I am in a small monastery of the Greek Catholic rite here in Bethlehem, where there are just 7 contemplative sisters, two of whom used to be at L’Arche. The wall which separates Palestine and Israel crosses through the monastery garden; it is the wall of fear, the wall of hate, a symbol of all the walls which surround our own hearts. Even if I no longer travel, I did want to make this journey with Odile, for two reasons. To give a little retreat to these seven sisters (as well as to the Little Sisters of Jesus in Palestine) at the foot of this wall. They are indeed a symbol of hope in our world, where often hatred dominates love, despair dominates hope, and where the welcome of difference is absent.
I also came to be with the little community which is an official L’Arche project. This community at Bethlehem has been a dream for a very long time, a dream which began to take shape in 1981, when the director of institutions in Israel came to L’Arche to ask if we would accept to take over an institution that was being built in Cana of Galilee for 220 young people of Arab origin. The director accepted that that was not our call; our vision is to create little homes, family size. However, he promised his support if we were to start in what was called the Occupied Territories (Palestine). In October 1976, Odile had visited the Malja – a small institution, or asylum which was close to Bethany where there were quite a number of young people in difficulty, who would have needed a place like L’Arche. So it was that with Marie-Antoinette, and Kathy, and then Françoise and others, the dream became a reality in Bethany, a very fragile reality whose life was affected by the closure of the home during the Gulf War in 1991. However, through the faithful presence of Kathy, my cousin Michel de Salaberry, and others, the links continued. Life eventually became somewhat stronger, and now a new stage has been reached here in Bethlehem with Kathy and a Palestinian woman, Mahera, who is leading the community. I was so happy to visit it, to meet each person with a disability and each assistant. It is a community where Christians and Muslims work, celebrate life and share meals together and meet each other at a deep level. They do not live together in a home, for each person lives in their own family, but it is a true community of work, born in relationships of friendship, of communion and of work. I saw their joy in being together and I can witness to the beauty of this community and the quality of their work. They make cribs and other objects from the wool of the sheep in Bethlehem
At a public talk in Bethlehem, before 400 people, of whom the majority were Muslim, I announced the message of peace, of friendship and of the welcome of difference, that is being lived out at Ma’an lil-Hayat (the name of the community). Before my talk, there was a little “theatre-sketch”, involving all the community members. If you would have seen the joy of their parents at the loud applause given their children! The peace and the tenderness lived in this monastery and in our little L’Arche community radiate hope. There is so much violence in our world. Jesus came to transform violence into tenderness. Let us ask the Holy Spirit to transform our aggression into the tenderness of listening and of presence.
Here, in Bethlehem, I am touched by the story of Christian de Chergé, the monk of that Trappist monastery in Algeria, who was killed in 1996, along with his brother monks. Christian, of course, knew the Islam that was radical and hard, but above all, he also knew the Islam of the neighbours of his monastery, an Islam that inspires abandonment to God, a life of deep prayer, a love full of respect, and welcome for those who are different. Christian was not naïve: he was a man of God, searching for a theological understanding of the Islam of his neighbours. He knew through experience their authenticity and their truth.
Christian was seeking to understand, in the vision of God, this Islam which had inspired Louis Massignon, the Islam of the Suffis with whom he used to pray. It is this Islam that we know through L’Arche and Faith and Light. It is for this reason, that I appreciate Christian Salenson’s book on the theology of Christian de Chergé – a theology of hope. At the monastery, I had the joy of taking a meal with David Neuhaus, a Jesuit, Franc Bouwen, a White Father, and Abuna Rafik, who are all engaged in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. Their presence and their friendship is an inspiration for me.
L’Arche, here as elsewhere, wants to be a sign of unity and of peace with people of different religions. The peace and unity wells up from the joyful presence of those who are the weakest in our societies,. who draw us together and call us to appreciate and love each other.
In Bethlehem, I was also very happy to meet the members of two communities of Faith and Light from Galilee. Faith and Light, a close cousin of L’Arche, which shares the aims of L’Arche while using different means, continues to grow amazingly across the world, giving life to so many people. What a marvel is this Faith and Light, born at Lourdes in 1971.
My house, my little house in Trosly, is a place where I feel so well. Several people have asked me if it had been difficult for me to move to the house of Lazarus from the former house where I had lived for 36 years. I am profoundly happy in this new house. My bedroom looks out onto a garden and I see the sun rising in the morning; my office, with its large bay window, looks out onto the chapel, and the little “castle” for the birds. Little by little, the birds are becoming tamer, and come to peck at the seeds that I put in their castle I give thanks to be able to grow old in the middle of my community. Apart from breakfast, I take all meals in my foyer, Le Val Fleuri, happy that each person accepts me as I am. To be with Patrick, Laurent, Doudoule, Anisette, Stephanie and the others is a gift for me. It is a moment when together we can laugh and say crazy things. What a beautiful thing it is, to live together as brothers and sisters.
I myself will not be going to the big meeting of L’Arche in Atlanta to give thanks for the 13 years of presence of Jean-Christophe and of Christine at the helm of L’Arche, and to celebrate the presence of Patrick and of Eileen who will succeed them. It is going to be a beautiful event. Just imagine 500 people from all our communities celebrating the life, unity and grace of L’Arche, giving thanks together for our 48 years of existence, 48 years of God’s protection. I was at the General Assembly in Kolkata in 2008, where there was an official farewell by the communities of the Federation. In my heart and in prayer I will be in Atlanta, and I am going to follow the meeting as closely as possible using all the means given to me.
I sense such a deep unity among us, due to the presence of the weak people who are at the heart of our communities. Many of them will be present in Atlanta. They keep us in a spirit of joy, laughter and celebration. The three assemblies – Assisi, Kolkata, Atlanta – call us to look at Le Poverello (St. Francis), Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King as our models. They are inviting us to work with more humility and joy for unity and peace.
It is wonderful to live close to La Ferme. I continue to give retreats there, some of which are on the official program, and others which are not. These are for people off the street, for people who have suffered a lot in life through broken marriage, or for others, who live the pain of exclusion. And then, I am present in some L’Arche formations. I carry on giving the sessions on the Gospel of John (in English and in French). Thanks to these sessions, I continue to penetrate into the heart of this inspired writing, where I always find new treasures. These sessions renew my outlook on our suffering world, and on our God who is calling us to hope and to work for peace –when everything seems impossible.
It is springtime now in the Northern hemisphere: the flowers are beginning to show their beautiful faces, and the buds on the trees are revealing the colours of life. The song of love in the bible says: “For see, the winter is past, the rains are over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth.” (Song of Songs, 2. 11-12).
Even in moments of horrific suffering, Etty Hillesum used to say, « life is beautiful. » Yes, in spite of the horrors and fears, God is alive, creation is alive, the sun is shining and there are so many men and women full of kindness, competence and compassion for other people in their difference and vulnerability. There is hope.
I hold you close to my heart,
''The truth might be hard to say, painful to bear or even drastic for the truth sayer but still needed to be said''. ALISON.