Thought for the Week – L’Arche

This week, as part of Disability History Month, Hazel Bradley shares her experience and memories as a L’Arche member.

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Beryl was dying. She was in hospital and we had a rota to ensure there was always someone with her. When it was my turn, I would take a book to read in case there was time to read, (my mother’s good Scottish Presbyterian voice in my head, ‘Don’t waste time!)

But the book never came out of my bag.

I have been a member of L’Arche, (communities where people with and without learning disabilities share life), for over 40 years now. Some of the most profound moments have been around death. A psychiatrist who knew us well once said, “L’Arche does death well!” And it’s true! People with learning disabilities have taught us much over the years about how to celebrate the life of a person in their dying and death, how to re-member them and to give thanks for their gifts.

Beryl had Down’s Syndrome and for most of her life was verbal, able and independent. But then she developed Alzheimer’s and slowly lost all her capacities. At the end she was totally dependent and unable to speak with words. She became the heart of our home. When those of us without learning disabilities were stressed or tired, we’d say, “I’m happy to support Beryl today.” We would be two or three around her bed, supporting her with washing etc. In her presence we slowed down, our only concern how to make her more comfortable.

She called us to be present. To listen at a deep level to what she needed or wanted to communicate. Taking time with her we became quieter, gentler, with Beryl, and with each other, and with ourselves.

And then the end drew nearer and she went to hospital. We were called to wait with her in her dying. Each time I visited her, she would take my hand and clasp it with an extraordinary strength, and hold my gaze with her eyes. That was all that happened. She lay, grasping my hand, and gazing at me with great concentration, and I held her hand, and drank in her gaze. That was all, but it was everything. I felt a communion between us – contemplation, prayer. I felt the presence of God in our encounter. I was held by her eyes, by her presence to me. There were no words. No words were needed. Each visit was profound.

I had the blessing and grace to be with Beryl as she died. A young German assistant and I then washed and laid her out. Our last gift to her. Her gift to me was lasting. She taught me about presence, in the moment, this moment now. She taught me about contemplation.

As Lucy pointed out in her thought for the first week of Advent, the church’s season of Advent coincides with a season founded in 2011, which is Disability History Month. Over my years in L’Arche I have learnt that each one of us has a gift, and a disability: some of us are disabled in our intellect, (our head), some of us are disabled in our ability to make things, (our hands), some of us are disabled in our hearts. Those of us without learning disabilities may be gifted in our heads and hands, but people with learning disabilities are more likely to live at the level of the heart and so can often teach us about how to love, to forgive, to be generous, to celebrate. They call us to slow down, to be present, in the moment, this moment now.

Marina Berzins McCoy writes on Ignatian spirituality and in an article on Advent, this liturgical period we are living now, she says, ‘Advent waiting requires making space, to make room for God’s action to be something that we can welcome, something that we can pay attention to when it happens.’

She goes on to ask if our hearts are open to God. What are the superficial concerns or worries we need to let go, in order to make room for Jesus to come again this Christmas? Are we too rushed and busy with holiday preparations, or are we building in time to make space for the Christ Child?

I have learnt through friends with learning disabilities like Beryl the gift, when I can do it, of opening my heart to God through being present in this moment now, to the other, to myself and to God in the encounter between us; to let go my ever present concerns about what needs to be done, to make room for what is given in the gift of being present, to make space for God.

I was sharing with a spiritual directee today about the theme of waiting in Advent. She burst out, “What are we waiting for? In the waiting , we miss the moment now! Stop waiting. Just be! What’s important is to be absolutely alive to what you are doing now; being alive! And in being gentle with the moment, we discover a gentleness and kindness.”

She could have been describing my time with Beryl as she lay dying.

Her final thought was: Waiting is an active thing.

This Advent may we make space to be present to the moment now; to be absolutely alive to what we are doing now; to be gentle with the moment and kind to ourselves and others. Then we can encounter the God who is called, “I am.”

Hazel Bradley