Jean laughing in front of birthday cake

October 2018

90 years old! My God, I can scarcely believe it. I have such a desire to shout out my thanks! First, to God who is at the source of my life. I have been a poor, little child of God since the first moment of my life, secret and hidden in the womb of my mother. It was the moment of my primal innocence before all my reactions of fear, of aggression and especially of guilt, which are born when this primal innocence is wounded.

I especially thank my mom and my dad. To avoid having a miscarriage and risk losing me, my poor mother had to spend at least three months in a small hotel in Paris, far from my dad who was working in Switzerland. She suffered greatly from the isolation. Finally, my birth happened and then, the birth of my Christian life through baptism. Yes, thank you to my parents!

Thank you to my community of L’Arche in Trosly, and thank you to Christine McGrievy, our leader. We celebrated my 90th birthday so well. It was so beautiful, so happy, so festive and so prayerful. We began with a Eucharist celebrated by a longtime friend of L’Arche, Bishop Gerard Daucourt. After mass, we met for a magnificent aperitif with the whole community and friends, mostly from different parts of France but some from farther afield.

The big celebration was in the afternoon. It was animated by Hoda Sharkey and Hazel Bradley with songs and skits that recounted the major moments of my story.

Frédéric Dethouy mimicked me wonderfully in the important stages of my life: joining the Navy followed by my leaving to follow Jesus, and the birth of the little community of L’Arche. He also mimed that moment when I removed my tie and put on a blue jacket! There followed various stages in the evolution of L’Arche: ecumenism thanks to Steve and Anne Newroth who founded L’Arche in Toronto, the foundation in India with Gabrielle Einsle and the discovery of our interreligious reality.

Little by little, we became aware of what a cardinal in Rome told us, “You at L’Arche, you have achieved a Copernican revolution! Until now, it was said that we must do good to the poor, but at L’Arche you say that it is the poor who do you good!” Perhaps today, I would say that it is not only people with disabilities but all those who have been humiliated and put aside who transform us if we enter into relationship with them.

L’Arche has grown, as has the beautiful community of Faith and Light that continues to develop around the world. Faith and Light was born during a pilgrimage to Lourdes in 1971, thanks to Marie-Hélène Mathieu, who heard the painful and urgent appeal of Loïc Profit’s parents. When they were on a pilgrimage in Lourdes, they were not accepted in the hotels because of Loïc and his brother Thaddée, both of whom had serious disabilities. With Marie-Hélène, we decided to do something. So the idea of a pilgrimage for people with disabilities, their parents and friends, was born.

The reason for the expansion of our L’Arche and Faith and Light communities is first and foremost the cry of so many people with disabilities around the world. This cry is an appeal: “Do you love me?’ This is the cry of many humiliated and vulnerable people, who feel alone and abandoned, and who are seeking an authentic, simple encounter; it is a cry that continues to resonate in our world.

In this way, our communities want to reweave humanity into a unity, where each person can find their true place, the weakest as well as the strongest, and where there is no more division or separation.

In this way, a new and universal humanity will be born in the hope that walls, fears and arrogance will collapse to make way for a song of love and universal brotherhood.

Yes, my 90th birthday party was truly a moment to give thanks. Thank you to each of you personally, thank you to each of our communities of L’Arche, Faith and Light, and so many others, for your wishes and prayers that will accompany me in the years to come. I know that new weaknesses, new forms of poverty and new losses are waiting for me. It will be the descent into what is essential, that which is most hidden in me, deeper than all the parts of success and shadow inside me. That will be all that remains when all the rest is gone. My naked person, a primal innocence which is awaiting its encounter with God. Thank you for your prayers which accompany me in the descent into this treasure, the deepest part of my being.

Now for the news of my holiday in August and what has been happening since my last letter.

