How not to think, today, of the Ukrainian people, victims of a brutal aggression and an unjust war ? Like you perhaps, we are asking ourselves how to act for peace and, like you perhaps, we are first of all praying, because we believe that this is a path of solidarity, and that it is within our reach. Cultivating peace around us, cultivating peace within us, cultivating peace in our inner life seems more necessary than ever. This month, Hoda Aouad-Sharkey has taken on the exercise of telling us how she nurtures an inner life... an inner life with a real personality and a penchant for writing. A long-time member of L'Arche and Lebanese, Hoda has lived through a war, in her own homeland. In these troubled days, may her contribution to Inner Life help us find some kind of peace in our own lives. Have a good read ! With you in prayer for peace,
Tim and all the team at La Ferme
My inner life is a wild animal, self-willed and indomitable. I have to sidle upto her softly, welcome the intensity of her presence and find ways of taming her while knowing that she will never become house-trained. My inner life dislikes noise, excitement, worldliness, fatuity, vanity and motorway boutiques. She prefers silence, solitude, the crashing of waves on a beach, the flutter of a bird's wings and grocers who remember my name. My inner life escapes my grasp: I invite her to share my daily prayer: sometimes, she condescends to join me, sometimes not.
We become close when I’m writing. She enjoys seeing words emerge to form a sentence, or when I recall the faces of people no longer with us but who are still dear to me; or when I retrace the endless agony of my country, or evoke the pleasure of a Knéfé (a lebanese pastry), savoured on a sunny terrace in Beirut. My inner life makes allowances for the contradictions that come with exile as well as for my own: she is broad-minded enough to embrace opposing ideas. On the other hand, she is implacably severe about how I write. She is scarcely able to contain herself if I fail to make clear my thoughts when speaking; but she draws the line when it comes to writing: "What on earth is this ? Do it again! Did you really think you could get away with talking about me in such pompous, inflated terms?” She urges me to hunt down the right word, the apt phrase. And when we finally agree and she appreciates what I have written – which is what’s happening right now –, then we enjoy a brief moment of complicity, ephemeral but delightful.
My inner life encourages my longing to write. She knows that for me it is both a way of protecting this longing and of inviting her to share my love of words, my expressivity. She has so much to say that she doesn't always understand my hesitations:
– What on earth are you waiting for to get down to serious work on your second book?
– I find it difficult to refuse all the solicitations that reduce my space for creativity: I find it hard to say no.
– When you say no to requests, you say yes to me!
– Yes, but… no. Or rather… To tell you the truth, the enormity of the task scares me a bit.
– That's because you're thinking of the whole task. But you do your writing bit by bit, potato-head. You've already done it once! And I'm here with you!
Only she can call me a potato-head. But I'm flattered by her insistence all the same: her need for me to be at her service, telling me that I'm the only one who can do it.
My inner life can also surprise me when I least expect it: when I go out to greet my grandson late at night and he spontaneously throws himself into my arms; when I meet André's affectionate and pacified gaze and recall his frightening violence when I started in L'Arche; when Beatrice plants herself in front of me with a low growl, and I finally see that all she wants is for me to tie up her shoelace; and when it’s done, and she gives me a smile, then I say to myself how strange it is that my inner life, in other respects so demanding, can be satisfied with such a simple gesture!
Hoda Aouad-Sharkey is the author of a first book, ROBES DE SOI - Au fil d'une guerre, recoudre une vie, edited by the Editions AUTEURS DU MONDE. In this book, she evokes her experience of the civil war in Lebanon (1975-1990).
➡️ You can find ROBES DE SOI on the editor's website
➡️ You can find ROBES DE SOI on Amazon
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Dear friends, many of you have reacted to Salman's call, described in our last episode: his cry has crossed the walls of the hospital, but also of time, shaking you today as it shook Patrick Fontaine 16 years ago. So much the better ! This month in Inner Life, we return to our original question with Brian Berg. An American from the West Coast, father of three children (one of whom is differently abled), husband, entrepreneur and a member of the board of L'Arche USA, Brian tells us what nourishes his inner life: the new beginnings of early morning.
Connecting with God
My wife laughs at the way I jump out of bed to greet each day. I've long started my days in the early mornings, before my family awakens, giving myself some personal, quiet time to nurture my soul by connecting with myself, my Creator, my world, and my relationships. My body has learned to react to the anticipation of this special time of day, and (most days) it leaps out of bed with the first buzz of the alarm clock.
This time of year, I enjoy how the day usually starts with fumbling about in the dark trying to start a cozy fire in our fireplace, while in the summer, with the sun already up, I enjoy the coolest part of the day before the summer heat settles in. Sipping on a strong cup of coffee to get my mind and body revving, I take time to connect with my Loving Creator God. Spiritual reading helps focus my mind and nourish my spirit for the day, creating space that leads to prayer, meditation, and reflection. This time of centering prepares me to connect with my upcoming day in a spirit of discernment as I look through my calendar and prioritize my to do list, while thinking about the people I will encounter during the day.
Connecting with the other
After this nurturing time alone, it's time for me to receive nourishment by opening my heart to others as I invest in my most important relationships. My wife and I start most days in God’s beautiful nature, walking, talking, and praying with each other. This has proven to be such a beneficial practice for our relationship! We know that we have this space every morning to pray together, plan our day and our lives, and talk about our most intimate thoughts with each other - all while staying healthy!
