But it was during a visit to France to see his old mentor, Father Thomas, that Vanier found his life’s calling. Father Thomas was living in Trosly-Breuil, a small village north of Paris, as the chaplain of a home and workshop for men with intellectual disabilities. During that visit, Vanier toured a nearby institution for the mentally disabled and was horrified by the conditions.
Determined to “do something,” Vanier bought a small house in Trosly-Breuil—which he called “L’Arche,” French for “Noah’s Ark”—and arranged for three men from the institution’s 80 residents to live with him.
The project got off to a shaky start. After a life in institutions, one of the three men—Dany—was overwhelmed and lost in his new surroundings and soon returned to the institution and the comfort and familiarity of its rules and routines. The other two—Raphael and Philippe—stayed, and gradually, in fits and starts, the three men got to know each other.
Though Vanier had started out wanting to do something, he soon found himself becoming friends with the two men. As Vanier later wrote in Our Journey Home, “Raphael and Philippe were not so much men with mental handicaps as friends.”
As those first friendships blossomed and grew, so too did L’Arche, drawing in others and gradually expanding into a network of communities around the world, including 16 in the United States. In all the communities—which typically include homes, workshops, and day programs—people with disabilities called “core members” live together with L’Arche assistants who provide help with the tasks of daily living. In recent years, several divinity students, sponsored by the Center for Reconciliation, have served summer internships as assistants at L’Arche Daybreak in Toronto.
Usually, L’Arche assistants go through the same transformation that Vanier experienced back in the original L’Arche house. Though they may arrive wanting to do something, they soon find themselves being friends with people with disabilities.
It’s easy to romanticize L’Arche and life with the disabled, Vanier says. In reality, community life with the disabled—or with anyone—is difficult. As he explained in a 2002 article in the National Catholic Reporter, “Real community is painful.”
Even so, visitors to L’Arche often comment about the peace they sense in the community. Knowing the reality, however, “everybody sort of smiles” when they hear such comments, Vanier writes in Living Gently.
“Somewhere it is true that there is peace, but it is so fragile,” Vanier writes. “It is all a gift. Not all of it comes from our efforts. In time we learn to see and receive the gift of our life together and the peace that is there. And somehow in the process we are transformed.”
Ultimately, it always comes down to belonging, says Vanier. At L’Arche, people build community by eating together, praying together, and celebrating together, laughing, and giving thanks together for life.