At the beginning of August

The summer was marked by the burning sun, the brilliant sun, the dazzling sun ... the heat wave, 30 to 38°C everywhere in France. I escaped to our L’Arche community in Ambleteuse near the English Channel, where the temperature hovered around 23° C. Odile Ceyrac and I were lodged in the little house of Father David Wilson and so warmly welcomed by Michèle Dormal.

A peaceful time, walks by the sea, beaches, a paradise for children and families. In the evening the sun went down very slowly and humbly behind the horizon of the sea, giving way to the night. Alas, the moon was hidden on the other side of the earth: the moon which is so gentle, so humble, reflecting the light of one which is greater than itself. We are all so small before this universe with all the stars, the sun and the moon on which earthly life depends. Do you know that every year this great sun loses some of its heat and its light? One day it will go out entirely after many billions of years. One day the cosmos had its beginning, and one day it will end. Everything is so big and so small. For us human beings there is also a beginning and an end. There is the moment of fertilization in the womb of our mothers and then the day of our death. And at the source of everything, there is God, so great and at the same time so little and so humble in the face of our freedom.

Father David was the priest of our community in Ambleteuse for more than 30 years. He is now 80 years old and he is in a particular state of weakness, sometimes a little lost. Today he lives in a secure retirement home. He has descended into this weakness by entering into a spirit of childhood, a childhood in God, a presence of Jesus who is gentle and humble. In order to enter the kingdom of God, the kingdom of love, you have to become like that. We are all born in weakness and the end of our lives is a return to weakness, dependence, needing tenderness and protection. Becoming weaker gives the deepest meaning of our humanity. Father David lives this painful weakness, but with his big smile of peace and love.

Later around August 16th

After the freshness of the sea, I am at the monastery of Orval in prayer with the monks. The heat wave retreated and the swallows, back from Africa, resumed their song of life. I feel at home in this monastery: a paradise of peace and silence. The monks, brothers whom I have known for more than 30 years, are always praying for L’Arche and for our world; they are always looking for ways to help people deal with the fear that locks individuals, groups, countries in on themselves and prevents freedom of heart. Yesterday evening, the moon returned from her trip around the earth, a radiant light: she is so humble and gentle, encouraging us to trust. She is so beautiful, I would love to talk with her and listen to her.

Back to Trosly in early September

From Orval I went to the south-west of France to Odile’s family. With her I visited the caves of Lascaux. It was an extraordinary visit that moved me a lot, opening my heart, mind and spirit. The caves were chanced upon in 1945 because there was a young man from the region whose dog was chasing a rabbit. The rabbit fled into a hole and the dog made the hole bigger, and that bigger hole revealed the entrance to a cave. Then this cave led to another cave and then yet another.

Extraordinary wall-paintings of horses, reindeer, bison, leopards and other animals were discovered. The scientists studying the paintings concluded that these caves were around 20,000 years old. Yes, 20,000 years! These paintings were made by men and women of such humanity and extraordinary wisdom. I remained speechless in these caves, before these paintings, and in the presence of certain symbols that one cannot understand.

There was a time when human life began on our earth and a time when it will come to an end. Between these two points, civilizations and societies grow up, religions, human groupings which are so varied, each revealing an aspect of human beauty. Today, we are in a period when there are so many fears and at the same time hope. L’Arche, Faith and Light and so many other communities and groups sail on this great ocean of humanity, offering a way towards peace and unity.

After the days of celebration for my birthday, in Trosly, I have resumed peaceful days with mornings devoted to prayer, reading the Bible and other books. I am helped by Odile, by the members of La Ferme and by Widad Bisher, who are supporting me. Every day I walk for at least 30 minutes to keep my legs in shape. I meet some people in the late afternoon. Sometimes I make short 4-minute videos to transmit what I have learned at L’Arche over all these years. I am living a time of peace. I would like to live every moment in love without any other project. To wait for what God and fragility will give me on this downward path.

I leave you until the next letter, thanking you once again for your wishes and prayers, and asking the forgiveness of any I have hurt over the course of all these years.

Jean

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