One of the joys of interviewing leading Catholics is that you sometimes catch a batsqueak of holiness: An unusual peace, say, or extra-terrestrial wisdom. You often meet it in an insight, a paradox, something that “flips the omelette,” as Pope Francis likes to say.
But most often it’s a person. A couple of times I’ve afterwards thought: “So that’s what a saint is.”
Once was in 2004 when I went to Trosly-Breuil, a village north of Paris at the edge of a forest where the L’Arche community started, to meet its founder, Jean Vanier, who is now 87.
A French-Canadian who as a young British navy officer had witnessed the horrors of of war, Vanier in the early 1960s visited a mental institution in France in the company of a Dominican priest. Horrified by the loneliness and violence suffered by the “idiots,” as they were known, he invited two of them, Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux, to come and live with him in a cottage in Trosly.
He was in his mid-thirties then. Soon they moved to a larger house, the Val Fleuri, with many more residents, and L’Arche was born. It has since been in incessant expansion: There are currently 151 communities in 47 countries.
But it’s not the growth of a place, as much as a way of seeing. In recognizing their humanity and need of love, L’Arche has revolutionized care for a whole category of human beings, doing for the disabled what the hospice movement – another Christian revolution – has done for the terminally ill.
It wasn’t just Vanier moving the mentally disabled out of institutions; that became state policy in most western countries. But “care in the community,” as it is called in the UK, has so often meant little care and no community, swapping the hell of an institution for another hell of isolation. People with mental disabilities are among the most rejected and lonely of our modern urban poor.
What Vanier saw was the deep need of the disabled for community, for love and friendship. In creating a space for getting to know them as people, he began to realize that L’Arche was not just for their benefit. Their unique gifts contained deep human lessons that he has spent a lifetime sharing in books and talks.
It is what Evangelii Gaudium means by not just evangelizing the poor but being evangelized by the poor. That sounds like a slogan until you’ve seen it – as I did in 2004.
I had gone to interview Vanier about a new little book he had just produced on peace, but my journey was a disaster. It was just two days after a devastating Islamist attack on a Madrid train, and the world was crackling with fear and anxiety. My train from London to Paris was held for hours outside the channel tunnel because of rumors of a terrorist attack.
I eventually arrived in Trosly hours late, furious and frustrated, devastated to have missed my appointment with a busy and important man. I was – to use one of Vanier’s favorite words – anguished.
But not for long. That evening he couldn’t have been kinder or more soothing, making me soup in his cottage, putting me at ease and inviting me to spend the whole of the next day with him, for what turned out to be a mixture of one-to-one conversation and spending time in the foyers, as the centers are known, eating with the “residents.”
I never expected to see what I saw that day captured so brilliantly as in a new British film. ‘Summer in the Forest’ is a slow-burning, at times tear-inducing, but always joyful documentary that takes us into the heart of L’Arche through the lives of some of the early residents with whom Vanier first built the community, as well as others who came later.
To tell those stories, the director allows them to communicate in myriad ways. We eavesdrop on them waking up, shaving, strolling, acting out what’s in their head, or just in conversation. As the director, Randall Wright, puts it, “the whole film is shot more like a fully orchestrated fiction film to give them the production values they deserve but are rarely given.”
As I found that day in Trosly, the world of the disabled is, at first, grotesque: Eyes roll in heads, people scream or act dementedly. But what causes us to recoil is in us; they are fragile people in need, and we flee them because we flee fragility.
But we can move from horror to pity. Then, if we allow ourselves to get closer, we feel compassion; we want to help.
Then comes a third stage, which Vanier calls wonderment, or communion; it is the stage of conversion, when we rejoice to discover that we are one, brother and sister.
That communion is what ‘Summer in the Forest’ bottles and shares. It’s about freedom, foolishness, and friendship. It’s the joy we’re all looking for.
Vanier has spoken often about how at first, back in 1964, he was a Catholic acting out of generosity. But he came to see that such generosity, while worthy, is really an attempt to stay the same, whereas communion — if we allow it — converts us.
It is the particular gift of the disabled, he told me, “to lead us into communion.”
