A year is ending, another is starting up. The month of August falls between the two: it is for God, for prayer and reading, rest and walks in the forest. This does not mean that the other months are not for God. They are, but in a different way: in the others, it is about finding him in the everyday encounters with people with whom I have now been living for 48 years. Finding God in a loving presence, inspired by the vision of St Paul on love. Love, he says, “is patient and kind, it is not jealous and does not puff itself up. It does nothing unjust, does not seek its own ends, does not get angry, is not spiteful, and does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but delights in the truth.” And he concludes, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” My God, how beautiful and challenging love is! I wish it would guide me every day, but unfortunately it is not so. Love is a light, an inspiration, a desire. But in everyday life, it is not there all the time in my heart and in my actions: so many times I put myself at the center, I am not patient, I prefer to command rather than obey and so on. In L’Arche, I have discovered all the violence that exists in me and all my capacity to push others down. This is exactly why I need this August close to God, to revive myself. I need God to change my heart of stone into a heart of flesh and put his Spirit in me. There is still work to be done in me.
In early August, I attended a retreat led by a Hungarian Jesuit on ‘openness to contemplation.’ Opening oneself to welcome the presence of God and remaining there for a long time. Father Thomas Philippe taught me to pray when I left the Navy in 1950. He told me: “Put yourself in the presence of God and stay there.” The retreat at La Ferme was just that: putting oneself in the presence of Jesus and resting there. It was a time of silence and purification. And now it is continuing here in the Abbey of Orval, where I have been coming during August, for almost 25 years. I came here on August 11; the first ones to welcome me were a myriad of swallows that flew up to the heavens and then zoomed down to earth. They were playing together, singing in their own language, saying all kinds of funny things, but above all praising and glorifying God. How beautiful nature is, and how beautiful is life. After the meeting with the birds came the meeting with the monks singing the glory of God. Their song knits earth and heaven together. They are so beautiful and so faithful, these monks, dedicated to prayer and a life inspired by Jesus. As you may guess, I am well here: it is relaxing and rejuvenating. No phones, no visits: a time to live with and in the presence of God.
I said earlier that I’m still far from that love of which Paul speaks, which is the only thing that gives meaning to the universe, to life, to L’Arche and to the Gospel. L’Arche is a good school of love. There are plenty of opportunities each day to learn patience. As you know, to be patient is to live harmoniously with people who are sometimes (and in some cases, often) unbearable, people who drive us up and down the wall.
St Paul even says that if we knew all there is to know about man and God, if we had faith enough to shift the mountains, and if we donated all our worldly goods to the poor and yet lacked the love that forgives all, believes all, hopes all and bears all, then all these beautiful things that appear so «godly» are actually nothing at all; “I’m just a clanging cymbal”, I am nothing. Love alone is what counts. The weakest and most vulnerable people that we welcome to L’Arche and Faith and Light are extraordinary teachers. To live together is a moment of grace. And their poverty – sometimes so radical – has made me discover my own equally radical poverty: my fears, the obstacles preventing me from loving tenderly. These links that bind me to each person have opened up my heart, giving me a strength in love that makes patience and the other demands, (bearing all, etc.) easier and lighter. Through these ties of the heart, the support of the community and at times of professionals, but first and foremost through the Holy Spirit and the grace of God, everything becomes possible. But this does not preclude occasional struggles, those moments of tiredness or discouragement, which are more or less bearable. It is the same for us all. For me, life with those who are often seen as the lowest of the low is leading me to rise up with a joy that comes from God.
During the writing of this letter, I learn that while in hospital, Natalie has just fallen asleep in the arms of God. She was 59. Her death touches me deeply. I loved her. There was a bond of tenderness between us. Weak at the level of intellect, as well as blind, she spent 38 years in one of our homes. She was a beacon of tenderness and gentleness; being blind, she had let herself be guided but she also guided and helped many of us to walk in love. Her leaving was not unexpected since she had been getting visibly weaker every day; and yet it is a blessing for the entire community. What a gift to have walked with her for so long. She was so pure, so luminous, so transparent. She was one of those little ones before whom Jesus cried out with joy, “Blessed be you Father, Lord of heaven and earth for hiding these things from the smart and the strong and revealing them to those who are little.”
In my time here at Orval, I have been able to open the door, and get to know a little bit about Islam and especially Sufism. Through Christian de Chergé and others, I had learnt to appreciate some aspects of this religion. But great is my ignorance, in our time one cannot close oneself off in ignorance and prejudices. Ignorance leads to fear, fear to exclusion, contempt, the creation of ghettos and conflicts, and a feeling of superiority and in the end the desire to get rid of other people. Is not this how people with disabilities have been treated for so long? So easily do we ignore them, avoid them, exclude them and then look for ways to get rid of them or hide them away. Obviously, I do not have much time here to catch up on the Muslim religion. The main thing for me is to deepen my own faith and let myself be transformed by Jesus. I was touched to read a little about Sufism. Among them, were men and women who thirsted to know God, to seek his face to love him with reverence, to glorify and praise him. (Rebi 8th century).
