Jean

DSCF0184On 7th May 2019, at 2.10am, Jean Vanier died.

He was my beloved teacher and friend. I think there are probably thousands of people throughout the world who can say the same, but it doesn’t make it any less true. Jean had an extraordinary gift of meeting people, listening to and being present to them, as though they were they only person in the world, and a person of great value and beauty. I last saw him in September 2018, on the eve of his 90th birthday. Mass was about to start, and as I greeted him I said ‘Just time to give you a kiss and wish you a happy birthday’. ‘Aren’t we lucky?’, he replied.

I first knew Jean through his writings in 1971. I was in a youth group at my church and we read ‘Tears of Silence’. I was profoundly moved by it, and it has shaped my entire life. In 1979 ‘Community and Growth’ was published, and I knew then that I wanted to live in community – though for some reason, at that time, I didn’t think it would be L’Arche.

I first met Jean in person when I went to live in L’Arche in Trosly in 1985. I was walking along the road and realised he was just ahead of me. Not sure whether to speed up and say hello, or slow down and avoid him out of shyness, I was dithering when he turned round and greeted me. ‘I don’t think we’ve met yet. I’m Jean’. Soon after, I had cooked a silly lunch for my L’Arche household, who loved Disney Channel on the TV. There were swans made out of eggs and mashed potato (I don’t remember how!!), swimming on a lake of peas. My house leader Chi Chi arrived home with Jean in tow. ‘I hope you don’t mind, I’ve invited Jean to lunch’, she said. I didn’t mind, of course, but I did feel a bit daft serving him swans.

That was the first of many meals shared with Jean. Over the next thirty years I translated for L’Arche International meetings, and so ate with him – and others of course – all over Europe, and in the Dominican Republic, Honduras and India. Particular memories include a tortilla making contest with the L’Arche community in Tegucigalpa, which Jean won despite making the worst tortilla of the lot.

C_005_31AOn a pilgrimage to the Holy Land we drank wine together in Cana (which of course was cheap and disgusting coloured water for the tourists, but Jean was game). It was a wonderful and moving experience to hear Jean speak about St John’s Gospel – which he loved very much – at the places where Jesus lived and taught. I loved that there was also room for a bit of fun.

When I lived in L’Arche in Trosly, I had the opportunity to meet Jean’s mother, known to all as Mamie (Granny) Vanier. She welcomed all new English speaking assistants to a lovely meal, an opportunity to speak English, and to indulge in chat about mutual acquaintances, mainly from the Jesuit world. I still remember that the meal was steak and chips followed by chocolate mousse – not usual fare in L’Arche. Later, when I arrived in L’Arche London UK, then L’Arche Lambeth, I met and went on to become friends with his sister Therese. Much less well known than Jean, Therese was an exceptional woman, bringing L’Arche to the UK and playing an important role in both palliative care and ecumenism. She died in 2014 and is much missed.

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As well as seeing Jean at meetings, and going to talks he gave, I also went on many of his retreats, deeply inspired by his vision of every human person as someone of value, with a mission to bring peace and tenderness to our world. Later, I would visit him in his home, first the little cottage beside the original L’Arche home, and in recent years as his mobility diminished his new home beside the chapel in Trosly. Sometimes he would ask me to make tea as ‘English people know how to make tea so much better than French people’. I once had the responsibility of driving him across London to catch a train, and it was rather nerve racking!

It seems very fitting that I was once again on retreat in Trosly just days after his funeral. For L’Arche goes on, in all the little moments of daily life and friendships, and it’s good to be reminded of what we live and why we live it. It will, nonetheless, be a bit harder to live without Jean by our side.

Fare well, dear teacher and beloved friend.

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Home

I’ve been thinking a lot about home these past few days. What is is? Where is it? And what makes somewhere feel like home? As a house leader in L’Arche, I’ve thought a lot over the years about what makes a house a home for other people, but maybe not so much about what makes home for me.

