Here we are, already in the middle of November, and you have not yet received my autumn letter. It was delayed, but here it is, finally.
After the “Peace” retreat at the end of July, I headed off to rest at the monastery at Orval, where I have spent my summer holidays for nearly 30 years. It was a peaceful and relaxing time, with walks in the forest and above all, time to stay close to Jesus, especially through the Daily Office with the monks, which always nourishes me. Of course, I did not miss out on my annual meeting with the swallows! This year they were particularly numerous. Hundreds of them were wheeling with extraordinary speed around a large copper beech tree, without ever colliding with each other! What a joy to see them skimming over the pond to cool off, and then starting over again. These swallows enjoy a wonderful freedom – their flight is a song of joy. I found contemplating them very restful. It would be so good if we human beings too could have this freedom, and not collide with each other.
After Orval, I spent a blessed time at the community of Taizé, founded 75 years ago by Roger Schutz. It’s a wonderful ecumenical community where Protestant and Catholic brothers live and pray together. They continually welcome young people from around the world, from different churches and faiths, as well as those without religious faith. During my stay, there were 3,000 young people who had come for a week, each day punctuated by three times of singing and silent prayer, each lasting an hour. It’s always moving to see all these young people sitting on the floor in the church, surrounded by a hundred brothers in white robes. What an experience to see them so silent: a beautiful moment! Many of the young people there that week came from Scandinavia, but all the other countries of Europe were represented as well. I met friends like Olga and Misha, from Faith and Light in Moscow.
Back in Trosly at the start of September, I was in a retreat led by Laurence Freeman and myself. Laurence, a Benedictine priest, is the founder of the worldwide community for Christian Meditation, which unites men and women around the world who have meditation times together. Each day during the retreat we had three half-hours of silence, praying and meditating together. There were about twenty people close to L’Arche communities and twenty people representing this vast, global community for Christian Meditation. It was a blessing to spend this time together, in order to touch what is deepest in each of us, and permit the presence of God to rise up into our consciousness. The words of Etty Hillesum came back to me, which I have often shared with you: “inside me there is a very deep well. And in the well, there is God. Sometimes I manage to reach him. But very often, stones and debris clog the well, and God is buried. Then I need to bring Him up into the light.” The purpose of meditation is to begin to overcome and remove the rubble, the dirt, our egos, our desire for power, so that we can peacefully join God, abiding in God as Etty Hillesum said. To remain in silence in the arms of God.
Currently in France, after the terrorist attacks, as you can imagine there is a lot of tension and mistrust around Islam. It is quite understandable that fear exists in France as in other countries, and this is exactly what the terrorists want. Many identify the fear of terrorism with Islam itself, without realizing that the violence is rooted in politics. I was very touched to hear the cry from the heart of Antoine Leiris, published on Facebook, after his wife’s murder during the Paris attacks: “You will not have my hatred. So, no, I will not make hatred into a gift for you. You have looked hard for it, but to respond to hatred with anger, would be to give in to the same ignorance that has made you what you are. You want me to be afraid, so that I look at my fellow citizens with mistrust, sacrificing my freedom for security. Lost.”
How to work to create, here in France, brotherly acceptance between our Muslim citizens and all other French citizens? It is not easy in the current situation, where fear, anger and hatred are often so close to the surface. How to be open to welcoming the other person, the one who is different? Much like any group of French people in a foreign country, Muslims in France often stick together. It can be difficult to seek out even the smallest opportunities for welcome and interpersonal contact between communities. The important thing is to meet each other, and thence to discover that each person is a human being with heart, with a family, children, suffering and difficulties at work. How to move towards a greater sense of brotherly acceptance? How to build bridges, not walls? The world can only move towards peace if we recognize that every human being is my brother or my sister.
I have just finished reading a very moving book entitled Our Tears Are the Same Color that reflects this spirit of brotherhood. It tells the story of the meeting of two women, one an Israeli whose son was killed by a Palestinian, the other a Muslim Palestinian, whose son was killed by Israeli soldiers. Their common suffering created a friendship that transcends the walls of separation, hostility, revenge and hatred. Little by little they became true friends, sisters in humanity.
An excellent book has just come out about my sister Thérèse, wonderfully written by Anne Shearer. Anne has gathered together fifty testimonials from people who know either L’Arche, palliative care, or who are on the path of ecumenism, the three works where Thérèse put her heart and life’s energy. Thérèse was a true light of kindness and competence. Sometimes when I was little, along with my brother Bernard, I was a bit afraid of her because we were often seen as the naughty little ones! By contrast, the elder ones, Benedict and Thérèse, were considered wise. Thérèse was an extraordinary yet humble woman: hidden behind her great competence was a heart of goodness, and a concern for each person, especially the poorest. At present this wonderful book is unfortunately only available in English.
Another book, written by Kathryn Spink, will come out in November, this time about Claire de Miribel. Thérèse, although kind and highly competent, was often serious; Claire by contrast was like a song of joy, bringing delight and laughter. At the same time, as International Coordinator of L’Arche from 1984 to 1993, she brought extraordinary competence. For 36 years, Claire lived in the L’Arche home called Massabielle, where she developed a special friendship with Edith and Alfreda, two women with a disability whom she had welcomed to the house. Claire’s life is an extraordinary example for us all.
Of course, I still have a lot of other news to share with you, but I want above all to wish everyone a time of peace as we live our common mission with joy. I am more and more amazed to discover how vulnerable people, those with disabilities and so many others, are a source of life, how they are truly messengers of God. They break down the walls around our hearts. They liberate our hearts, calling us to grow and to become men and women with universal hearts. In our world where there are so many divisions and walls that separate people, the role of L’Arche is to bring people together, and to work that our communities be places of peace, sources of peace.
Thank you for all the cards and emails wishing me happy birthday. From where I sit, 88 years seem a lot!
I would like to add two events which touch us all. Firstly, more than a month ago, hurricane Matthew hit Haiti, and the whole southern region of the country was devastated. The village of Chantal suffered a lot. The roofs of our community were destroyed. Rain, rain and more rain… I was able to call Jacqueline, the leader of our community in Port au Prince, who told me that the road to Chantal was impassable. I have since heard that aid was little by little getting through.
Secondly, Mima, one of the leaders of Faith and Light in Syria, whose mission is to create interreligious communities in Aleppo, is safe and sound in spite of all the bombings.
Let’s pray together and stay united in spite of the many upheavals in our world.
Love to you all,