Yesterday Stephan told us: “There is a past and a future.” And Patrick told us about the importance of the ‘prehistoric’ times, because there is a history and a pre-history. The pre-history prepares for the history.
You know that I was a naval officer. I joined the navy in 1942, in the middle of the war. War is a terrible thing. We need to thirst for peace. I left the navy in 1950 and there are two encounters that shaped my pre-history.
The first one was with Jesus. I left the navy to follow Jesus and live the Gospel. I didn’t know where that would lead me. War is terrible. Who advocates life? Who wants life!
Jesus says: “I give you my peace, my peace I leave you.” And for Jesus, peace can only happen if the ones who are rejected find a place. Jesus came to bring good news to the poor. That’s why I left the navy, to follow Jesus.
The second encounter which has been very important for me was with Père Thomas. He was a man of God, he deeply moved me because while being with him, I felt I was closer to Jesus, with a desire to work for peace in a world where there is too much violence and too many wars.
The bond between Père Thomas and me was deep. Père Thomas told me that what was most important was to work for the ones who are the most rejected. He introduced me to the world of fragile people who lived in psychiatric hospitals and big institutions.
Many among you here suffered, were rejected, pushed aside, laughed at. You saw what it’s like not to be important. You were laughed at and pushed aside. Many of you who were sent to asylums, psychiatric hospitals, or were pushed aside, are here now.
The aim of L’Arche, inspired by Père Thomas and Jesus, is to combat all these sufferings that affect the most fragile people who are rejected. This is what L’Arche is about, to combat the rejection of so many people. Today, people are killed even before they are born, through abortion. So, today, we are celebrating life, the fact that we are alive.
So, there was the encounter with Jesus that taught me about peace, then the encounter with Père Thomas. Then, in an institution near Paris, I met Raphaël and Philippe. Abuse was the norm in that institution, it was closed, and there was no work activity. People were not allowed to go out.
We started to live together in a small house that was a bit run down. Then came Pierrot and Lucien. The meal was at the heart of our life together. We ate together, because Jesus said: “When you give a banquet, don’t invite your family members, your rich neighbours, your friends; when you give a good banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. Blessed are you if you do this.” Jesus doesn’t say that the guests will be blessed (because they had a good meal); it’s the ones who invite who are blessed.
To become friends with the poor is a truly heart changing experience. It has changed me a lot. I remember one of the things we liked to do: play jokes.
I’m going to tell you a story… Raphaël always had with him a mustard jar from which a little man with a funny face jumped out on a spring and just stared at you. I remember the day Monsieur Chassagne, the inspector (from Social Services) from Beauvais, visited. On that day, by chance, there was meat on the table. Raphaël was sitting next to Monsieur Chassagne. Carefully and a bit trembling, he gave him the mustard jar. Monsieur Chassagne opened the jar and whoops, the little man jumps out…I can really say we did laugh a lot.
I took Raphaël and Philippe out of this institution because it was an act of justice. There is too much injustice. And we are here to be deeply committed to work for more justice, more truth and more love in our world.
What I have found, and that is the most beautiful part of L’Arche, is that Raphaël, Jean-Pierre, Lucien changed me. As a naval officer, I was a rather serious guy, I wore a cap. You do serious stuff when you’re a naval officer, you don’t laugh much. After that, I followed Jesus and I was still a serious guy, saying my prayers and things like that, it was all rather serious.
And then, with Raphaël, Jean-Pierre, Lucien… how we laughed! I discovered that in the end, deep down I was to be a child, and this is at the very heart of each of us. We are all children.
Of course we grow up, we protect ourselves, we want to find a place in society, we will wish to be seen as important, but a child… what does a child need? He needs to be loved, he needs to be happy, not happy because he’s powerful, but because of being together with others, living together. Let’s be children who laugh and celebrate.
How is L’Arche a place of forgiveness and celebration? It’s not always simple to live together. We need to forgive each other and that is the secret: to learn to forgive each other while living together. And when we forgive each other, what a celebration! And that’s why we are here. We are here to celebrate 50 years of living together.
