringing L’Arche to Austin.