“And in Ireland itself I think, it’s probably one of the few places where if you have a spirituality at a young age, you are not helped to show it. I would reckon if anything, you’d be more embarrassed to show it. Whereas, I mean I’ve been to Spain or France, and feck me pink, they’re 13, 14 and they’re not afraid to say that they love God. I mean, even I’m 50 and I’m afraid in public to say ‘yeah, I love God.’ I do it inside L’Arche, but if I was outside I’d be a bit tongue-tied. I’d say it, but by God, my heart would be thumping saying it.”
These were the colorful words of one member of L’Arche Kilkenny, who spoke with me while I was on a research trip over Christmas break to visit the L’Arche communities in Ireland. (The Nanovic Institute for European Studies generously provided the grant that funded the trip.) This female member of the community captures the beleaguered state of Catholicism in Ireland, as well as L’Arche’s gift of fostering faith.
L’Arche is an international federation of faith communities founded in France by Jean Vanier in 1964. They consist of homes where “core members”—those with intellectual disabilities—and “assistants”—volunteers from all over the world—live together in friendship and mutual help. Some communities also have workshops where core members and volunteers or paid staff spend their days doing handicrafts such as weaving, candle dipping, card printing and woodworking. In Kilkenny, core members and staff run a full café together in the heart of Callan town. The café is reputedly the most popular lunch spot in town.
L’Arche is Roman Catholic in origin, but came to understand itself as a faith community rather than an exclusively Catholic community through its experience of making homes with core members in countries where Christianity is in the minority. Vanier explains L’Arche’s spiritual development this way:
“L’Arche’s first seeds were planted in the earth of the Roman Catholic Church. Through God’s grace, other seeds were planted in other soils…It is good to remember that the interdenominational and inter-faith aspect of L’Arche was not one of its basic principles. L’Arche became ecumenical when it welcomed men and women with handicaps who belonged to different denominations and different religions. L’Arche wants to help all persons grow and deepen the faith they have received from their families, and be integrated into their specific churches or religious tradition. This means that L’Arche wants to walk humbly with different traditions, not create its own church with its own rules, worship, and liturgy.”
It is exactly this fidelity to the spiritual development of every individual in the context of her own faith tradition and life journey that gives L’Arche tremendous evangelical potential in Ireland. Statistics attesting to plummeting Mass attendance and public dissension from central Catholic doctrines describe the growing hostility towards Catholicism only in outline. More significant is the sense of furtiveness in articulating faith, the fear of speaking openly about one’s personal relationship with God or the ways in which the Holy Spirit has moved in one’s life.
For me, this materialized on a bus ride I took from Limerick to Killarney one summer. A blind woman boarded the bus and no one was helping her, so I invited her to sit next to me so I could tell her when we got to her stop. We spoke for more than an hour about all the places from which we had come to be going to Kerry. To tell that story, I could not help but mention the strange paths down which Jesus led me. In response, the woman told me amazing stories of God’s providential care for her since she had become blind. As we reached her town, she confessed astonishment at the way we both had been talking, explaining that she had not heard anyone speak so openly about God in more than a decade, and that it was refreshing, because it went to the relationship that is at the heart of her life.
A single anecdote could never capture the national condition of religion in Ireland in a systematic way to satisfy sociologists, but it does substantiate something that no amount of data can convey. It verifies the public resentment towards the institutional Church as well as the deep yearning for God among us and for fearless witness to God.
In a hidden way, L’Arche offers that. There are loud and joyful Masses in the workshop on Fridays in which core members serve on the altar and play as musicians. There is the enormous labyrinth in the back garden in Cork—a replica of the one on the floor of Chartres Cathedral—where core members and assistants quietly walk the prayer of their unfolding journey with God. There are spiritual accompaniers, who meet with community members on a regular basis to reflect on how God is present to them. The community has included not only Catholics, but Protestants, Muslims, Buddhists, seekers and those who do not acknowledge God. All are welcomed without agenda, and through that welcome, they are encouraged to grow in faith.
As one administrator in the L’Arche Cork community said, “I always explain to new volunteers that L’Arche is a faith community, and that means two things: that L’Arche is a gift from God, and that every person here is a gift from God.”
Some assistants are so drawn by the Catholic practices while in L’Arche that they ask to be received into the Church at Easter, with core members and staff serving as godparents. But whatever their journey, all assistants receive the gift of the core members and the presence and love they glimpse in them.
As the same aforementioned L’Arche Kilkenny community member described the spirituality of L’Arche: “It’s something about being who you are, with somebody else who is as they are….It’s a spirituality of being, not doing….I could come here, and I could be quite able, and I could do, but they don’t need doers, they need people to give them time. They need people to listen to them, they need people to give them time. It’s a spirituality of listening, caring, time-giving, of just being; it really is, of just being.”
Greer Hannan, ‘09, ‘14 MNA, was the Executive Editor of the Irish Rover in 2008-2009. She lived, worked and studied in Dublin, Ireland for two years. She will graduate from the Notre Dame MDiv program in 2015.