One of the places I felt at home, on Easter Day, is All Saints Church, West Dulwich. Since arriving in L’Arche 30 years ago, this local Anglican church has been somewhere I’ve prayed and felt very much at home, even though I’m not an Anglican. While I lived in the Vine I used to go to a small intimate celebration of the Eucharist at 7am on a Wednesday. The group was made up of people from L’Arche, both Anglicans and Catholics. The same group, with others, would share in a Catholic Eucharist on a Tuesday afternoon in L’Arche. The two were part of our commitment to, and exploration of ecumenism. I also supported Sylvia to go to All Saints on Sundays, and it became an important part of our friendship. (I always remember Sylvia especially at the Easter vigil, because one year I glanced away for a moment and she accidentally set her hair alight with her Easter candle – luckily no harm was done, except to her fringe). More recently, for the past many years the vicar, David, has been a member of L’Arche and very actively encouraging of L’Arche members in the parish and beyond. He moved to a new parish last year but All Saints continues the commitment to L’Arche, and the welcoming of all its members. So there I was yesterday, sitting next to Carol’s friend Peter, rejoicing in the light and the lilies – and the golden balloons, which Carol would have loved. Some of the at-homeness is to do with people, but some is in the very bricks of the building. In this place, maybe it’s because of the story they tell, of the fire at Pentecost 2000 and the subsequent rising from the ashes to a beautiful marriage of new and old.

And then there was L’Arche. On Saturday I celebrated 30 years as a member of L’Arche London, and it was good to do so there, and with my friends of many years. Such a strong sense of home in the familiarity of the traditions. On Thursday, we were again at All Saints. On Friday, once more, as we prayed around the Cross and shared our stories. And then on Easter Sunday we gathered at Gothic Lodge as we used to gather at the Vine, to hear the ‘end’ – or the beginning – of the story, as David and Hazel spoke to us of Easter, and we saw the Cross transformed into a symbol of resurrection and new life. We’ve often done it with flowers before, but ribbons were lovely too. So the being at home can have a new shape, but must have continuity with what was essential.

On Saturday I had coffee with a friend of many years in a secret garden. I can’t tell you where, or it wouldn’t be secret, would it? Here, the sense of home was held not by the place, but by our shared experiences, the stories we tell: ‘Do you remember when….?’

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On Saturday night I went to the Easter vigil at St William of York church in Forest Hill. To my delight I was able to sit with ‘Faith‘. We’ve probably shared this very special celebration twenty times. The music is exceptional. Everyone sings their hearts out. There is community,  and celebration. This too is a place where I feel at home.

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And after all that, the familiarity of so many years shared, I came home. Home to my new home, of not even three years yet. So what makes it home? Oscar the cat, for one. The colours and the things I have chosen. The fact that it’s as clean and as tidy (or untidy) as I want it to be – one of the constant challenges in community! I’m very happy to come back to the beautiful countryside and coast, the gentler pace of the town, and to newer friends. In a way I wish it could all be in the same place…. but it isn’t. For now, I’m happy to be at home in Dorset, and in L’Arche.

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Visiting friends living and dead

I’ve come to L’Arche London for Easter. This morning I sat in West Norwood cemetery in the company of thirteen friends who have died. Michelle’s and Carol’s ashes are not yet there, and Therese, Shirley, Marion and Doris are elsewhere. It’s a beautiful place, the sun was shining and the birds were singing. I was moved and surprised by the number of other people visiting graves on this Good Friday morning.

At first, I couldn’t find Sylvia. I was taken aback by how much this mattered. After all, she died nine years ago, so what possible difference does it make. And yet it triggered a sense of loss all over again, and I was very relieved to find her and her companions.

So many stories! Memories of shared adventures, laughter, holidays, tears.

The trauma of Brian’s death, for he was missing for eight days before his body was found in the River Thames. The gentleness of Primrose’s death, four years after we first thought her dying was imminent. The fish and chip party we held at which Terry told his friends he was going to die. So many different ways to come to the end of a life, but each person loved, celebrated, and mourned.

On the way out of the cemetery, one last grave to visit.

