By the hungry I will feed you,
By the poor I’ll make you rich,
By the broken I will mend you.
Tell me, which one is which.

The words of this Sydney Carter song, which is a favourite in Rainbow House, capture for me the spirit and the question that is at the heart of L’Arche.

I came to L’Arche Kent for six months last year during a difficult period of transition in my life. I had been widowed three years earlier. Tired, sad and heartbroken, I needed to get away from my comfortable Birmingham home of many years to explore something different.

I was looking forward to coming to L’Arche in my old university city of Canterbury, but I was also nervous. As I plopped my bags down in my new bedroom, I admit to asking myself what on earth I had been thinking. I wondered whether I had anything to offer. I wondered what assistants less than a third my age would make of me, a sixty six year-old retired teacher. I wondered if I had the physical, or indeed emotional, stamina. I wondered how I would communicate with people who were non-verbal.

The experience that followed proved to be both exceptional and ordinary in the best human way. Life in Rainbow House is profoundly relational. It is like a family in its daily laughter, frustrations, boredom and celebration.

In the beginning I was urged, wisely, to take time to watch and learn the details in the lives and routines of core members. I found this hard. Yet from the beginning, there was a real feeling of being accepted. There was time to learn and make mistakes, and to feel that I could somehow be myself. I quickly felt at home.

There was the evening when Denise didn’t want to get out of bed. Martina and I were with her, and Martina did something very beautiful. She sat at the bottom of the bed and in her gentle voice asked Denise if there was anything troubling her heart. She asked about one or two people she thought Denise might be thinking of. She offered to light a candle and say a prayer. Denise broke out into her astonishing, embracing smile.

There were the coffee trips with Mark and the same questions every few steps. Will I be going to the chalet? Will I have to get there by myself? The same answers. The resolute steps. The great enjoyment of the coffee and, bursting in from nowhere, sometimes a different thought, or even one of his famous jokes.

Out of his silence Damien brought me such joy. I gave up blaming myself for not knowing more of his signs, and for a whole lot more. With Damien, I found it easier to have compassion for myself. He spontaneously danced, he wore silly hats with pride and he silently blessed me on his way.

In Pete there was his unforgettable quality of discernment, or soul-space. I would see it when watching him paint, or looking at paintings. His sense of self in the way he would pause to gather his thoughts before sharing his prayer. His fierce reminders of what, or who, matters.

I miss Henri for the sense of being in the moment that I experienced with him: his mischief and his single-mindedness.

I miss my wonderful friends who are assistants. Moments of support, laughter, meals, walks, going to the jazz, sharing in a film, or just feeling fed up in a safe place.

In remembering these things, I hope not to sentimentalise L’Arche. To do so would be to demean, objectify even, L’Arche and to pretend there were never difficult times. Perhaps it is still too early to fully understand what the experience has meant to me. But I am struck by two qualities above all: compassion and fun. Compassion abounds when people share, literally, ‘with passion’ and ‘with suffering’ their own pain and longing with that of others.

In L’Arche it is never clear who is providing the care and who is receiving it, and that is the point I think. It goes in all directions. As the song says: ‘Tell me, which one is which?’

A precious dimension of my year away was the space around life. A time to read, to walk and to breathe in new landscapes with their special gift of healing. In Canterbury, I especially loved its confident ancientness, working into the grit and scarring of a city that has suffered in its own journey through austerity. I was consoled by the closeness of the sea where I walked many times. I grew to love Blean woods.

Especially important was having the time to read more. Among books that spoke very clearly to my L’Arche experience was Vanier’s Becoming Human and Frances Young’s Arthur’s Call. Frances Young is a theologian whose first child, Arthur, now in his fifties, has a profound learning disability with multiple physical disabilities; he has required full-time care for his whole life.

If you wanted to walk ‘on the inside’ with a mother who is both deeply influenced by faith and at the same time totally unsentimental about God and the possibility of easy answers, this is the book. Young has shared many years of friendship with the L’Arche community, although Arthur never became a core member. The book is infused with some rather fine poems. This short extract captures for me the sense of deep space I so often encountered with one or other of my friends with learning disabilities, in particular when the relationship was wordless.

Sharing, close, apart he seemed to be
In his world, yet with me.
Strange beauty
Of simplicity.

My time with L’Arche Kent invited me to reflect on what is meant by intentionality.

Is it about faith? There were daily sung graces at meals, weekly singing and reflection, moving prayers at celebrations of all kinds, a commitment to support core members to attend the churches of their choice, the tenderness and beauty in all of the different ways in which Denise was honoured after her death.

Is L’Arche about celebrating the beauty and uniqueness of the individual? With core members and among and between assistants — going for coffee, arranging a special trip, noticing when what someone enjoys seems to change, having fun together.

Is what L’Arche fundamentally intends about being with, not doing for? Whose needs are being met? Whose gifts are appreciated in this moment? Assistants and core members — at its best, and often, the quality of attentiveness and appreciation goes in all directions, across all who meet in this space.

I came here having lived for most of my adult life with someone for whom, except in the most direct tactile sense, body language could not exist. For my husband John, who lost his sight within a year of our marriage and who became profoundly blind two years after that, verbal language was precise, sensitive, densely textured, and at the heart of life and life’s meaning. Here in Canterbury, two of the six people with learning disabilities with whom I was privileged to live have no verbal communication. With the others, their speech is only a partial tool within a varied and deeply lived relational experience.

Life in L’Arche is what life is: funny, frustrating, tiring, boring, joyful (I had never been to so many parties). It is also, without sentimentalising the experience in any way, immensely freeing to have to take the time to sit, to wait, to attend to a whole repertoire of clues, to be with someone differently, and to realise that you are also being held in that attentiveness. The atmosphere of non-competitive acceptance is deep. Each person brings their gifts and their needs.

The people at L’Arche Kent have expanded my heart’s room and been true companions on this stage of my journey.