This is also a special time to connect with creation. We live in the country, in an agricultural area, and we are blessed to walk each morning amongst beautiful nut orchards that are ever changing with the seasons and weather. While they're bare amongst a mystical, shimmering, foggy sun this time of year, soon their blossoms will be lit up with a sparkling, glowing late winter sun, which leads to branches that droop with the weight of dusty, green nuts maturing towards harvest later in the summer.
Like everyone, I have good days and bad days, and I wish I were more disciplined, more productive, more loving, more this and that. Most days my prayer is not focused and my attempts at centering are scattered. There are days when I struggle to find things to talk about with my wife, and our time of prayer together feels more like a way to escape rather than fortify our relationship. There are many days where the prospects of the upcoming day seem overwhelming or uninspiring.
Yet, I’ve learned to respect the importance of this early morning time for my general well-being. I trust the process of this routine, and by the time I’m ready to actually start my day, my life usually feels brighter, my direction more clear and my soul more nourished. For me, the early morning, with its silence and new beginnings, really is the best time of day!
Dear friends, we send you our best wishes for 2022, that it may be a year of joy, of inner life, of encounters, including those encounters that change us. At the beginning of January, it is the turn of Patrick Fontaine, who is French and previously the international leader of L’Arche, to write about an encounter that transformed him. There are encounters that leave a sweet and warm memory, but the experience that Patrick tells us about in this episode of Inner Life is that of a shock. A scream. A cry that sows a painful story, but one that also bears fruit. In 2022, let's continue the conversation!
It is 5 February 2006. I land in the early hours of the morning at Kuwait City airport. Yamin and Nadia, two Muslim L’Arche assistants, are accompanying me. Majdoleen, a former member of L'Arche in Syria, welcomes us with joy: she has finally convinced us to make this visit with a view to setting up L’Arche in Kuwait...
Our programme is timed to the minute. We meet the group interested in the project and some potential donors. Then we are driven to the hospital, to the long-stay paediatric ward.
The lobby looks like a luxury hotel, and the wards have all the most modern equipment. Majdoleen leads us from room to room to greet the children she knows. We stop for a while in one of them. Large and beautiful, it probably belongs to a rich family. Next to a mountain of large stuffed animals is a child's hospital bed with high cot-sides. In it, the small sleeping body of Salman, who looks about 9 years old. Majdoleen explains to us that once his disability was discovered, he was virtually abandoned. He has scarcely any visitors. To protect him from his own random gestures, small white mittens cover his hands. He is fed through a nasal tube, so the only time he is touched is when the orderlies change his nappy. Only their eyes are visible behind their niqab.
I gently lower the bars on his bed and in an instant Salman is wide awake. The sight of us brings a smile. He is soon crawling to the edge of the bed, but loses his balance. To prevent him from tumbling, I put my hand on him: he edges forward, reaching my wrists. And a few seconds later, he is in my arms. He is obviously an expert in this strategy of putting himself in danger in order to be caught...
There follows a moment of sheer enchantment. Salman is clearly thrilled with our presence: happy to grab my glasses and send them flying, pleased to be passed from arm to arm... The visit goes on, beyond the time allotted. Too soon, we have to bring this timeless moment to a close: other appointments await us. Carefully, I put Salman back in his bed and gently pull up the cot-sides. Then, walking backwards, we slowly leave the room, close the door and start to going down the stairs...
That's when a terrible, chilling shriek stops us in our tracks. Even fifteen years later, it still echoes in my ears and raises the same feeling in my guts. In his room, Salman is screaming out his anguish, his abandonment.
There are four of us on the stairs. Three Muslims and one Christian, frozen to the spot, chilled by this cry.
In silence, we look in each other’s eyes, lumps in our throat.
We are as one: Salman’s anguish has bonded us to our common humanity.
This pain has overwhelmed us, transporting us in an instant beyond ourselves, beyond our differences, our cultural borders, beyond our religious identities. ‘Beyond'...
This spiritual experience that we are living through is common. Common, and painful.
Sometimes, only the cry of the person who is vulnerable has enough power to shatter what separates people, to take hold of them, to unite them. The meeting with Salman had this effect immediately. And in the longer term, a great fruitfulness, in the dialogue and inter-religious friendship within L'Arche.
Dear friends, the end of the year is approaching, and we are close to the end of our first inspiring journey in the company of the contributors to Inner Life. From England, Germany, the United States, India, France, be they Christian, Hindu or Agnostic, each one has been able to take us on a journey through their rituals, their encounters into the heart of their interiority. This month, we journey with Philippe de Lachapelle. Currently director of the Christian Office for Persons with a Disability in Paris, Philippe was previously a member of L'Arche for 25 years, and was the national leader of L'Arche in France for a number of years. To nourish his inner life, Philippe simply... gets on his bike and cycles! And you, readers, on which vehicle do you deepen your inner life?
Only rarely have I asked myself this question: "how do I nourish my inner life?" In trying to answer it, however, I have to recognise that I don’t nourish it! The inner life is given to me. And all I do is receive it and joyfully acknowledge how much it is being nourished- and the way that happens!
