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The Weak and the Foolish

by Matthew BeckloApril 06, 2018

At the edge of a quiet forest north of Paris stands Trosly-Breuil, the village that Jean Vanier calls home. But Vanier is no ordinary man, and this home no ordinary home.

Trosly-Breuil is where the Catholic naval officer-turned-philosopher first established L’Arche (“The Ark”), a community of people with intellectual and physical disabilities and the subject of the beautiful new documentary Summer in the Forest, a one-of-a-kind film that has been endorsed by Pope Francis and received universal critical acclaim, including a spotless 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.

This great story begins, as all greatness does, with smallness. In a large home marked with the sign “Val Fleuri,” two older men, Michel Petit and Patrick Druault, rise for the day. Michel, one wide eye turned violently inward, silently shaves, while Patrick coughs himself out of a deep sleep. After a quiet group breakfast, the two men venture out into the sunshine of Trosly, where the chirping of birds melts away into John Harle’s beautiful soundtrack. They pick something up here and there, offer a word to this person and that, but otherwise just stroll. Right away, it’s clear that this is a unique place of peace—a place where time moves a little bit slower.

Jean Vanier (age 87) is introduced like just another resident of this community, but the office of books and papers and pictures surrounding him give him away. He dresses simply, moves slowly, and speaks softly, his attitude seemingly carefree but never careless. He begins to narrate, contemplating the unique personalities of the men that he lives with—not in a condescending way from above, or in a romanticizing way from below, but in a knowing way at their side. “Patrick is a beautiful man,” he says. “He’s completely crazy, and yet at the same time he’s not. When you eat with Patrick, it’s all the time he has to fill up. That means he’s a very deeply anguished person…Cows don’t have anguish. They’re just eating there, munching away. But we humans are anguished.” 

As we’re drawn deeper into the dream-like world of L’Arche, Vanier peels back the layers of the story of L’Arche. It all started in the mid-1960s when Vanier, a Catholic philosopher who had left the Canadian navy, was invited to visit an institution for people with disabilities southwest of Paris. “There was shouting and violence, a lot of screaming. I met there a man who had been locked up in a cellar for years. I can still see his face, so filled with complete, if you like, madness. So there was a feeling of horror.” Philippe Seux, a resident there, remembers being treated more like an animal than a person: “In a psychiatric hospital, you’re locked up. You can’t get out. It’s like being in prison, staring at four walls. There was nothing whatsoever to do…When some lads misbehaved, they were given injections to calm them down.”

It was a world of great pain, one which Vanier had known nothing about. “And it seemed very clear to me,” he remembers in an interview, “that Jesus was asking me just to take one or two men and to start living together.” Vanier brought Philippe and another man named Raphael to a small, broken-down home, “with no plan, with no financial security, to begin without even a bathroom and a toilet.” Philippe, now 75 and still a resident of L’Arche, remembers it as a “big relief.”

Later on, Vanier took over the Val Fleuri, a larger home which already housed thirty men, “many of them disturbed.” “There was rarely a day when there wasn’t a window broken or God knows what,” he recalls. “It took a long time for the Val Fleuri to become a place of peace.” From its earliest days, L’Arche was not a utopia. It was a place in pursuit of a hope; a place where “humiliation had been changed into fun”; a place “of joy, of celebration, of laughter, of fooling around.”

And so it remains today. L’Arche is truly an ark, a place where men and women with a spectrum of disabilities are all welcomed. They are safe there; the storms of violence, mockery, or isolation many experienced outside cant reach them. Michel, who was born a healthy baby and then suffered an accident at six months old, endured a gauntlet of suffering and abuse as a young man before finding shelter there. And at the beginning, Vanier recalls, you had to be careful not to trigger an explosion of anger in him. “Life is a great mystery, yes,” Michel says during a group outing. “But a painful mystery. A mystery of suffering. A joyful mystery. A glorious mystery.”

