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An Enchanted Wood: Life at L’Arche

Review: Summer in the Forest (2017, R2W Films)

Review by Rob Price

This week, I joined with many Christians who mourned the passing of Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche Community, at age 90 after a long and rich witness to the power of suffering love. I first encountered Vanier when my best clergy friend handed me a copy of Community and Growth. Reading that book reproduced an experience that I’ve had while reading books like Hauerwas’s Resident Aliens or Schmemann’s For the Life of the World: “This, at last!”

I pored over it and then sought out other Vanier material, such as his sermon to the 2008 Lambeth Conference and YouTube recordings of interviews with Nicky Gumbel and Archbishop Welby in the House of Lords. I was naturally delighted when Summer in the Forest, a 2017 documentary on Jean Vanier and the L’Arche community, was released on Amazon this year. Despite some unevenness in the quality of the presentation, the human subjects of Summer in the Forest make it a luminous, deeply moving film.

The sheer spiritual beauty of the L’Arche community and the life shared among its members shines throughout. The film has the virtue of not focusing exclusively on Vanier (one doubts he would have allowed that), but lavishes time on several different members of the community. Even stronger, the film represents L’Arche as an international movement by following Vanier on a visit to a community in the West Bank. In a sharp rebuke of typical prejudices, the viewer is never told what is “wrong” with any of the handicapped members of the community. There is an adult who clearly has Down Syndrome, a mother of another narrates her daughter’s traumatic brain injury, and a sister of another remembers when her brother’s mental illness symptoms started. 

However, the documentary does a wonderful job of not showing any prurient curiosity about causes and conditions: everyone is simply taken as they are. The verdict on them all is pronounced by Vanier as he looks lovingly into the eyes of a young man who is non-verbal and confined to a special medical chair: “tu es beau; très, très beau.” The camera, focused on Vanier’s face, enables the viewer to truly see how authentically this word comes from the core of his heart: it’s as if one is witnessing Christ, himself, speaking to this child of God. Have Kleenex ready.

One of Summer in the Forest’s greatest achievements is that patronizing pity is impossible for the viewer. Everyone in the film has a purpose, someone who loves them, and a rich community in which to flourish and be free. One comes to the end of the film wondering if is not we who possess the deficits. Everyone is loved: from the box factory where many member of the Trosly-Breuil community work, to the Palestinian members making woolen crafts with Vanier joyfully joining them, to those serving and eating meals as one family, to a long-time assistant making an exquisite French dinner for a mentally disabled man who has grown old in the community with Vanier. It is in these “small meetings,” as Vanier calls them, that one feels Summer in the Forest is revealing a glimpse of the kingdom of God. If you want to know what a “ministry of presence” looks like, then simply watch Vanier and his colleagues closely as they are present to both pain and frolicking joy with the same peace and stability.

The weaknesses of the documentary must be acknowledged. The cinematographer is over-fond of drone footage: while effective the first time it is used, it becomes excessive and unnecessary for the storytelling. The film’s score is disconnected, whipsawing between slow, emotional, and contemplative tracks and jarring insertions of either disorienting mood music or whimsical non-sequiturs. The film jumps back and forth between subjects so one is not sure if this is a “day in the life” documentary or something aiming to show narrative continuity over time. One wonders if the documentary makers were aiming at something resembling the hypothetically jumbled inner experience of the disabled members of L’Arche, or seeking to evoke a style of life that takes one day at a time. It seems at times that the director struggled to decide exactly what kind of film Summer in the Forest would be.

In his interviews in the documentary, Vanier acknowledges that these virtues were hard-won. L’Arche was formed in 1964 in the midst of that decade’s enthusiastic movements for community. He recalls the “dark days” in the beginning when the true difficulty of living with the mentally ill, many of whom came to him traumatized by the institutions in which they had lived, caused deep suffering for Vanier and others. They found a way to make life fun, to laugh, and little by little healing began to take place in them all. 

As Vanier notes, “people with disabilities are not seeking power, they’re seeking friendship.” If one can find ways to lose power and simply offer friendship, then something new and holy can take shape. He observes that “the beauty of [the disabled person’s] fragility is that he knows he’s fragile,” whereas the rest of us must come to that knowledge the hard way. The beautiful friendship of the fragile is the witness and challenge of L’Arche not only to the world, but especially to the Church. In mutual recognition of one another’s fragility, can we learn to give away enough power to simply be friends?

Vanier is realistic about the difficulty of the discipleship he is modeling. To live this way is “not a utopia, it’s a hope.” Summer in the Forest is unsentimental enough to show clearly that Vanier’s hope — and, of course, the Christian hope it expresses — requires grit. One word from Vanier bears extended quotation: “If you move from anger to compassion, the road then becomes fidelity to the weak … not in big things, but little meetings. It’s a long road, and that’s what people have difficulty with.” 

Parish ministry seems to me to be just this: a series of “little meetings” that do not bear fruit in the short term, but rather form a long road of a priesthood defined by faithfulness to the weakest brethren. What strikes one in retrospect is precisely how free of anger Vanier is: compassion is the form that this freedom takes. My prayer life has been reshaped to focus on asking for the grace to walk the long road of compassionate friendship.

The movie ends with a wedding. Vanier officiates an exchange of vows between two disabled members of the community. There is a long table with food on it. Everyone is there and the families of the bride and groom have tears of joy. Various younger members of the community playfully throw one another into the inflatable pool while the elders laugh and eat. Vanier converses, watches, smiles. The nuptial feast of the Lamb takes place among powerless, beloved friends. As the drone camera pulls up, the forest of Trosly-Breuil encloses a communion of the saints.


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