It is nourished especially through people: for example, the longer I am married, the easier it is to imagine, and even almost touch, the reality of God's unconditional love for me... My children’s lives continually teach me to love all the more that Wind that really does blow where It wants, and not where I want (Jn. 3:8)... The day by day meetings with people who have faced the trial of illness or disability, make me enter ever more deeply into the mystery of evil that can do so much damage to our lives; but I also enter more deeply into the kind of Hope that can overpower everything, to the point that, in our lives, it is Love and not evil that has the last word (St John Paul II)...The more vulnerable people I meet, the more I walk with them into the experience of my own fragility, my own flaws; and I also I realise that this is where God comes to make his home. This is the fragile God whom I never stop discovering: he himself is so vulnerable, and so powerless, and yet still the one who changes everything through his all-powerful Love!... The more I work with the people of OCH (french Christian Office for Persons with a Disability) to develop our mission, the more I can taste the joy that Luke announces in his Gospel: ‘He sent them out two by two... they came back full of joy’ (Lk. 10:1-17). And the more I learn to contemplate the beauty of a flower, a landscape, a moment of grace, or a person, the more I enter into the ecological conversion that Pope Francis calls for in Laudato Si which bears peace.
All this is given to me: the ‘only’ thing I have to do is receive it... but that still means I need to follow a small strategy, to get into the right frame of mind. I have found that what works for me throughout the day is to adopt a "strategy of tiny actions": at sunrise, through the fogginess of my brain, to address these words to God: ‘may this day be Yours’. During my 45-minute cycle to work, to sing praises out loud, entrusting the day ahead to God: the people, the meetings, my family, OCH members, chance encounters I might have... and then I pray or sing the Rosary. And then on reaching the office, I read the Gospel of the day, observing the scene with my mind’s eye: where am I in this text, and also who am I? Then for a few minutes, I try to have a friendly to and fro with Jesus. And later, before each meeting, I ask God to be present. And before sending a letter or tax receipt, I entrust the recipient to the goodness of God... And so on until my bike ride home again. At that point, while pedalling along the banks of the Seine, I ask forgiveness for any harm I might have done, and for my flaws in implementing this strategy! But above all, I give thanks for the day! I say thank you for what was good, and also for what was difficult, and for the people, ... whenever possible, I complete these small steps by going to the Eucharist and shared prayer at OCH.
This strategy of the ‘tiny actions’ suits me. Through it, I discover the truth of these words of Father David Wilson, the priest of L’Arche Les Trois Fontaines (France): ‘What counts in prayer is not the words, but the clinging to Jesus’. And when things are so difficult for me that I can't even do that, then at that point, Father Wilson’s second sentence comes to me: ‘even better than that is when Jesus clings to me.’
Philippe de Lachapelle
Dear friends, you may have noticed that we ask guests of Inner Life one or other of these questions: "How do you nourish your inner life?" and "Can you tell us about an encounter that transformed you?" For the first season of our newsletter, we chose these two questions because at La Ferme we believe that our encounters deepen our inner life, and that our inner life, especially when nourished, opens us up to encounter. Again this month, John Sargent illustrates this. Founder of L'Arche Preston (UK) and former leader of L'Arche UK, John is now leading the "Charter Process" for L'Arche International. Here, he offers us the vivid memory of an encounter that tranformed him: 35 years old, his encounter with Brian continues to nourish him today. And you, is there a founding encounter that continues to inspire your journey today?
When I was 21, I lived in a L’Arche Community for a year. I went to live in a new household that had opened just six months before and I became part of the house team welcoming people from the local hospital. I helped to welcome Brian as he initially visited for weekends and then came to live with us fulltime. Brian was 19 years old and had lived in the hospital since he was about 4. I helped him to get up in the morning, to have his bath and to get dressed. I helped him with his meals and I pushed his wheelchair for him to get to his day activities. All this was new to me and a steep learning curve! I’d spent my life in school and college working with books and concepts. I was valued by the exams I had passed.
After three months in the community, I was returning from my first week away and walking up from the bus station, across a park, near to my L’Arche house. In the distance, I saw Brian coming towards me, another assistant pushing his chair. As he came closer, I called out a greeting and he recognised my voice. He flung his arms and legs out in bouncing excitement and shouted my name at the top of his voice. His ecstatic welcome was a real revelation to me. It was an encounter of welcome, of being valued and affirmed, simply for being ‘John’.
Daily life continued, revolving mostly around personal care and meals. On my 22nd birthday we had a celebratory meal in the house followed by a time of prayer. During the prayer, an assistant began to read from St John’s Gospel the passage about Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, while Brian crawled across the floor with a bowl of water and began to wash my feet. He did it so gently and so intentionally! Here was the man to whom I gave a bath each day, giving my feet a bath. I had a strong sense that we were brothers. It was a deep encounter of mutuality.
And these experiences, these encounters, of unconditional welcome and of mutuality transformed me. A sense of deep connection between us enabled me to see the world, just a little bit, as if through Brian’s eyes. This empathic bridge changed me and continues to change me.
Sharing life with Brian, even for only a year, opened up the spaces where we could encounter each other, across all our differences, as equals. These spaces often centred around eating together, praying together and celebrating together. Spaces where we didn’t encounter each other as care-giver and care-receiver, but simply as equal human persons, as friends.
After my year living with Brian, I went back as planned to study. But I wasn’t the same. And a few years later I returned. If I am still in L’Arche today, it is because of Brian and those encounters 35 years ago, and I am full of gratitude.