But L’Arche is much more than a place of practical support; its a place of personal presence, of taking the time to come together and be together. No one there ever seem to be on their phone or itching to be somewhere else, even if being together is all someone can offer. One man, Sebastian, is bound to a motorized chair; he can’t utter a word and can barely move. Yet Vanier sits at his side, speaking to him and looking at him as if he were the most important person in the world. “Yes,” he says, after a long silence, as if Sebastian has just shared some great piece of wisdom. “Dearest Sebastian. You are beautiful. Very, very beautiful.”

And the beauty of Summer in the Forest is that it shows such encounters to be unveiling a great secret of life: the mysterious pull of being itself toward love. Even the simplest moments—a picnic in a sun-lit field, residents feeding one another around a table, a stroll through the woods—draw both the residents and caretakers into a pattern of giving, of sharing, of willing anothers good. Presence draws L’Arche into love, and love into the joy of the present, offering a kind of foretaste of the rhythm of heaven.

Even in their solitude, the residents seem to bask in their community. Patrick makes his way through a coloring book with the dreamy peace of a well-cared-for child; David, a man with Down syndrome—but more fundamentally a man on a mission—dances, works, and rides around the grounds, ever ready to prove himself to his friends; and Andre has a picture on his wall of he and his friend Widad, eternally frozen in the bliss of a good conversation. “I won’t go back to how things were before,” Andre announces. “My place is here.” In the case of Celine and Fred, they discovered more than friendship in L’Arche; they discovered romance. 

But for everything that Jean Vanier has done to make L’Arche the joyful place that it is, he clearly doesn’t see himself as the big-hearted rescuer of the residents, even if they sometimes talk about him that way. Instead, he sees himself as the rescued—and the more we listen to him speak, the more we see why. After joining up with the naval college in England, the young Canadian was brought face-to-face with “the horror” of Nazi concentration camps. He advanced into a promising career as a naval officer, but left it all behind on a spiritual quest for the meaning of human existence. Human beings, Vanier reflects, are creatures who fundamentally operate from “deep fears” of death, loss, and loneliness. We hide and conquer those fears and fragilities by putting up barriers and wrestling for power; but that only leads us to anguish, which leads to anger. The end result? Ideology and murderous violence.

Then there was L’Arche: a place of “freedom and foolishness” rather than fear, one organized around “fidelity to the weak” rather than the pursuit of power. Its fruits were not anguish and anger, but joy and compassion; not ideologies cooked up in man’s head, but a child-like playing in “the dirt”; not murderous violence, but the loving communion which grounds all reality. In short, Vanier discovered a place filled with the wisdom of Paul, a line beautifully captured by the films closing image: “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27).

For all this, Summer in the Forest is not just a great film; it may be one of the greatest documentaries the genre has ever seen. Its certainly one of the greatest I’ve ever seen. Like Vanier himself, it has both the tender innocence of a dove and the piercing wisdom of a serpent. It will appeal to those passionate about service and social justice, especially those dedicated to people with disabilities. But it not only invites us to learn about the world of L’Arche and be inspired by it; it also throws the governing assumptions of the world outside into question. Its not only about what it means to be a humanitarian but also a human being—and all of us, whatever our station in life, become its subject. This universality becomes even more apparent when the film suddenly shatters through barriers of religion, culture, and language, revealing the international reach of the whole organization.

In one unforgettable scene, the music fades away and the camera lingers on a woman’s weak hand as she slowly struggles for almost a minute to pick up a glass of tea and take a sip—an action that for most of us would take a thoughtless second or two. It’s in moments like this that the gentleness of Summer in the Forest speaks with a kind of fierce authority. This is more than just an ode to Vanier, L’Arche, and the dignity of all human beings. It’s a call to behold what God has chosen—and to realize that our joy, our peace, and even our very lives depend on choosing it too.

About the Author

Matthew Becklo

Matthew Becklo

Matthew Becklo is a husband and father, cultural commentator, and the Content Manager for Bishop Robert Barron's Wo...

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