I have my notes still. “It is better to have an atheist who is really attentive to people’s disabilities,” he told me, “than a good Catholic who is frightened of them.” Once people are willing “to go down into their depths” they discover that “the Scriptures are all about heart, about love,” he said. “Jesus will reveal himself to them without telling them his name.”
First comes this experience – available to anyone – of love, and of light, and of joy. “Only afterwards,” he says, “do we have to start naming things.”
‘Summer in the Forest’ lets us into the lives of people who are different and strange and then awakens us to their loveability and their lovingness.
L’Arche is not a utopia, Vanier says in the film, but a “hope.” The pain remains. Locked away in autism or psychosis, and having often been treated very badly by their families or society, the disabled often act out violently, especially when they first come to L’Arche.
“In the psychiatric hospital, there was nothing to do — just sit on your arse all day doing sod all,” recalls Philippe Seux, spinning slowly in a wheelchair. “When some lads misbehaved, they were given injections to calm down. It was quite a relief to be out of there, I can tell you.”
Philippe doesn’t need to say what it has been like at L’Arche; his smiles and contentment speak for him. But Michel Petit does. A 75-year-old with a barrel body and rolling eyes who was often beaten at the institution from which he was rescued, he tells the camera: “Jean Vanier is a man who loves us very much. He loves me very much. He taught me about calm.”
I remember Vanier taking me to one of the foyers for the profoundly disabled, who can only communicate through often violent signs. There he gently held and fed a deeply autistic, dribbling and apparently angry man called Loïc. Later, during prayer time, Loïc rested on Vanier’s chest, a little smile on his face. Gradually, he calmed. No words had passed, because none were needed.
In “Summer in the Forest’ there is a moment like that, when a young man, Sebastian, is taken for a medical check-up on the motorized bed where he spends his days, unable to speak, his limbs no use, head lolling.
Afterwards, he is with Vanier, who just looks on him, his face lit with love. There is silence.
“Dear Sebastian, you are very beautiful,” says Vanier eventually, in his French-flecked, patrician English. Sebastian’s face is wreathed in smiles.
“There is in each of us that little child yearning for peace and love,” he says later.
Fear of relationship, Vanier told me, begins from the first moment we touch “anguish,” the experience of separation, difference and rejection. Anguish hurts; the temptation is to run away. Communion comes from working through the anguish – which is hard, and takes time.
“It’s a long road,” is how he puts it in the film. “In L’Arche,” he says at one point, “we want to be experts in presence – in taking time to become who we are called to be.”
Because we resort to power to escape anguish, we end up in illusion. The unique gift to humanity of the disabled – and, in a broader sense, the poor – is that they do not have the escape route of power, and can help us convert to the truth.
“The weak and foolish have been chosen to confound the wise and powerful,” says Vanier in a voice-over. “The weak lead us to reality, whereas the wise and powerful lead us to ideologies.”
To make peace, we have to accept weakness. We have to renounce the illusion of power, autonomy, rivalry, ideology, and embrace communion – the hard truth but liberating truth that being human means being part of the same family.
It’s a huge challenge for our culture, which is in thrall to an ideology of equality but which through abortion is systematically eradicating an entire class of people who are not accepted as equal at all.
The lesson of L’Arche suggests that this is not just a tragedy for them, but for us. The drive for human perfection – gene editing, and the like – is the road to our ruin. Without the poor and the disabled and the unwanted to call us back to what it means to be human, we are destined, all of us, to extinction.
‘Summer in the Forest’ is about the love of disabled people. But it’s much more about the conversion we all need to undergo, renouncing the resort to power which we use to mask our fragility, and to learn to give and accept love, and so save the world.
“What is it be to be a human being? Is it power? If so, we’ll kill each other,” says Vanier with devastating simplicity.
Or what? The film gives us a tour of it, culminating in a betrothal of two of the residents that turns into a feast of agape presided over by the white-haired, deaf-aid-wearing saint.
It’s impossible to describe. But when you see it, you’ll know. It’s how we should all spend our summers.
[Summer in the Forest is currently being shown in UK cinemas, and can be bought and downloaded at www.summerintheforest.com]