I often remember these foundational experiences when we share a meal; when we gather in a circle to pray; when celebrate together, and especially, each time that we ritually wash each other’s feet. These regular ritual spaces make present again the foundational encounters that so changed me - and so they continue to transform me. They nourish me.
Thank you Brian!
Dear friends, we wish a good return to work, studies and the daily routine of commitments, meetings and encounters to those in the Northern hemisphere who have come to the end of their summer holidays. At La Ferme, we are back and Inner Life is also back! For this issue, we asked Bianca Berger how she nourishes her inner life. Born in 1987 to a Chinese mother and a German father, Bianca is now the director of the smallest and most recent L'Arche community in Germany, Landsberg, after an experience at L’Arche Asansol in India. Although she does not identify with any particular religious tradition, Bianca is a person with an embodied spirituality, a spirituality that lives in her actions and in her relationships, especially to people with a disability. In this, she resembles many assistants in L’Arche today. Enjoy your reading, and tell us how the way of the agnostic speaks to you.
“How do you nourish your inner life?”
I am honoured to be asked to contribute to this reflection, but there’s another question that I often get, that comes before: “Do you even have an inner life? Do you have a spirituality?” They ask this, because I am an agnostic.
Being agnostic does not mean, that I do not believe. It says first of all that I only know that I don’t know. But there are many things in which I believe! I believe that everything and everyone is connected, that we are all in relation with each other – all human beings, all animals, plants and minerals, the elements and the energies, the stars and the universe. I believe that we have more in common than what separates us and that there are universal values which are true for all living beings: peace, respect, kindness, patience, the effort to understand and to be understood. I believe that only together, with the people around us, we can discover true meaning. I believe that we are all responsible for each other, no matter where we currently live and how little we actually know about each other. I believe that when we think of each other, when we pray for each other, when we feel compassion towards someone or something, it has a positive effect, something good actually happens. It does the whole universe good, when we make someone smile, or when we waste a little less water. Finally, I believe that we are allowed to fail and that we do not need to be perfect in order to be unique, essential and wonderful.
So yes, I am an agnostic, and yes, I am a believer. Still I find it hard to believe that there is only one way to connect to something greater. This is why I cannot pledge myself to one faith or another. But there definitely is something in me, about me, to be nourished, that I, too, call Inner Life.
Here’s how I do it: I have a morning routine. It starts with reading the weekly verse of Rudolf Steiner’s (*) soul calendar. Steiner was no perfect man, and there are some questionable things in his life and spiritual legacy, but I like the verses of his soul calendar because they reconnect me to the rhythms of nature and their main messages nourish me, among which: Everything is connected. We are mind, body and soul. We are part of a circle of life which blooms, grows, bears fruit, falters, dies and rests just to start again.
Then, I do a mantra with my mala. It has 108 beads and is a meditation-necklace often used in Hindu or Buddhistic faith traditions. It is comparable, perhaps, to the rosary of Catholic Christians. Instead of a name of God or a prayer, I repeat words I need to ingrain myself with. Currently, they are: “love”, “joy” and “energy”. When I put on my mala, I close my eyes and pray for all the ones I know and love, for all the ones I do not know but still care about. I pray for the tiny everyday and the big issues we have to address as humankind. I wear the mala the whole day: in the long hours of work, feeling its weight or looking at it will remind me of the essentials, give my tasks meaning, help me focus. “Joy”. “Energy”. “Love”.
It is now time to finish my morning ritual. Then, I get up and walk down the stairs to prepare breakfast. Feed the soul, feed the body, and on my way to work. Another day of relationship. Another day of spirituality, as my spirituality only thrives in encounters with other people and nature.
(*) Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) is the austrian founder of anthroposophy, the results of which we still find in bio-dynamic agriculture, Waldorf schools, and communities of people with and without disability somewhat similar to the L’Arche-Communities.
Dear friends, this is the last episode of Inner Life before the summer break here in Europe. Summer is a time to take a holiday, to step back, to get together with friends and family. A reunion which, at least in the European tradition, often culminates at the table. The table, the shared meal, is precisely - and curiously - what came to the mind of Eric Devautour, to whom we asked our question "Your inner life, how do you nourish it?" A french man, a husband and a father, Eric served L'Arche for a long time as director of the community of La Merci, in Charente. Retired just a few days ago, at the time we are publishing these lines, Eric is going to change his life, while remaining close to his friends in L'Arche. This is the occasion for us to wish him many new blessings on his journey, some great family adventures, and many good shared meals! And you, our readers, tell us who you will be sharing your table with this summer!
What nourishes my inner life ?
In response to such a question, I would like to offer an oversimplification: to say that what nourishes my inner life is the bread that I eat… Of course, this plays, in a slightly exaggerated manner, on the apparent opposition between spiritual food and physical food. And yet... It’s an idea worth exploring, as it says a good deal about my faith and my relationship to God as a follower of Jesus Christ.
We do not marvel enough at how Jesus used the act of sitting down at table with others as his main way of teaching us about the radical novelty of his relationship with God and the world. The religion of his time, through its excesses (as in every era), had made the meal the very place of segregation between people, the very place to separate the pure from the unclean. Jesus, by contrast, shattered this whole misguided religiosity, sitting down with anyone, men and women, the high-and-mighty as well as the have-nots, the tax collectors and the prostitutes, the able-bodied and also people with a disability… It is through this scandalous attitude that he could tell each person that they were worthy of being his brother or sister, and of sharing bread with him.
