John is an assistant at L’Arche Greater Washington, D.C. He wrote this piece for L’Arche USA’s newsletter, Hope Signs.
I used to look to spirituality for certainty. Certainty about the future. Certainty about my life. Certainty for my ego. There is something reassuring about following rules. If I do that with a little bit of luck, I’ll be able to “get into” eternal life. At least, that is what I thought. I also used to look to spirituality to answer the question: How can I be a good person? Because if I could answer that question then maybe I could become a “good person.” It took encountering a spirituality focused on simplicity to wake something in my soul, to go from a journey upwards to a journey inwards.
I was in college when I first met L’Arche Frederick. The L’Arche Frederick Planning Committee welcomed me to plan community nights with them. Over the next four years, I spent many Friday nights in a middle school gym being welcomed by a group of people who were there to be together. I remember being so nervous. I wanted to plan something AWESOME every month. Naturally, that desire for greatness led to many questions: What if what I planned was lame? What if nobody liked what I did? It turned out that everyone was just happy to be together. We made Thanksgiving collages, decorated St. Patrick’s day cookies, and even limbo danced our Friday nights away. But what I remember the most is not all the things we did but all the ways I was told, “You belong.” People smiled at me, asked me about my week, and remembered me. I spent four years learning that lesson. It was not the things that I did or wanted to do that made me worthy of welcome. It was not the things I wanted to achieve. It was the fact that I showed up. It was as simple as that.
I began to call Highland House at L’Arche Greater Washington D.C. my home after I graduated college in 2018. There is something to living in L’Arche that makes all of the prayers we say in our liturgies real. All of our statements about God and community sound really nice, but, unless they are lived out in relationship, they can become hollow. During Prayer Night, we say the phrase “God is with us,” over and over. “God is with us.” Why? Because God loves us, and to love someone is to be with them. That love is incarnate to me through my relationships in L’Arche.
It is in the daily caring for one another that the words we say and the words we pray become real. One night, early in my time at L’Arche, I was feeling overwhelmed. I raised my voice while I was sharing time. In that split second afterwards, it felt like my entire world came crashing down. I raised my voice. Why am I not more patient? I am flawed. And, as that guilt set in, I realized that I was only human. I was not ready to forgive myself, when Eric, my housemate, appeared behind me. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “John, I forgive you.” He reached me in my flaws, in my imperfection, and still called me beloved. Eric was with me. In that moment, Eric showed me the love and forgiveness of God. I used to internalize that I would have to “get back to God” after doing something wrong. Eric taught me that God is always with me, even in my guilt. There was nothing I had to do and nothing I had to earn. I only needed to accept the forgiveness and say thank you.
A few months later, I found myself crying while I sat on the driveway. I was on the phone with my parents and I was sobbing. Tears. Snot. Sweat. The whole thing. Fritz, another one of my housemates, looked on from the porch. He came down and sat next to me. He waited until I hung up the phone and leant in and hugged me. He put his hand on my back and then said, “Ooh, sweaty.” And in my sadness, Fritz made me chuckle. It was nothing grand. It was just Fritz being with me. In that moment, Fritz revealed something in me that I did not know it was there. Beyond my sadness, beyond me thinking that I am not enough, beyond it all, there was something still present. I think that something was my soul, the place within me where God lives. I remembered that God is with me, that God chooses to live in me. And trust me, if God chooses to live in me, then God also chooses to live in you. God chooses to calls you beloved and calls you “home.”
Forgiveness. Celebration. Encounter. These are things that we have to do every day. Living in community is not a utopia. It’s real people doing their best to live together. Each time we forgive or love or share time together may not be earth shaking, but these simple moments are worth reflecting on. These moments have reminded me over and over again that I am beloved as I am. There is no “hack” or “quick fix.” It takes being fully myself and being open to encountering God in the world and people around me every day.
The lesson that I have encountered time and time again in my spiritual path with L’Arche is both the simplest thing in the world and the hardest. It is the call to be authentically ourselves. Only then will we be able to recognize that God is with us, that God is never far away, but always present right here, right now, in each of us.