by Chris Roe.
Towards the end of March this year, I was sat in the living room of one of the L’Arche community houses in Preston, next to a person with learning disabilities who I support and live alongside, and another assistant, watching telly. As our programme ended, a newsreader appeared on the screen. He began to inform us of the latest news regarding Coronavirus – the rapidly developing crisis, the Prime Minister’s message, the new restrictions imposed on our lives…
The person with learning disabilities leant forwards, took a breath and shouted “Oh shut up!”
We all laughed, and, on my part at least, felt a little bit of unacknowledged tension lift. For though I would never have verbalised it, there was a part of me that wanted to yell too. The harsh reality the newsreader conveyed was painful. It was good to hear someone say so out loud.
There has been a lot of advice around keeping ourselves mentally well during this time, not to mention a plethora of activities and video meet-ups organised by so many communities and organisations across the world. In my own experience of this crisis, all the best mental health advice I’ve heard (and I’ve heard this said in many different ways by many different people) has essentially involved expressing ourselves honestly, be that through writing things down, talking to someone, or just, well, shouting at the telly.
In this time of crisis, I’m more aware than ever of the power of honesty. There is something very cathartic about saying what we truly feel, when so often we cover those feelings up out of necessity or habit. Being honest involves opening ourselves up, to God and to other people, and therefore being vulnerable in some way.
I have found the Psalms to be a real gift at this time. They express a whole spectrum of emotions towards God- love and fear, longing and pain, peace and anger, and so much more. Their comfort lies in their expressiveness and openness towards God, which somehow permits us, too, to be equally open and expressive in our relationship with God.
It’s worth pointing out that being honest is not the same as being miserable! One of the traditions we hold in L’Arche when celebrating birthdays, whether for people with or without disabilities, is to “pass the candle”. A candle is passed around those who have gathered to celebrate and in a few words each person tries their best to sum up what they value and appreciate about the person whose birthday is marked. It can be a powerful thing to be a part of, a powerful thing to hear about yourself.
Of course, we do not mention the things we do not like about someone, their weaknesses and faults, at their birthday party. That would not be much fun.
Honesty is powerful and it can be painful. Which truths do we share with each other? What does the right time to share a difficult truth look like? Where do we do that? When is it appropriate or inappropriate? Is it easier for some people to be honest than others?
One of the most painful honesties in L’Arche recently has been news about Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche. Vanier created and helped grow a global network of communities of people with and without learning disabilities, sharing life together. But this year, an independent investigation commissioned by L’Arche determined that he had sexually and spiritually abused at least six women. A man who was considered by many to be a saint was anything but.
What do we do with such news? Where do we go from here? How do we even share it? One example of this, from L’Arche London, was widely circulated at the time and has much power in the way it does not shy away from telling difficult truths to vulnerable people, in as safe an environment as possible.
There is a long way for L’Arche to go, but it seems to me that the honesty expressed by the organisation I am part of gives us a chance to grow up, to be honest about the past and not romanticise it.
The power of honesty has become all the clearer through lockdown for me. Honesty, and the vulnerability that comes with it, seems to allow us to enter deeper relationships with one another. This blog will be published the day after Trinity Sunday, a day when we recognise that the very being of God is, in some mysterious unknowable way, relational. Can church communities do anything more than aspire to reflect that?
We read in Acts of the first disciples sharing their lives together following the coming of the Holy Spirit. They shared their possessions, broke bread and praised God together. That commitment to one another must have required a certain bravery, and a certain willingness to relate to each other in loving honesty and vulnerability. It seems to me that, knowing your brothers and sisters in such a way, you may, in a way we too easily take for granted, realise that we are all children of God, fearfully and wonderfully made.
 Acts 2: 42-47