Was it not essential to underline this aspect of his message? For it meant that he could then go on to suggest that the shared bread of the Eucharistic meal was the very sign of belonging to the People of God, as a community of brothers and sisters. ‘Tell me with whom you share your table, and I will tell you what God you are the children of ...’
L’Arche has grasped this, making the sharing of life and meals together the heart of its message and the high point of how that message is lived out. Whatever the nature of our disability, and whatever form our fragility takes, what we have in common is the dignity of sitting at the same table, of being served from the same dish, and of drinking water from the same jug: in this way, we savour the sense of togetherness as sisters and brothers, without distinction of status or medical diagnosis, without any thought of purity or impurity. It is in the shared meal that the spirituality of L’Arche finds its most effective and most embodied expression. This is what strikes anyone from outside L’Arche who visits a community at meal time. I am reminded of this same truth every time I sit down for lunch with my friends from La Merci: Jean-Marie, Christine, and the others… The spirituality of the shared meal.
In general, should we not accept that a spirituality is only valid if it makes an immediate impact on our relationship with others? And that any spirituality that does not also engage my flesh is not worth a second’s thought.
The God of Love is spirit, and we are his flesh. This is the great mystery of the Incarnation as Jesus revealed it to us- to be the flesh of God in this world. This is the big project, the great task of humanity. Whether we express this truth by sharing the Eucharistic bread at the table of Christ, or whether we express it through a meal taken together in the community or with the family, it comes down to the same thing. In other words, any feeling of being brothers and sisters must be continually nourished by the sharing of bread.
In my prayer, I ask the Lord to always lead my inner life towards his ultimate goal: to create relationship. With others, to build a kingdom of brothers and sisters, a kingdom where it will be good to share bread with everyone.
L’Arche la Merci (Charente - France)
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The journey of Inner Life has taken us, in the past month, to India. Remember: through the eyes of Yann Vagneux, a Catholic priest, we met Ksirshagar, a Jain ascetic. Let's stay in India, but let's take another look. This month, it is Rajeevan Cheriya Challil, known as Rajeevan CC, who has agreed to tell us about an encounter that transformed him. A Hindu from Kerela and previously the national leader of L’Arche in India, Rajeevan is today the International Delegate for several countries in the L’Arche federation. For us, he recalls the first person he met in L'Arche in India, a long time ago. In this astonishing, eye-opening scene, we can see the intervention of a mysterious God, who uses every opportunity to help us change our lives, be it in L'Arche or elsewhere. In return, tell us if you have recognised any of your own encounters, or any of the changes of direction in your own life, in this founding experience of Rajeevan.
27 years ago, I left university. I began to think about life, about my life beyond business. At that time, I heard about Asha Niketan, the name of L’Arche in India. I decided to join the community in Chennai. I went there. Chennai, which used to be called Madras, was 500 kilometers from my hometown. It was a long, 15 hours trip, by train.
The night had fallen, dark, sticky and humid, when I finally arrived in Asha Niketan Chennai. I remember that some of the core members were roaming around after dinner, as I entered the community. Hazel, the community leader, welcomed me and provided me with a temporary shelter for that night. I was a very shy person, and felt somewhat confused and frustrated. A bit lost, maybe. What on earth was I doing here ? I was tired, but couldn’t close my eyes, in the little room. During the long hours of that sleepless night, I made up my mind. I would run away from there, as soon as possible. At around 5 am, I opened my door and went into the corridor, heading to the washroom.
All of a sudden, near the entrance of the wahsroom, I saw a little shadow. Getting closer, I noticed a middle-aged man holding a newspaper upside down. I froze. One eye closed, curiously looking at me, the strange guy seemed to be trying to say something. I was trembling, unable to make a move, or to say anything. Very slowly, I went back to my room and dropped the idea of going to the washroom.
45 minutes later, I decided to go on with the escape plan. I packed my stuff and slowly moved, directly towards the entrance gate. There, he was again. Holding his newspaper upside down, one eye closed, looking at me with wonder, there was the strange guy, just like a guard at the middle of the entrance. I waited there for a long moment. He didn’t move away. I gave up and went back to my room again. The guy had thwarted me in my mission to escape.
So, I stayed.
A few days later, during a house meeting, I was welcomed by Jayakumar. He was the “strange guy from that night”. Jayakumar handed me a beautiful flower, a very big smile on his face. Then, he hugged me like a big brother. Jayakumar was one of the founding core members of Asha Niketan Chennai. He was a man of welcome, hospitality, simplicity and sincerity of heart, accepting people as they are… He was a man of God.
Jayakumar had the habit of closing one eye when looking at people. I came to see that this was his way to look at the preciousness and uniqueness of the individual rather than look at the shadows and darker side.
We would become close friends. As a man of welcome and celebration, he taught me to welcome and celebrate, and to be present for one another. He is among those who has helped me to be faithful to the mission of L’Arche. This is why I am so grateful for that first encounter, even if strange, even if frightening. This encounter changed my life.
He passed away, some years ago. It makes me sad to think about it, but I am sure that my guardian peacefully rests in the hands of God, and that he continues to watch over me.