The biggest question for the human race is the one Jesus mentioned: “love one another as I have loved you.” It is the secret, but it’s a daily struggle, a struggle where one has to learn to forgive. It’s so true that it is a struggle.
With Raphaël, Philippe, with Jean-Pierre and each person there, we wanted to create a family. A family, yes and yet no… rather a community. There are two parts in a community. It’s a body. You remember what Stephan said yesterday; with all our communities and what Patrick said, all the communities around the world, we are part of a body, a body of brothers and sisters.
Belonging is important, but too much belonging and you kill freedom. We have to be both a place of personal freedom and a place of belonging. Too much freedom creates anxiety: “what’s going to happen?”. We have to cultivate both freedom and a sense of belonging, not the freedom to do anything and everything, but the freedom to be led away from fear, compulsions and some of the values that our society promotes which are individualistic and competitive. L’Arche is a community where we help each member to develop his/her potential. Each one…
Benjamin, do you remember, we lived in the same house when you arrived. Then after nine years, two things happened: the first one was that you wanted to know Jesus better… and you asked to be baptised – you did it freely, with that personal freedom… and then you said “I would like to go and live at Le Levain and live on my own.” It was a path to freedom for you. You made the free decision to follow Jesus and a free choice to leave Le Val to go to Compiègne and live in a house where you cook for yourself in the evening.
You became free, you are free but you belong to the community. You couldn’t become freer outside the community. And at the same time you have to grow in freedom, to have less fear, less anxiety, so that you can reach the maturity to which you are called.
L’Arche is about two things: to create a body where we are sharing the same values together and at the same time we are helping people to become free. How good to be together! Truly, it was good to be together. I found out that I was God’s child and we were forming a small community where we loved each other.
There was also Le Val Fleury, where Marc lived. After a while, I was asked to be house leader at Le Val. Those were the good old times. After that several things happened. Steve and Ann, a young Anglican couple, came from Canada. They became house leaders for Les Rameaux. After a while, they went back home and they started Daybreak, the first community in Canada, which was linked to the Anglican church and the ecumenical movement. So we discovered L’Arche as an ecumenical community. The story of Daybreak is extraordinary. Around that time, I had given a retreat about the Gospel in Toronto. After the retreat, one of the nuns, who was Mother Superior in a convent, came to me and said: “We have the noviciate available and we can give it to you.” Extraordinary… Daybreak was born from the gift of a piece of land and a house.
In France, there we were in Le Val Fleury. There were already quite a lot of us living there and we needed a place for a holiday. A small group of us went to Cognac. In Cognac, Carmelite sisters in a monastery prayed for us. Not long after that, a beautiful house was on sale at a low price, next to nothing. So, the 2nd community in the world was Daybreak, from a gift made to us. The 3rd one was La Merci, in Cognac.
Then I received a letter from someone in India, asking me to start a community in India, and Mira had to go back to India. Mira was leaving, but she didn’t want to leave L’Arche… so why not start a community in India, yes… why not?
I arrived in India at the beginning of November 1969, there I met a certain Major Ramashandra, who was Hindu and Gandhian, who said to me: “I can provide a house and a piece of land for you.” I went to visit the place with him, Mira and Gabrielle and… it was incredible, amazing!
That’s how, within a few years, we had four communities, a miracle, each house a gift from God. Later, other communities started in France. In Ambleteuse three houses were given to us. L’Arche grew because houses were given to us, and we had financial help from the Conseil Général [regional council]. It all grew without me willing. It wasn’t me who was making it grow, there were people who were hearing about L’Arche, about our project, and were giving us houses and land… It was God’s hand.
Stephan said yesterday: “We are facing something way bigger than we dare believe.” God’s hand… because God is wounded. God wants unity between all human beings, and we can’t celebrate humanity if the poorest and the weakest are excluded. So we must have a place to welcome those who are the weakest, those in wheelchairs, those who have difficulty speaking, walking, who can’t go to university, a place for them where life can be celebrated, because if we haven’t got this place, we can’t celebrate humanity, if the weakest are excluded.
