Miguel*, one of my friends from L’Arche**, was in the ICU last week.
Whenever something like this happens — and despite the wonderful, highly specialized care he receives, it happens several times a year — my heart aches.
It always seems colossally, brutally unfair, these illnesses and hospitalizations. It reminds me of truths I’d rather not remember: that I am not in control, that my friends at L’Arche are growing older, that I cannot know how much more time they — or any of us — have left.
There’s a terrible powerlessness that comes with knowing: if we choose love, we are going to get our hearts broken. We are bound to lose so much.
Mi amigo, 2009
As I was typing the lines above, my husband Jonathan knocked on the door and asked if he could show me something. I did not welcome the interruption; in fact, it felt like the worst possible time for me to take pause.
I’m trying to figure out how to tie this post together! my mind protested. But writing about my friends at L’Arche is like being in their presence in that it gives me a sense of deep-down peace. So I agreed to Jonathan’s request, putting my computer aside.
My husband led me into the dining nook of our home, the space he’d been working on for several days. He paused, then turned on the newly-installed overhead lights. Thanks to his handiwork, what had once been a dingy, dreary corner was now a clean, inviting space.
His diligent labor had yielded beauty, and he wanted me to witness it alongside him.
The transformation was complete; in fact, I could barely remember what the space used to look like.
All of the sudden, it hit me: this is the work of love in our lives. What happened within this space is akin to what happened to my heart when I came to L’Arche. It wasn’t some surface shift, some minor sweeping and dusting. Instead, it was a total renovation.
Real love makes us vulnerable; it strips off the layers of old paint and debris we like to hide behind. It’s a transformative process, one that will most certainly get messy before it’s complete.
And when it gets messy and complicated, we want to throw up our hands and walk away. We want everything in our heart’s home to go back to the way it was before. A part of us thinks, selfishly: I wish I didn’t know and love this person. That way, I wouldn’t feel so vulnerable.
It feels like we’re ‘losing’ so much, being so vulnerable. And it’s true, we are losing our illusions. But we’re actually gaining a great deal, because such vulnerability is priceless. To love another in a way that opens your heart and changes your life forever? That’s what it means to be fully alive.
But we don’t know if we really believe this, so we look back, longingly, to the life we had (though it was dark and claustrophobic).
We want to know exactly what we’re getting into before we begin, before we open our hearts. But that’s not how it works. The process itself changes us in ways we can hardly imagine.
This kind of change — wrought by small, daily acts of compassion — looks like magic when you see it for the first time. And when you do, you know that every stroke of the paintbrush (and every time you faced a terrible infestation, searched frantically for a missing person, and shared bone-weary breakfasts) was worthwhile.
All of this ran through me as I stared into the new lights. Tears came, so I shut my eyes and prayed for my friend.
And though eyes were closed, light still shone against the darkness.
What gives you hope? Join the conversation in the comments!
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*Names have been changed (and the latest word is that he is doing much better now).
**L’Arche (French for ‘The Ark’) is a faith-based non-profit that creates homes where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together. I worked with the DC community for 5 years.