A new month, a new Wednesday, a new episode of Inner Life, to continue our spiritual journey together. The first reflections that we proposed to you had in common that they were anchored in the Western world. They were authored by an English contemplative sister, a French woman retired from active service in L'Arche, and a German woman living in the United States. There was also the story of an encounter between an Englishman and a Turkish baker, in Belgium. Today, the contributor for the month of May takes us into a whole new world. Yann Vagneux is a missionary priest who has been living in Benares, India, for over ten years. When we asked him to tell us about an encounter that transformed him, he immediately replied: "Ksheersagar". Please continue to react and tell us, if you too, have been touched by Ksheersagar.
In India, the four months of monsoon are called the Charturmas. They allow the Jain monks to pause for recollection and study, before taking up again the sacred wandering through which they seek to break all the links that tie them to the world. This tradition dates back to Mahavira, the last Jain tirtankara (or ford-maker) and a contemporary of Gautama Buddha (6th century B.C.). The two masters have profoundly influenced India, but Jainism, despite its minority status, has left an imprint of radical spirituality and the high ideal of non-violence (ahimsa), which has deeply inspired the Mahatma Gandhi. The attention paid to not killing any living being explains the necessity of not walking during the monsoon season, when insects fill the paths and could be inadvertently crushed by the feet of pilgrims.
It was at the time of Chaturmas in October 2018 that I met Ksheersagar, a monk from the digambara line: one of the two branches of Jainism marked by the traditional practice of the ascetics not wearing clothes. He had come to Banaras during that period to perfect his Sanskrit. I had thus the opportunity to meet him every evening on a terrace facing the Ganges where he was temporarily residing.
As the days passed, our discussions deepened. It was as if he, a Jain monk and myself, a Catholic priest, were made of the same spiritual cloth. He told me how he had left prestigious studies to take on a harsh ascetic life. I told him of my path to priesthood in India. He explained his everyday life to me, how it was structured around prayer and continual walking. At times, our conversations were interrupted by the faithful for whom the presence of a monk was a blessing. Sometimes they would ask advice as to how to improve their business, and we would smile at how often people ask us for help in realms that are no longer ours.
Weeks passed and Jainism became more familiar to me, and Christianity for him. We were the same age, and both had the certainty to still be on the way to the ultimate goal that motivated our initial departure. For him, it was the final liberation from the ego which inhibits awakening. We communed with one another in the depths of our quests.
On the evening of the Hindu celebration of Diwali when rows of oil lamps are lit in each home, I came to say goodbye to him. I felt that for Ksheersagar, who sought perfect detachment, this was a moving moment. We sat for a long time in silence. Then, he thanked me for having shown him another face of Christianity. I did not know how to express in words my gratitude to him for having rekindled my desire for God. We had become kalyanamitra, companions that help one another progress spiritually according to the noble Indian vision of friendship.
Then we parted. The next day, he went on his way, alone. I will most likely never see him again and yet, I continue to feel his presence as a mysterious companion on my spiritual journey.
trans. by Amy Church-Morel
Dear friends, the conversation continues! Our movements remain restricted, our social interactions are reduced, and one could imagine that our exterior life is impoverished. In this context, let us remind ourselves, as Tina was saying in the last episode of Inner Life that there is a world, ‘a whole life’, to discover within us. Whether one is part of those who believe that God is present in every human being, or one has a different conviction, or one has not even the words to say it, each one of us can find a door, a crack, to penetrate this kingdom within and begin to explore it. Let us continue this adventure together, each of us where we are. In this fourth episode of our monthly reflection, the question has changed. The person we have called is Jim Cargin, editor and translator with L’Arche International, and a long-term member of L’Arche UK. We have asked Jim to tell us about an encounter that transformed him. Here is his story. Please continue to react, to respond, to share and to keep the conversation alive.
Hard to believe it’s already 10 years since a simple, warm-hearted gesture of a baker in Bruxelles helped me see humanity anew. It happened like this. On my daily walk to the office from La Branche, the L’Arche house where I was then living, the route happily took me past a small boulangerie. The packaged goods were in Turkish. Like me, the family had left their home country to make their home in Belgium. Each morning, I dropped in to buy a fresh croissant. A way of getting the working day off to a good start. And so it continued for several months. A stroll, a drop-in, an exchange of cash for croissant, and one happy customer goes on his way.
One bright May morning, I popped in as usual. No one else in the shop. The baker came to the serving counter. This time, however, disaster! I discovered to my embarrassment, that I had forgotten my purse at home. I felt through each pocket. Nothing. Not a cent! The baker was waiting patiently, already holding the little brown paper bag. But kicking myself for being so stupid, I turned to leave. It seemed the obvious thing to do. After all, no money, no croissant. That was the way the world worked. You pay your money and you take your choice. But then came the baker’s revelation! He had spotted my confusion, looked at me but still held out the bag: ‘choisissez!’ ‘Choose!’ My lack of money was evidently not a problem. I stared back at him, even more confused. This kind of thing simply doesn’t happen. Not to me, at any rate. But there he was, smiling, the paper bag in his hand. He gestured to the pastries. It wasn’t a joke. I pointed to a croissant, which he put in the paper bag and handed to me, still smiling. ‘Merci, monsieur.’ Somewhat stunned, I went on my way, full of thoughts.