Hallaj (the end of the 9th century), “With my whole being, O Holy One, I have clung to the fullness of your love. You have manifested yourself to such an extent, that it seems that there is nothing but you within me.” Of course, Islam is not just about saints, any more than Christianity is. It also has its share of popular devotions, institutions, laws, and also extremists: these are present in all religions.
In the month of October, a new book of mine will come out: a book that is a bit different: “Les signes des temps à la lumière de Vatican II” (The signs of the times in the light of Vatican II). This book, based on some interviews I’ve done, has already been published in Italy. Albin Michel, a publisher in Paris, came across it and wanted to publish it in France with some modifications and corrections. Here are some of the chapter headings which give you an idea of the contents: “From humiliation to humility, from normalization to transformation, from exclusion to meeting, from power to authority, from isolation to community, from the secret to the mystery.” They are reflections on events that I have lived and do still live in a society where we risk losing what it means to be human, and where the weak are so often despised. In rejecting them we reject our own weakness and littleness, we reject our own selves. We then live according to a false self: a desire to be the best, to be applauded, to climb higher in rank and power and property. Faith and Light and L’Arche lead us to discover that it is in going down deeper into ourselves, down into our heart of hearts, in our society and in our Church that we find life and light. Isn’t that the good news of the Gospel?
What can I say about the months that have passed since my last letter? I was not at the Federation in Atlanta. It was no longer my place. On the other hand, I followed it each day on the Internet via the short videos sent out, which conveyed the atmosphere of joy and unity. There was the election of Patrick Fontaine and Eileen Glass to follow on from Jean-Christophe and Christine as international leaders. What a gift; I have known Patrick and Eileen for many years: they are truly the ones who can best serve the Federation today and help us to be guided by those who are weak towards God, towards peace and towards communion of hearts.
In May I took part in one of 40 pilgrimages that have been lived across the world to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Faith and Light. What a gift of God: all these 1500 communities around the world who are continuing to reveal the value of the weakest people. (Have you read the excellent book by Marie-Hélène Matthieu Plus jamais seuls (Never alone) on the history of Faith and Light?) I made the pilgrimage to Lourdes with the Faith and Light communities of south-west France, where the L’Arche communities in this region also participated. Present also were communities from South Korea, Lebanon, Madagascar, and the island of Reunion. How wonderful, that all these communities sparkling with life came from so far, and sometimes from near.
Now I am cutting down on my travel, and doing nothing outside France. I was able to make a visit to a L’Arche community that has just been born in France, in Toulouse; and I participated in the celebration for the 40th anniversary of Les Trois Fontaines at Ambleteuse. For a long time, this community has experienced all kinds of earthquakes especially with the local authority. It suffered from misunderstandings and difficulties of all kinds. Thanks to Thierry Langlet, the leader, and many committed friends, it has lived a resurrection. Is this not the story of many of our communities who have passed through difficult moments and refound life, thanks above all to the weakest people who are at the heart of the community?
And of course there is my home, Lazarus – what joy! I feel so well close to La Ferme and to my foyer. I do a little work in the garden but mostly I want to make myself more available for all that others ask of me. Especially, there are the retreats and sessions at La Ferme. Jesus gives me the strength and especially the grace to continue to give retreats on Jesus, on the good news and on the mystery of the weakness which helps us to discover and embrace our own weaknesses in the heart of the humanity. Paul’s words are powerful: “it is when I am weak, that I am strong.” And the words of Jesus, when Paul complains of his weakness, “My grace is sufficient to you, my strength is made perfect in weakness.”
In a few days I will be 84 years old. Life goes forward in grace and in weakness. For the moment my health is holding up. I am well looked after by the doctors. Walking in the forest by Orval, I felt I was dragging my feet more; and I have less energy. Everyone tells me to exercise more so that is what I will try to do. Most of all, I want to sing a song of thanksgiving. My life has been very full and still is. I am deeply happy to live in the heart of my community under the gaze of God; and profoundly happy and grateful that Christine McGrievy, after 13 years as Vice International Coordinator with Jean-Christophe, has accepted to be the community leader of L’Arche here at Trosly. There are so many things to sing my thanks to God for, and also to thank so many friends who are watching over us and praying for us. Thanks also to the weakest people, the people who wake up our hearts and call us to be faithful and lead us and guide us to the light and the truth. If we keep our eyes looking down, we will always be drawn upward toward God, towards unity and peace. I have to go still further on this downward path in myself in humility, for God to continue the work of purification. It will be finished (hopefully) when we arrive at the ultimate weakness, that for which we are all made. The path to ‘Life’. Thank you for praying for me during the coming year.
I embrace you,