Today, Helen Barry generously offers us this window into her experience of Jean Vanier and L’Arche:
When asked to write something about Jean Vanier and his impact on my life, my first thought was “wow there’s so much.”
I heard about him first in 1976 from a long-standing friend of mine. Almost immediately I felt like “there is something here for me”. I went to Trosly in France the home of the first L’ Arche community in the Summer of 1977. In Trosly there were many L’Arche houses where assistants and people with disabilities lived and shared their lives together. I loved the sense of mutuality between people with disabilities and assistants. They were all just people living their lives together. The key part was the relationship between people in a non-patronizing and non-judgmental way. Another key was that each of us have disabilities….some are just more visible than others.
As I continued to live my life as a teacher in Ireland, and to do my own personal work, struggling to find meaning in my life, my connections with Vanier and L’Arche continued. I was really searching to figure out what to do with my life and on a personal level I struggled with the question, “Could I be happy as a little person in the world… and where did God fit into all this?”
I saw that the people with disabilities were often, not always, quite happy and I realized that in the end it was love that changed them from unhappiness to happiness. Finally, in 1993, much to the chagrin of my family, I decided to quit my permanent and pensionable job and I came to live in L’ Arche Calgary where I lived in one of the houses and received a small stipend. I knew that in a way this made no sense, but it really seemed right internally. It seemed to be what I had been searching for. The community had been built on “God will provide” and I reckoned that this would be true for me too.
One of our favourite songs in the community at that time was “I come like a beggar with a gift in my hand”. I felt like this was the story of my soul…and I wasn’t even sure about the gift! In my early days I watched avidly the relationships and observed carefully to see how assistants worked with people with disabilities.
I lived with Rosie who has been mentioned in PartnerConnect many times. She and I connected quickly. I realized early on that she loved me as she spoke almost daily. As in all friendships there were ups and downs but she always seemed to come back to “I still love you”, a balm for my wounds as I knew that I too let her into my heart and somehow we were both held in God.
One of the most endearing things for me was that Rosie knew how to look out for me. Almost daily she would move the milk from the top shelf of the fridge where it was out of my reach to a lower shelf. As she moved it, she would mutter something about Helen. Many times I helped her to put words on what she was doing by asking, “Are you moving the milk so I can reach it?” “Yes” was her answer. Somehow, she knew how to act on her love for me. In contrast, I had requested assistants to please put the milk on the lower shelf…but to no avail. Vanier said many times that we are changed in our relationships with people with disabilities. I have found this to be implicitly true. There is no guile in Rosie – she just loves me.
Having left L’Arche a few years ago, I continue to work with people with disabilities and I continue to marvel at Vanier’s message. He was giving a retreat in Ireland one time in the early eighties and I was one of the organizers. The location we had chosen was not as quiet as we had been promised. I went to Jean quite upset and feeling badly. He looked at me gently and said, “What is given is good”. I often think of that as I journey through my own ups and downs. What an accepting way to see life.
Thank you, Helen, for offering us this gift.