Why is this memory still so vivid, over ten years later? The point is that normally, our relationship was dictated by the usual conditions of ‘seller’ and ‘client’. But on this particular day, he said ‘non!’ Economics and those financial relationships have their place, but the baker was dancing to a far deeper melody: I was being seen not just as a paying customer but as a fellow human. He saw beyond the confines of our normal relationship, and invited us both into a different space. He wanted to share his bread, and wasn’t going to let my lack of money stop him.
For me, this short encounter affirms something fundamental about our human life in society: essentially, there is so much more to a person than their label. No-one is ever just a shop-keeper, customer, or service-user: each person is human, with their own story, their own unique gifts, their own creative possibilities. In an increasingly polarised and uncertain world, why not join the baker’s revolution? On meeting a person who appears truly different to us, in any way, -could be faith, outlook, social background, sexuality, nationality, role, etc., why not say to ourselves, ‘yes, this person is one of us’ and let that truth sink ever deeper into us.
Dear friends, welcome to this third edition of Inner Life, the monthly newsletter that is our contribution to a conversation with you beyond distance, beyond physical separation, beyond the pandemic health crisis. In this world of shifting landmarks, many are those in search of spiritual nourishment. At La Ferme, we have imagined giving a voice to people who, in the entourage of L'Arche and elsewhere, can help us put words to what remains essential for many: nourishing their inner life. Today, the one who takes up the mantle is Tina Bovermann. A German living in the United States and a former communications manager for L'Arche International, Tina is now the national leader of L'Arche USA. After Katharine Hall and Michèle Dormal, it's her turn to answer the question « What nourishes your inner life? ». As always, do not hesitate to respond, to tell us if, and how, this meditation resonates with you.
Somewhere near Page, Arizona, in the United States, millions of years of wind and water have curved smooth lines out of red sandstone to form Antelope Canyon. Touching the curved ripples in this stony womb of Mother Nature brings tears to my eyes. At the market of Plaza de los Ponchos in Otavalo, Ecuador, the Otavaleño people brandish their woven textiles. Seeing the explosion of colors and textures, witnessing the amazement of the many tourists, fills me with joy. In the evening, the growing body of a feisty six-year-old cradles itself into mine for reading time. Holding the precious gift that is my daughter sends love into every one of my fibers. Somewhere in a small town in Germany, a family of four used to break bread at the end of the day, discuss and debate, feeding bodies and souls. Belonging to these people sources me. An ocean away, a simple light-filled octagonal structure houses a community of worshippers who sit together in silence. Listening “to that of God within” lands me in stillness.
All of these things nourish my inner life, but the question is “how”. Biologically, I am merely a bunch of cells. Cells give and receive through a permeable membrane. My soul does too. It feeds off of this world. It seeks to give to this world. My inner life is nourished when my skin is permeable, when that what surrounds me and what I belong to transcend the borders of my body to reach my core. My inner life is nourished when my essence finds its way through the layers of my being to contribute to the outer world.
Unfortunately - this might be true for you as well - that is not always the case. Parker Palmer (*) speaks of the soul as a “wild animal - tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient and yet exceedingly shy “. My soul, more or less safely tucked away in my body, its home, is shy to the point that I sometimes lose access to it. You know, my soul has lived some things. Yours has probably too. Mine is bruised and battered, resilient and trusting, fierce and non-compliant, ugly and beautiful, all at once. When hurt, scared or unsafe, it hides and closes, it stonewalls and pretends, it angers. My body is usually the translator. If I listen, I will notice that my muscles are tight, my joints are stiff, my skin is antsy, my breathing is shallow, my voice is hoarse. My inner life is not nourished nor is it nourishing. The membrane that separates my inner and outer lives has become impermeable.
How do I stay permeable? Having a stern talk with my uptight body or my shy soul has proven to be an insufficient strategy. Parker Palmer again: “If we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge.” Yes, that. My soul will thank me with light and energy when I sit silently and tend to it with softness, patience and honesty. Soul and body exhale and release loosen up gratefully. “I am heard”, my soul says. “I am seen”, my body says. “Yes, you are”, I say. “Sorry, it took me so long.” We hug it out. And gosh, it’s worth it. Because now, skin permeable, we set out to explore. There are worlds out there and in me, there is abundance out there and in me to sense, see, taste, experience, touch and witness. There is life to be nourished, out there and in me.
Atlanta, February 10, 2021.
(*) Parker J. Palmer is an American author and the founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. He wrote “Let Your Life Speak”, “The Courage to Teach”, and others books about issues in education, community, leadership, spirituality and social change.
Hello everyone, welcome to the second edition of The Inner Life, our new monthly reflection. We want to make this bulletin the beginning of a conversation with those seeking inspiration and spiritual nourishment. Many of you have responded and shared your impressions with us after the Katharine Hall meditation was sent out a month ago. Thank you! These reactions and responses engage us and enliven the conversation. Now it is time for the second edition, for which we asked our question, “What nourishes your inner life?”, to Michèle Dormal. Michèle is a long-time member of L'Arche in France. Recently retired, she carried the responsibility of spiritual life for L’Arche international in her final mandate. As last time, please do not hesitate to share with us what touched you, what challenged you, what resonated with you in Michèle’s response.
How do I nourish my inner life?
A real question... even more so this last year, which has been so disorientating: the revelations about Jean Vanier, the start of my own retirement, and then the pandemic, lockdown, terrorism...
