In this column I would like to share with you in some detail what happened at Mill Grove during a recent evening. Before doing that, let me pass on some insights of Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche communities that I happened to discover after the evening in question. These helped me to understand at a deeper level something of what was going on. His observations are in his book, Signs of the Times (London: DTL, 2013) translated by Ann Shearer.
Describing the dyamics of the residential community of which he is part, he puts it much better than I could have done: “[M]y life at L’Arche has brought me…joy: each meal with my household is a blessing, a beatitude, of the sort spoken of in Luke’s Gospel. There are glances, smiles, words, laughter, events that move us; we can live a love which is neither too close nor too distant. Even moments of aggression between two people can find a place in this ample space of freedom and connection. Someone may be angry with another who touches something painful in their own history, but such tensions are tempered and made relative by the overall atmosphere and joyful shared emotions. A feeling of togetherness and of a common bonding seems to sum up this unique setting and its transforming encounters. We understand each other because relationships with ourselves and each other are at a good comfortable distance.” (pages 134-5)
Now for the evening at Mill Grove: Ruth was in the kitchen and available to a mother and her adult child who had been around for most of the day, when a family of five, including three young children arrived as usual. There were other members of the residential community in and around, but at that point there were eight who made up the group. I was on my way to join them as I always try to do, but on the way discovered that the family was outside enjoying the unseasonably warm February weather, and signficantly that the father was playing with the oldest son (with whom I normally play before tea). So I deliberately delayed my arrival in order to avoid disrupting this positive interaction.
When I did walk through the front door I noticed that everyone was at that point contentedly occupied, leaving Ruth with precious time and space to get on with cooking the evening meal. So in order to allow the dynamics to play out, I opted to go quietly outside to get the dustbins and recycling bins ready for collection the next morning. As I was doing that, another regular attender of our evening meal arrived, and told me that although it had been a better day than the wretched one about which we had shared at length a couple of weeks earlier, it hadn’t been good. So I joined him in the sitting room where the two of us chatted. He spoke of some difficult personal feelings and emotions. At this point the boy with whom I normally play came into the room and began to set up a game resembling ten pin bowling, which he proceded to play by himself. We continued talking, but modified the substance of our conversation.
Another adult joined us and so I suggested that he join in the embryonic game, leaving my friend and I space to round off our conversation. The game was a success, and enjoyed by players and onlookers alike. Before it had finished, it was time for the evening meal. A little Swiss cowbell was rung. Another adult joined us, making eleven of us seated at two adjacent tables in the dining room. I just had time to ask her how she was, and learnt that she had made herself scarce in the Mill Grove community for the past few days in order to avoid clashes with a family that had been staying. This was her first meal back at the table with the rest of us. We each have our normal seats, so hers was still available, and my young friend was beside me with the two males I have described also at the same table as me. Ruth was at the other table, close to the youngest of the group, a little girl of four. Just as we had served the first course I had a phonecall on our landline from someone urgently needing to talk with me. I was reluctant to spend time away from the table, but at this very moment in walked another member of the Mill Grove community, an experienced teacher back from a day of work at his school. So he joined my table for the rest of the meal.
This meant that I was able to listen fully to the person who had phoned me, until Ruth gently informed me that the meal was over, and it was time for prayers. I terminated the call and rejoined those in the dining room, wracking my brains as to how and what to make our focus of our shared time of reflection. As we were nearing Lent I opted to revisit the story of Peter making a complete mess of following Jesus. We read a small section of Matthew chapter 16 as an acted drama, with three taking specific parts. But despite their best efforts, the youngest was not the least engaged in what was going on. Ruth used all her experience and imagination to encourage her, but to no avail. So I switched tack immediately and asked two from my table, the visitor and the teacher, to re-enact the story, one of them playing Jesus, and the other, Peter. It worked a treat, and the little girl was soon entranced by the short unfolding drama. One or two reflected with the group on aspects of the role play before we sang a song and had a short prayer.
We then set about two sets of shared tasks: the majority helping with the washing up (we have no dish-washer), and the rest outside with me, putting out the remaining dustbins and the recycling containers. And then the rest of the evening took its relaxed course with some informal play, a game of snooker, and a game of Frustration, and quite a lot of social networking.
This period of about three hours probably seems so unremarkable that it merits neither description nor analysis. And yet it is the stuff of Mill Grove life, and seems to me to exemplify almost exactly what Vanier is saying. For Ruth and me, we are with our extended family and this is our life. We see it as a blessing. Every individual involved in the meal has their own story, replete with traumas and challenges, and the dynamics are so complicated that it would be impossible to relay them to anyone else. So what makes such dynamics possible, and even also a source of healing? In addition to our joint reading of the emerging and fast changing situation and interactions, there is a sense of togetherness and belonging. And crucially there is the “ample space” in which individuals can disagree without it spilling over and putting at risk the well-being of the whole group. There are “spaces in our togetherness”, that are often not possible in tight-knit nuclear families, teams, or one-to-one encounters.
That sense of a safe-enough, or good-enough, place has been built up over a period of 120 years, and it may be one of the most precious resources that we have. And meal-times are at its heart. Next week we will be having pancakes. It will be fun, but exactly how things will unfold, we do not know. Only that all will be well, and some desperately hurting children and adults, know that they will be welcomed not only in their own right, but as members of a group where they have their distinctive role to play in the togetherness of all, but always “at a good comfortable distance”.