That is God’s vision. God has a vision. We cannot celebrate without the weakest.
L’Arche started at the heart of the Catholic Church with Père Thomas, then Steve and Ann opened up the vision that other Christians, protestants, orthodox etc. believe in Jesus and that we have to work together to make our world just and true. That’s how L’Arche grew in ecumenism. This intensified significantly with my sister Thérèse and the L’Arche communities in the UK.
And then, L’Arche in India started – Gabrielle was the leader, she welcomed Joe Boy. I started to discover the mystery who was Mahatma Gandhi, a man of peace, a man who tirelessly worked for the ones who are the most excluded in the society, the ones who were considered Untouchable. He was a man of peace, he taught us how to love our enemy with a non-violent attitude, taught us how to love people even if they are against you, not with guns but with love, with respect… Mahatma Gandhi opened doors.
We found our origins in Jesus in the Catholic Church. We opened up gradually to Christians from other churches and little by little we became open to all humanity, men and women in search of truth as they seek God, as they seek unity between all human beings.
Today, what is extraordinary, is our community in Syria, with the war raging there, our community in Egypt, in Palestine, in Bangladesh – thanks to the Taizé Brothers who helped us start it. In L’Arche, our care is for truth, and for mercy for the weakest. We are together. Let’s commit ourselves to work together with others, with other religions.
I’d like to end with a reading. It’s a text written by Isaiah, a Jew, a very important man who inspired St John’s Gospel, a great Jewish prophet.
He said in the name of the Lord: “What does God like? What effort is needed? What do we have to do to please God?”
And this is what God says:
“[What pleases me] is to break unjust fetters, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free.”
Philippe, like Raphaël and others were the oppressed, and the battle to be fought in L’Arche is the battle to free the oppressed who have been oppressed because of their fragility.
And he continues.
“It is to share your food with the hungry.”
L’Arche is just that: to eat together, to be companions. Companions are people who eat bread together.
“To shelter the homeless poor.”
Many of the people we welcomed came from various institutions/hospitals etc. L’Arche meant they had a place to live.
“… If you see someone lacking clothes, to clothe him…
and to never turn away from your own kin.” If we see someone suffering, it’s our responsibility to welcome him.
If you do this, if you are a compassionate man, a woman of great kindness, “then your light will blaze out like the dawn and your wound be quickly healed over. Your justice will go ahead of you and Yahweh’s glory will come behind you.”
In St John’s Gospel, Jesus says: “It is the Father’s glory that you bear much fruit,” it is the glory of God that you bring life to the full to those who are depressed and oppressed.
To communicate life…
L’Arche wants to be the glory of God, the Joy of God because we are committed to work towards unity, so that people who are the most excluded find their rightful place, not only by caring for them, but by helping them to become free to make choices and to do good things in the community and in our society.
We are here to help each other; we are here to support each other, so that L’Arche can be a place where together we bring a little more peace, truth and justice into our world.
We have to fight against the promotion of individualism and competition. Of course, we need competent people, but we need more than that. We need community in order to work together, and L’Arche can be one of the places which bring light to our society and to our churches, because Paul said something: that God chose those who are fools and weak to shame the wise and the strong.
The work of God is to communicate a message of love which is very simple: simplicity and celebration.
Let’s become together children who celebrate life and who can be a sign for the World. Let’s celebrate, because we have learnt how to forgive, because we are free men and women who belong to a community where we can be sign of the love of God and a sign for humanity.
50 years have passed; the next 50 years are for you to carry on…"
--Jean Vanier, May 2, 2014
 Stephan Posner, National Leader for L’Arche en France
 Patrick Fontaine, International Leader
 Benjamin Letailleur is a young man with a learning disability, member of L’Arche Le Levain, who played a leading role in the encounter with Maylis de Almeida (Leader for Training Projects for L’Arche en France)
 Two Taizé Brothers were present in the audience in Paray-le-Monial
English translation provided by L'Arche International.
© L'Arche international 2014