My impression is that my spiritual life has dried out! Goodbye Sunday Mass with other people; goodbye my habits; my sources of inspiration – gone! My interesting assignments, the beautiful story of our foundation of L'Arche – also gone! My certainties about tomorrow – they’ve all flown out the window, along with the words I pray with...
Then I remember my early days in Trosly. Although I was raised a Christian, this familiar intimacy with Jesus, which I discovered at L'Arche, was totally new to me. It was Norbert, Pierrot, Patrick and the others who showed me how to pray, every night in our foyer, La Vigne.
And little by little - or perhaps it was all of a sudden, I cannot really say - I saw and felt and tasted that the Gospel was true, and that it was at work within me. The mighty one, overthrown from her throne, that was me: so often thrown into confusion when faced by a new situation. Peter refusing to let Jesus wash his feet – that was me when I preferred to go it alone, without taking the community into account. The poor widow and her tiny coin at the entrance to the Temple, that was the look that Jesus was offering me so that I could live a pretty dull daily life.... Forgiveness seventy-seven times seven was the only way out when in the midst of conflicts large and small. This thirst for a new heart, for a new spirit, this long training to become gentle and humble of heart, that was what I wanted above all else. To allow the Gospel to do its work in me, that is the path I am being offered: the precious path of Jesus by which he reveals the Father to me.
Yes, the harvest is already there, the Kingdom is among us. Often, I do not see it. That is why I want to let this Gospel keep on working on me.
Things are kind of back to front: it is not about us learning the gospel, it is about the Gospel teaching us, working on us. We wouldn't be seeking God if he himself wasn't already looking for us. The Father had a dream about a beloved daughter well before she called him Abba-Father.
So, how do I nourish my inner life?
I ask for the grace to perceive this lavish harvest all around me, to notice the kindness of nature, of the daily hello’s, of the little gestures we make to each other, the generosity of neighbours and of the parish. To see this Kingdom which is already there today, and to savour it... To take notice of this Gospel, at work within me and around me. And so often, when I do pass by on the other side, then to retrace my steps, again and again, and climb out of my rut.
Concretely, to nurture this inner life, I read and copy out the gospel of the day; then during the day, I try to recall it, so that His word can teach me through life, people, nature and events... In the evening, just to bring everything to a close, I enter into quiet, and stop making any noise... so that the seed of this gospel and the mysterious tangible presence of God can germinate in our lives. And if that is granted me, then to throw myself fully into collaborating with this world in the making... to be a co-creator with God!
And then, at the very end, to say ‘Thank you’ to him, for his presence in our midst. ‘Thank you’ but also ‘Again’… That he may give himself again, so that we may see, welcome, and co-create again.
Hello everyone, and welcome to the first edition of Inner Life. Through this monthly bulletin, we aim to begin a conversation with you, and with all those who seek inspiration and spiritual nourishment. This bulletin shall evolve as a conversation. Therefore, do react, do answer, do share with us if something in the meditation touches you, challenges you, inspires you. For this first edition, we invited Katharine Hall. Katharine is British. She’s a former L’Arche assistant in the UK, and now a contemplative Anglican nun in Wales. She’s also a painter. We asked Katharine this one and only question : “ What nourishes your inner life ? ”. Here is her answer.
“ What nourishes my inner life ? ” is a strange question : is there a dichotomy of inner and outer when I am made as one ?
Seeking to nourish my inner life lead me first to L’Arche communities and then to a life of contemplative prayer where my inner and outer life is one: my vocation. I am one with the whole of creation; and because of, and in, Jesus Christ I am one with the Father. There are many things that lead me into the fullness of life, that lead me into a deeper relationship with God. Over the years I have discovered that silence, solitude, the reading of Scripture and participation in the Eucharist are bass notes for me. I have come to these through people; through the sharing of that deep longing to be loved.
This has led me to my own cry for love and to share the vulnerability of Jesus, whose life is love. This led me into dark places. I had no words for the pain I felt. I had no words for my longings. And so I began to paint and to find a different language. I painted with my fingers, using oil pastels. I needed to be physically engaged in this conversation with myself. I responded to my own cry with shapes and colours. I was creating a conversation through touch, sight and silence. I let the colours speak to me. I listened to the images. My whole being was engaged.
Then I shared these images with another and a new conversation began. But the more I painted the more I knew the fundamental conversation was between God and me. The more I became aware of myself, the more I was open to hearing the Word of God spoken in silence in these lines and colours. The fact of painting, of single hearted focus takes me beyond self-preoccupation and self-interest. I am listening out for the Other: I am awaiting His coming. The active attention necessary for the creation of a painting itself creates a new and intimate space into which God comes. He is present to me. He comes. He nourishes my heart.
Scripture tells me that God is always turned towards me, and that He longs for me to turn and be with Him, face to face. When I sit to paint, I turn to God. Every painting is an act of conversion. Just as I have this sense of being drawn out of my darkness into the Light of God through painting, so too when I am out walking, I am waiting on God. All of creation speaks: the wind, the light dancing through the autumn leaves, the coldness of winter air, the pregnancy of the early morning, the petite scuttle of a hedgehog and the bejeweled dew on a spider’s web. All these are outside me and yet they are also of me. My eye, my ear, my nose, my hand, my foot draw all this wondrous array of colour, shape and life into my heart. I am made one with creation.
So, what nourishes my inner life ? All that enables me to come into the Presence of the One who loves me.
M. Katharine SSC, Tymawr Convent, Wales