An experience of living as “a woman who manifests the tender love of God”, taking risks in today’s broken world

Sr. Joan McGuinness smrThis was an urgent call from the General Chapter and I felt called to respond to this in an incarnational way. So for the last four years 2004 – 2008 I collaborated with L’Arche, founded by Jean Vanier in 1964, living and working with those termed “poor”, “weak”, and “vulnerable”. L’Arche, whose spirit is closely linked to our SMR charism.

My base SMR community was in Newcastle, but because of the nature of the work, as a live- in- assistant, I lived in the L’Arche house in Edinburgh, Scotland, an hour and a half away by train. It was a 9 bed roomed house, where 4 adults, two female and two male, with both physical and intellectual learning disabilities, ranging from 54 to 32 years old, lived. These adults, the core members, make this their permanent home, and they are the centre of the house, living in a shared family like experience with 5, young, assistants, although I was not so young!! The majority are in their 20’s or 30’s and come for a few months, a year or several years. During my time, I lived with some 25 people from many backgrounds and nationalities including: Australian, Indian, French, German, Canadian, American, Brazilian and British. Life is lived and shared together as a team which includes: shopping, cooking, laundry, celebrations, leisure activities, e.g. disco and ten pin bowling, holidays and fun, which for me included dancing, especially with a core member who was profoundly deaf, but creating a real relationship with him. There are also administrative tasks and health issues to be followed up. Accompanying and giving support, learning to live at other people’s pace, time together as in Community Gatherings, community meetings every Wednesday evening, prayer together and times of retreat are all very demanding.

All of this has its challenges! Co-ordinating all of this which can be the extreme busyness of community life, has at the heart of it all a relationship of true tenderness which takes time to develop, being a friend before being a carer and trying to live this in balance which meant the risk of being myself, risking relationship with others, respecting and valuing difference, because people are allowed to be different, to be themselves rather than conforming to a pattern which can be a real source of life.

These adults have multiple disabilities both a primary handicap and a secondary one far more disabling, the pain of rejection, anger and disappointment. Jean Vanier speaks of the “heart”, that which is at the core of our being, which is deepest in each of us.

Accompaniment, providing assistants with the opportunity to meet with an experienced member of the community, gives valuable support on the journey of life by discerning the way forward in a confidential way. This also challenges the person which was of value to me in my time there. I was given the opportunity of Formation at different levels. Privileged to be part of the ‘Community and Growth Course’ which is offered after some time in L’Arche, meant that I was able to meet others from the Northern European Zone over the period of a year in 3 modules, in Liverpool, England, Trosly in France, where L’Arche was founded, and Bruges in Belgium. At a professional level I also completed the ‘Health and Social Care Course Level 3’ for care assistants. There is always this tension of living as a Christian community and also being professional in today’s world.

Living in an ecumenical community is also an insight as to how other Christians worship as I accompanied the core members to their various churches on Sundays, to the Scottish Episcopal Church (Anglican Church in Scotland) and the Church of Scotland.

Here are some quotes from those I lived with, some of which I would like to share with you:

“Dear Sister Joan, thanks for all that you have lived in these years with L’Arche Edinburgh, for your friendship and presence, sticking through the hard times, your humour and laughter too”.

“Dear Joan, thank you for sharing your SMR charism with us in L’Arche these past years”.

“You taught me a lot about living community and you have kept relationships with core members at the centre of that. I have appreciated your support and have felt a great deal of comfort in your presence. Come and visit us often....”

Assistants’ leaving is hard but even harder for those who remain – coping with the loss of trusted friends – painful aspects of a shared life – an ever present loss. I will remain a Friend of L’Arche Edinburgh through the weekly newsletter, visiting, as long term contact is appreciated, and through Skype with a web cam!
Sr. Joan McGuinness smr