leap day and lessons from l’arche

I planned to seize the year’s extra day with all the gusto I could muster.

When the Winter-That-Wasn’t lobbed one last Hail-Mary of a storm, cancelling my meetings and leaving us with a snow day to enjoy, I envisioned curling up with the boys, a cup of tea and a pile of good books. An idyllic day of at-home mothering.

Instead I woke up to one boy who wet the bed and another who leaked all over the changing table. Two giant piles of laundry and two hungry children cried for my attention. After a long night (used in the loosest sense of the term by those who don’t sleep), a longer day loomed.

I felt as stuck as the car’s tires spinning at the end of the driveway.

How would I turn this day around? It seemed to promise nothing but cranky children and crummy chores. As I stuffed the stinking sheets in the washer and the baby wailed, my poor brain scraped together one lone theological thought: I need a spirituality for stuff I don’t want to do.

And that’s when I remembered Bernard. And Michel. And Claude. And Philippe.

When I lived in France after college, I worked in a L’Arche community. In our house four assistants lived side by side with six adults with developmental and physical disabilities. We shared the daily rhythms that mark French life – eat, work, play, rest – but with a unique spirit of acceptance and inclusivity.

I didn’t have any experience working with people with disabilities before I came to France. When I learned L’Arche would be part of my volunteer placement, I was uneasy. How would I know how to act? What to do? How to help?

And it turned out that I didn’t need to know anything about Down syndrome or schizophrenia or degenerative disorders to serve at L’Arche.  Tale as old as time, it turned out that I was the one who was taught, who was helped, who was transformed.

The way of life at L’Arche is a daily spirituality of stuff no one wants to do. Wiping drooling mouths. Cleaning up messes. Helping someone learn to eat. Or use the bathroom. Simply sitting with a person who cannot speak.

But this spirituality of stuff no one wants to do becomes a beautiful inversion of the normal way of living, in which speed and success rule the game. L’Arche taught me to slow down, to simplify, to see Christ in the beautiful brokenness around me.

I spent my time at L’Arche doing nothing glamorous. Changing Philippe’s soaked sheets each morning. Helping Claude to get dressed. Cooking with Michel every Wednesday night. Listening to Bernard tell the same incomprehensible stories.

Simple tasks like preparing meals and setting the table took twice as long. Getting out the door was an epic event: struggling with coats, shoes, last-minute bathroom needs. People didn’t sit down when they were supposed to, and they hit others out of anger or frustration, and they broke into loud laughter whenever you were trying to have a serious conversation about something important.

In short, L’Arche might have been the best preparation for my life as a mother of little ones.

Life behind closed doors with those whom society dismisses as dirty or demeaning or a drag can sometimes be stifling. But it can also surprise with pure, rich joy.

Living as a family, living as community – these are schools of humanity. Where we learn that simply being made in the image of God is worth enough for our dignity. Where we set aside success and embrace faithfulness. Where we recognize each other’s brokenness but celebrate the fullness of sharing life together.

No matter how much food gets spilled in the process. No matter how many times the bed gets soaked. No matter how many times we struggle to stay patient.

It’s a spirituality of stuff no one wants to do. But it also opens a way to encounter the God we long to love.