An Old Man Comes To Community
July 2016, Webster Bull – During the past nine months I have met, been embraced by, and plunged head over teakettle into L’Arche Boston North. As an assistant in my 65th, not 25th, year of life, I am something of a statistical outlier.
How I came to L’Arche in the first place—what the community calls my sacred story—is a long tale of good parents, childhood church-going, a painful trek through a wilderness of alternative spiritualities, a return to Christianity in my late fifties, and a “chance” encounter with the story of Henri Nouwen. His descent from celebrity at Ivy League divinity schools into the anonymity of the L’Arche Daybreak community was a journey that touched my heart when I first read it a few years ago.
How I encountered L’Arche in August 2015 and the steps by which it hooked me is another story. This one began, as many good stories probably do, with Judy, Doris, and Woody.
Invited to a community picnic at Janice Anton’s farm, I walked onto the scene under a high summer sky in medias res. That is, the L’Arche Party was underway. No one paid much attention to a stranger with white hair looking around for a safe place to sit. They were all having too much fun. So without announcing myself to anyone—who was in charge here anyway?—I turned to my right and into the barn. Maybe I thought I could observe from the hayloft until I figured out this terra incognita. Just inside the barn door I encountered a woman about my age whom I would later know as Judy. She was dancing joyfully and purposefully to music piped in from somewhere, employing high steps and strong arm movements like a cross between an Irish step-dancer and a drum majorette.
Like everyone else, Judy seemed oblivious to my presence, so I continued to the back of the barn, where Doris was enthroned on a folding chair. A majestic presence, she sported a flowing full-length purple dress and a straw hat bedecked with flowers, like some fairy queen. Seeing no line of retreat, I introduced myself, and Doris immediately captivated me with friendly chat about subjects I’ve long forgotten. She too seemed to be about my age. I liked Doris at once. I felt instantly welcomed by her. And then Woody, her husband, appeared, and within ten seconds he had launched into one of my favorite subjects—60s rock. I soon learned that Woody’s knowledge of The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, and all the treasured bands of my youth surpasses the encyclopedic. Trying to get a word in edgewise, I shared with Woody my own experience at a Jefferson Airplane concert in the UMass gym in 1970, seated on the stage in front of the bass speaker and losing my hearing to Jack Casady’s licks.
Later in the afternoon, after my wife Katie had arrived, she and I sat with other members of the community, and we had ourselves a good old time. But those first fresh impressions of core members Judy, Doris, and Woody were what stuck with me.
In September, I began an eight-month internship at L’Arche Boston North, to fulfill a field-education requirement for a master’s program. With the thoughtful supervision of pastoral director Tom Murphy, I made a monthly circuit of the four houses—Gandhi, Naz, Peace, Assisi—on Thursday afternoons, followed by dinner. Then came prayer night, men’s covenant, spiritual life committee, or a birthday celebration, which take place on successive Thursday evenings each month. With this weekly routine, I quickly formed a global sense of the community.
Into November I passed through two months of orientation and indoctrination, with core members in charge of both. They helped me and taught me, not the other way around. For example, when I arrived at Nazorean House for the first time in late September, Devin was waiting for me on the front porch, a self-appointed one-man greeting committee. I had never met anyone quite like Devin before, and we did not exchange words so much as gestures of goodwill. Devin seemed to overflow with goodwill and I felt distinctly welcomed, even when he shyly, abruptly turned his back on me and disappeared into Naz like the White Rabbit into Wonderland.
I found myself connecting unaccountably with core members. These included Judy, who was waiting for me inside Naz that evening and asked me to drive her to the birthday celebration; Deb, who hails from my town and once knew my brother; Chris, who always seemed to greet me with a smile; John, whose outspoken, courageous evangelizing impressed me; and Doris and Woody once again, when I enjoyed a dinner at their table in Peace House and learned something about their brave escape from an institutional nightmare.
Frannie was another core member with whom I formed a fast friendship. She seemed determined to keep me in the community, looking at me after only a couple of conversations and ordering me: “You better be sticking around!” I met and admired many assistants, too, but I understood from Tom Murphy and from my own experience that I would be likely to “stick around” only if I made significant friendships with core members.
By Thanksgiving, I knew that I was doing so. I also realized that four-hour Thursdays were not giving me a complete picture of community life. As a guest at dinners and a fly on the wall at community gatherings, I was missing the nitty-gritty of L’Arche. So I asked Tom if I might increase my weekly hours. He checked with leadership, and I was quickly offered a regular shift at Gandhi House on Sundays from 3 to 9 p.m. I said yes to the offer.