I didn’t know ‘little Brian’. He died in 1981, eight years before I came to L’Arche in London. But every year I’ve heard the stories told of how he – being very short sighted – was a man who saw with the eyes of his heart. The picture I have of him is the one we’ve looked at, a small man with pebble glasses peeping round a door. I love that he is remembered by so many people – mainly, now, by people who never met him – because he lived in a L’Arche community.

The rest of the weekend will be with living friends. On Thursday we washed each other’s feet, as Jesus did. In my small group we had 199 years of L’Arche between us. Last night we gathered around the Cross, and listened to four community members sharing very movingly what the Cross means in their lives. Tears were shed, songs were sung, and we felt closer to one another and to God. There have been a couple of trips to the pub with a variety of community members, old and new. Today, the 30th anniversary of my arriving in L’Arche London, I’ll spend with one of the people I first supported, over 40 years ago. And tomorrow we’ll meet again as a community to celebrate the resurrection.

Happy Easter!

Green

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Purple, white, yellow and green.
Bluebells, as far as the eye can see.
Wild garlic, of pungent aroma.
The vibrant yellows of dandelion and rapeseed.

But oh, the greens!
Lime green, olive green, pea green, sea green, tree green….
Larch green, beech green, ash green, oak green,
Grass green, hedge green, willow green.
Tulip leaf green, sycamore green, elm green,
Bright, light, soft, dark.
Lavender green, azalea green, new growth green,
Ivy green, signpost green –

Everywhere I look,
The colours of hope and promise.

Old friends

I’ve just had a friend from L’Arche to visit for a few days. Let’s call her Faith, for the sake of her privacy. And she is, after all, a woman of great faith. Faith has severe learning disabilities, is blind, and appears to have an autism spectrum condition, though I’m not sure she’s ever been diagnosed with this. That – of course  – doesn’t begin to describe her! She came to L’Arche when I was a new assistant. I visited her in her previous home, a small bungalow in the grounds of a big long stay hospital, where she had lived since the age of four. She was clearly the life and soul of the household, playing singalong favourites on the piano and chatting enthusiastically with the nurse, as none of her three housemates used verbal language.

She arrived in L’Arche in 1989 and quickly took her place in the community. As well as a musician, she proved to be a talented worker, at first making baskets, and later weaving mats, book covers and stoles with amazingly straight edges. She also proved to be a woman who loved adventures in general and holidays in particular. Early excursions were a week spent walking to Canterbury, and a month’s holiday in which we drove to Hungary (and back), in which time we visited eight countries and had a huge range of experiences, all of which she faced up to with fortitude and excitement, though she very reasonably drew the line at watermelon for breakfast on a campsite in East Germany.

Sharing these adventures with her, she and I became good friends. For about twenty years we were partners in L’Arche’s ‘Faith Groups’, a sort of space for prayer and deepening relationship with God. We went on more holidays than I can count, often to France where she would respond to hearing ‘Bonjour!’ by ‘Hello, Boy George’. Well, how would you know?! So now, in my retirement, she’s just had her second holiday in my new home. Certain elements were obligatory, eating fish and chips at the seaside, going to the cafe, shopping for a bangle (‘A BIG one!’). We also went to an animal park where she bravely fed animals she couldn’t see, and loved the sound of the braying donkey.

One of the things I most love about Faith is her openness to new things. I’ve always thought that if I had her challenges in negotiating the world I would probably sit in a chair and have a really boring life, because I’d be too scared to do anything else. She is so completely the opposite. She chooses rides at the funfair by where people are screaming the loudest. Only occasionally does she balk at something, like the tent in East Germany. ‘It’s a tent, Faith’, I said. She felt the canvas tent wall. ‘It’s a sheet, Louise! Go indoors, please!’. Well, indeed.

It’s been a lovely few days. It’s so good to spend time with old friends.

Prayer in Dorset

In the past few days I’ve been to several times of prayer, very different from one another and all interesting and unusual.

