Thérèse and Benedict

September 2014

Dear friends,

So many of you wrote to me when my brother Benedict died, and again when my sister Thérèse died a month later. Thank you, thank you, for your love, your kindness and compassion. What touched me was the immensity of our large family spread over the world. Those who had been held in the love and godly wisdom of Benedict, those who have been close to Thérèse with her very wise competence, her gentle love and her beautiful sense of humour and laughter. There are of course many in L’Arche and Faith and Light who have been warmed, amazed and strengthened by her presence. For me it was almost normal that Thérèse should leave when Benedict left. Over the years he had been her support during so many of the lonely years as she lived in the center for old people run by the good Little Sisters of the Poor. Every Sunday and maybe more as he phoned her, he was her light, her consolation and her hope in the resurrection. No wonder she yearned and prayed to follow him. And she did this very quickly. I had spoken to Benedict on the phone when he was in hospital not too far from his monastery in Canada. I had asked him to wait for me if he should become less well. And so it was that I was at his bedside the day he died. He was lying there with his gentle almost laughing smile, giving life to those near him even in his pain. He was a gentle and holy monk for 68 years, seeking and radiating a presence of God. At one moment – O gentle man – he put his hand in my hand and there we rested and prayed together until his breathing and his heart stopped. I could not contain my tears; his doctor began to hand me Kleenex after Kleenex. I did not want to leave this quiet holding, this prayerful presence one to another, but of course I had to, for he had left this side of the river of visible life for the other side. The veil between the visible and the invisible is so thin, so slight. All his life he had been waiting for this moment and for the meeting with the One he loved and for whom he had given all his life. He had gone to the other side. Thank you big brother! Now I must get on with life here.

A month later Thérèse, who had fallen in her room in London, was taken to the hospital in which she had doctored for many years. The doctor treating her had difficulty understanding her desire to join Benedict. She, who had so wonderfully accompanied and gently doctored hundreds of people during the last moments of their life, was herself beautifully accompanied when the doctor who had been with her and loved her in the palliative caring world, suggested that she should be send back to the Little Sisters. I was with her in the hospital before she returned there, when she was in a terrible agony that no one could understand. It was painful for me and others. Her cry of “please, please”, was like a scream. Once back at the Little Sisters she found peace. I spoke to the palliative care doctor who was looking after her there during her last moments when she seemed more or less unconscious. I asked him how long he thought she would live. He answered that she had yet a spiritual work to be completed, a work of intercession. “She will leave when that work is completed”. She died gently the next day.

Her funeral was so beautiful. A fitting and, dare I say, a glorious fulfillment of the many years she had struggled and yearned for unity between churches. The funeral mass, celebrated by Father David Stanley, took place in the Anglican Cathedral of Canterbury with many, many of her friends and of people from L’Arche. She was buried in the little cemetery of Barfreston, the village where she began the first community of L’Arche in the United Kingdom in 1974. She lays there at rest with the first people whom she had welcomed in the community and who had departed for their Eternal Abode. Thérèse was a wonderful woman, a magnificent woman, compassionate and kind and such a competent doctor. She brought a great deal not just to the communities of L’Arche, which she had founded and coordinated in the United Kingdom and Northern Europe, but to all our communities in the federation. She struggled to ensure that our communities be places of growth and of welcome not just for those who have been welcomed because of their weaknesses and needs, but also for all those who came to assist and to be with them. Her heart yearned for unity for all Christians and all people. The song of her life and her pain was that “all may be one”.

Fifty years of L’Arche! The tender hand of God has led us all, called us all, has been with us all, as the years have gone by. Yes L’Arche is God’s work. God yearns for unity. God yearns that those who have been so often rejected and put aside because of their handicaps may be seen as valuable and important, in our society, churches and religions. They have so much to teach us all about what it means to be human: not to seek to be winners but rather to be gatherers of people into community and oneness. They call us to love and to open our hearts to all people, and to every person whatever the differences, and because of the differences. They call us to leave our prejudices, which tend to make us to see some people as more important while looking down on others, and rather to walk together towards the unity of our large human family. Yes, L’Arche is God’s work. I give thanks for this gentle hand of God for he has led us all from Raphaël and Philippe in Trosly to so many other people in the world who are living celebration and love.

Here in France, 2,000 of us gathered together in Paray-le-Monial in May to give thanks for our story, and for this gentle hand of God who has led us. Then in June, each community walked to another community to celebrate our oneness and give thanks. In September many, many will gather in the streets of Paris to sing and dance and celebrate and give thanks for those who are the weakest and who has given life to us and to so many others. Finally, those people from the founding communities of each and every country in the world will come together in Trosly where it all began and we will celebrate and give thanks to God for the work of peace that is L’Arche.

My days here in the monastery of Orval and the preceding days at the Carmel of Cognac, where the sisters for nearly 40 years have been praying for L’Arche and Faith and Light, have been gentle and silent. No telephone, no visits. I have been letting myself be lured into the silence, a silence which is a plenitude, a silence which forms my heart, a silence in which I can discover, without fear or moving away, my brokenness, but in which also I can find my healer, Jesus. Yes, it is God who heals my mind and my heart and calls me to inner wholeness and to peace.

I am celebrating my 86th birthday, how many birthdays to go? We will see. I do want to continue my journey of growth in love and acceptance of all I am, of my weaknesses and the gifts received. My journey to the final resting place of celebration in the Heart of God is ongoing. I realize more and more how little I know how to pray. Maybe all I can do is to offer myself and all that I am to Jesus and to wait for his gentle and tender coming.

Here I have been rereading a beautiful book by Frances Young, a Methodist minister and the mother of Arthur, a man with a very serious disability. It is her story and Arthur’s story. Even more, it is an excellent theology around the reality of those with disabilities: the meaning of their lives and their call in the vision of God, the meaning of loss and a road to God. Over the years, Frances Young and David Ford have each been close to L’Arche and to Faith and Light. They have helped us put words to, and find meaning in, what we are all living. The book is called “Arthur’s call” and is printed by SPCK in London.

I am writing the final lines of this long letter by the sea in Ambleteuse. Friends lent me and Odile their house (thank you, Odile, for looking after me and seeing that I don’t fall on my face) – a beautiful villa with a magnificent view of the sea, rolling in and out on the beach. Ships slipping by and the seagulls gliding along with the wind or winging their way against it, all the time with their strident crying: Kè-èh or kiau. The sun, like the clouds, has come and gone. It was wonderful to see how beaches become a children’s paradise. Here in a special way God is present through the magnificent creation. The sea is so much in movement, so strong, at times a bit angry, and at other times so gentle. All here is like a reflection of the power and littleness of God, where the big and the little come together to form unity. Now I leave to continue the journey of life of retreats, of meetings, and of prayer in Trosly.

In gratitude,

Jean

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