So began what, for the purposes of my master’s program, might have been only my second semester of field study at L’Arche. My Sunday afternoons and evenings at Gandhi were sometimes fun, sometimes challenging (the biggest challenges usually provided by assistants, not core members), and sometimes boring. TV and digital devices can numb life at L’Arche as well as they do anyplace else in our world; and I found myself looking for ways to lean against the Tyranny of the Screen.
I invited folks out for walks. Whenever Frannie wanted to see the new house the community was building I volunteered to drive her. With a theatrical background, I thought of reading aloud to core members and I began with Chris and The Wind in the Willows. But either I misread her signals or she really was not interested, and soon I found I got more positive feedback by reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to Frannie. I knew she was hooked the third Sunday when she met me at the front door on arrival, pointed a finger at me, and said, “You better’ve brought that book!” (Frannie gives orders well.) I found that once I began reading to Frannie, even with the TV droning in the background, Dan often looked down the living room at us, following the sound of my voice with a smile, and Christine paid fitful attention from across the room.
Tom D, the fourth core member of Gandhi, never stopped to listen to Tom Sawyer. But I learned from watching him and from talking with Tom Murphy that Tom D has a strong Catholic faith. So I made a point of sitting with him in his private TV chamber off the Gandhi living room and reading my breviary silently or saying a rosary in his presence while he voiced his pleasure or displeasure at the programs he watched serially, with the clicker working constantly, station to station. Accompanying Tom D to church at St. Patrick’s in Groveland was one of the high points of my “second semester” at L’Arche Boston North.
Another high point was a Saturday afternoon “retirement party” for Phil Petts. Phil is another outlier, an assistant hovering near 80. That he is also suffering from cancer may not have been known to every core member who came to celebrate Phil’s “retirement.” I had a chance to observe his gentle presence in the living room at Gandhi and I was flattered when another, much younger assistant told me I reminded her of Phil. I spoke with community leader Swanna Champlin, noting that I thought older assistants like Phil and me and indeed Swanna herself could bring a quality to community life that does not quite duplicate the efforts of much younger, quicker assistants. She seemed to agree. I silently calculated to myself that Phil must have joined the community at about my age; and that if I “stuck around” for fourteen years, I would be his age. That thought has stuck with me, happily.
I have always felt uncomfortable in situations of power, which is to say in most social situations in our wealthy, sophisticated American culture. My personal idea of hell is a cocktail party where everyone is clutching a glass and shouting at each other because no one can hear anyone else and each of us is trying to prove that he or she is better, bigger, richer, funnier, and more powerful. By contrast, I have always had an attraction to friends whom I would categorize, with deep affection, as oddballs—the obviously non-powerful, the meek geeks, the shy ones. They are usually the people I can talk with most comfortably one-on-one. I’m not naming names here, but if you’re reading this and you’re one of them, then yes, I mean you, brother. The computer nerd in a frat filled with jocks. The hearing-impaired, touchy old son of a bitch whom everyone else finds intimidating but whom I know for a broken-hearted marshmallow. The recovering alcoholic who pines for the wife and children he lost to drink. These are some of my friends in the “real world” today.
At L’Arche during my second semester, I began to discern that this “attraction to oddballs” might in fact be not a flaw in my character but rather something very much like a gift. Even if it isn’t precisely a gift, it is me—or closer to me than the successful guy ironically and eternally lost in power situations. I saw that in living and working and just being present with core members, whom so much of the world might categorize the way I categorize some of my closest friends, I feel more myself. I feel that my heart is more open, more accessible, and more creative too in the presence of Fran, Dan, Chris, and Tom D.
So once again, this time in April, I raised the possibility of upping the ante still further—not leaving at the end of the school year, but sticking around. As of early May, I began to be plugged in as a relief assistant, mostly at Gandhi, with an expressed willingness to work up to 30 hours a week as needed. As I finish writing this I am scheduled for a 34-hour week dead ahead. Oh, and I’ve taken a leave of absence from the master’s program.
It is a funny thing to have spent a lifetime working hard and even achieving—building a family, creating businesses (I’ve been on the ground floor of three small start-ups, serving all three as president), growing personally and financially, as our culture instructs us to do—and yet finding at my own “retirement” age that I sometimes may have been looking for happiness in the wrong places.
In his book Community and Growth, L’Arche founder Jean Vanier writes of people who have “succeeded in the world” and now wish to “climb down the ladder into the place of communion.” I smile to realize that I am now on one of those rungs, descending. Unlike U2—and Woody could tell you the month and year and name of the album and the number of the cut—I have found what I’m looking for.