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“Will you be my friend?” asked Raphael Simi who was confined to the psychiatric hospital at Saint-Jean-les-Deux-Jumeaux in Trosly, a southern suburb of Paris. Next to him stood Philippe Seux, both intellectually disabled and living in deplorable conditions. It was 1964.

A tall strapping professor of ethics listened. Already moved by visits to other institutions warehousing “idiots” and the unseemly, the question changed the direction of his life. Mindful of Jesus’s practical care for the poor, he bought a small house at the edge of a nearby forest and with his new friends set up housekeeping—a messy undertaking but one persevered in.

Daily, often humdrum, interacting dissolved barriers of fear and the customary manner of doing things, opened new inroads into the comic that they shared, and actualized the bedrock of their graced humanness: joy, love, tears, and freedom. From this experience evolved L’Arche (French word for The Ark—like Noah’s), and a quiet revolution was born.

After five decades, such radical care for the unlovely still inflames the psyche of its founder, Jean Vanier, now eight-eight years old. Others of like mind have entered into this movement and following prayerful discernment, developed other group homes in France and around the world. Today, L’Arche has over five thousand members who live in one hundred and fifty-one communities that are spread over five continents. Three of these communities are in St. Louis, Missouri.

This moving story has been captured in Randall Wright’s documentary, Summer in the Forest (2018) and can be seen at the Tivoli Theater in St. Louis, Missouri—another must see.

 

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A solitary cardinal alighted on the plank fence in my back yard, then zoomed down upon the winter-ravaged grass; its redness quickened my heart, plunged me into stillness. I continued watching. Like a wise professor attired in scarlet robes, it discerned the next step and took it boldly. Then it was gone. I had been visited and I knew it. Rather than resume my work in the kitchen, I savored this intrusion.

The cardinal’s fiery presence recalled images of Christ Pantocrator (the Lawgiver), rendered in mosaics or frescoes, which still adorn domes and apses of medieval Eastern Orthodox churches. The dark outlines of Christ’s iconic eyes, his red tunic, his left hand holding the jeweled book of the New Testament, his right hand raised in blessing—Such was the demonstrable power that had inflamed the imaginations of worshipers, huddled below in the nave, whispering their prayers. Such moments sustained their lives of hardship until the next Mass.

Such still has the holding power to thwart evil, with its allure of dark power. Willingness to follow its sway freshens us with loving care and protection.

 

The trappings of Valentine’s Day are upon us: candy hearts stamped with love notes, arrangements of scarlet roses and Babies Breath, chocolate-covered strawberries, intimate candle-light suppers, passionate verse, engagements, and so much more.

Within the buzz of this intoxication, however, few remember the third-century priest, martyr, and saint, Valentine, whose feast day Catholics celebrate on February 14. His work with Christians so vexed the Roman Emperor Claudius II that he sentenced him to death. Before his execution, however, he passed a note, signed “From your Valentine,” to the blind girl he had healed while in prison.

But are there more to such heart-quickenings than the observance of Valentine’s Day with its profane and sacred rituals?

What about those moments of blinding beauty enmeshed within riotous colors of a sunset hugging the wintry horizon? Within a newborn’s discovery of her mother’s nipple and latching onto it? Within piercing lyrics found in “A Simple Song,” from Bernstein’s Mass (1972)?

Like a natural sea sponge with a dense cell structure, the serene heart absorbs such subtle energies that enlarge its world; it sees afresh and thrives. From such heart-quickenings, we sense the Presence in our depths who loves us into our next breath. We can’t help but be grateful.

 

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