The first was on Sunday morning. My church, the Catholic church in Bridport, has recently made a prayer garden behind the main building. It has a rather lovely simple statue of Mary, the mother of Jesus, some simple benches, and lots of flowers, though there are more to come. After Mass, the parish gathered with the priests and deacon to bless the new garden. Candles, incense and holy water, it was a very Catholic occasion. Yet also very natural, to be in the sun with the sound of birdsong all around. I do love this parish. The priest is an exceptional man who is friendly and often jolly, and able to have a belly laugh. We also have the privilege of having with us a retired priest, who spent his working life in the Solomon Islands. And a deacon too, a family man, ordained last year. In these days of clergy shortage we are blessed to have an abundance!

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On Sunday afternoon we had a time of prayer with songs from Taizé. It’s a monastic community of brothers, in Burgundy in France. I lived there for almost five years, from 1984. It was a wonderful time, and it’s very special to still be in touch with many of my fellow volunteers, thirty five years later. The community of Taizé is made up of almost a hundred brothers, from many different nationalities and church traditions. Since 1966, young people have been coming to Taizé in huge numbers, with two or three thousand a week being present throughout the summer, and at least several hundred all year round. The music has evolved so that the visitors can be fully included and participate in the common prayer, and is now mostly simple repetitive chants in different languages. Many churches and choirs enjoy singing Taizé music, all over the world.

 

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Anyway, in Bridport there is a time of prayer with music from Taizé twice a year, in Lent and Advent. The Advent service is held in the United Church during its Christmas Tree Festival, a very splendid occasion. The Lent service is held in my church, the church of St Mary and St Catherine. This year, the parish priest was unable to attend, as was the deacon. I was asked to say the words of welcome at the beginning and a blessing at the end. It didn’t seem right to do so in my usual clothes, oddly, though I’m all for the ministry of the laity and have absolutely no desire to be a pseudo-cleric. So I wore the simple white robe I wear as an altar server. The response was really interesting. One man, not a parishioner, came up to me in tears, telling how he’d stopped attended a Catholic church 18 years ago because women were not present in ministry, and how moved he was when I spoke a blessing. I was left personally moved by the whole experience.

And finally, yesterday I attended the funeral of the late station manager of NCI Lyme Bay, at Higher Ground Meadow, the local natural burial ground. As a member of the Coastwatch, I was part of the guard of honour as she arrived – in a jeep, having first visited her donkeys so they could say a last farewell. Forty watch keepers formed the guard, and I felt privileged to be one of them.

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The funeral was mostly humanist, with a Buddhist ritual at the beginning and the end. The building – it’s not exactly a chapel, as it’s used for many different traditions, has full length windows looking out onto the meadow and beyond, at an amazing view over Dorset, Somerset, and into Wiltshire. It was good to hear of Judi’s life and service to others. in the NCI and in many other ways.

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The view certainly helped me to think of eternity, and the glory of God.

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#Taizé #Dorset #Bridport #Catholic

Another funeral

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Today I was at yet another funeral. This one was in my church, and I was serving on the altar. The lady who has died was in her late nineties, the matriarch of a large family, and obviously much loved. Her family were there to say their farewells. There was solemn recorded music at the beginning and the end. It was a solemn and dignified service, simple, and formal. There were a number of symbols that I gather are traditional in the Catholic church, though I hadn’t come across them before. Covering the coffin with a pall, white with joyful, coloured embroidery, a symbol of resurrection. There was a book of the Gospels and a cross placed on the coffin too. And people wore black.

So this is how other people do it! After the extravaganzas that were Carol’s and Michelle’s funerals, I was fascinated to experience something else. There is, of course, no right or wrong, no better or worse. Just different.

I was surprised, though I shouldn’t have been, that being at another funeral made me feel sad about Carol and Michelle all over again. And next week yet another – this one a humanist celebration at the natural burial ground. We will be honouring an important member of the National Coastwatch Institution, standing guard in our uniforms as she arrives. It will be interesting, and I suspect rather moving and very lovely.