On Chaos and Compassion


By Claire McGrath

“There’s a BUG in here! A BIG BUG!!!” It’s been a pretty hectic day, and those are not the words I want to hear right now, being that I don’t exactly consider myself a fan of “big bugs.” Tonight was our community night at L’Arche Harbor House—an evening when anyone with any connection to or interest in Harbor House is invited to join the community in celebrating all that is L’Arche. After participating in a program at our community center, which involves plenty of singing, dancing, prayer, and reflection, all are invited to one of the homes for dinner. Our house had hosted about 20 people. It’s a joy to be able to share the gift of L’Arche—but it’s also a lot of preparation, and by the end of the day, I’m pretty tired. Our guests have returned home, and the core members are getting ready for bed; the day is finally winding down, or so I thought, until I hear one of the core members shouting about the alleged “big bug” from the bathroom. “What is this bug DOING in here?!” I move closer to the door, trying to pretending that I am not at all phased by the idea of a large bug in the bathroom. Then the door to the bathroom cracks open, and a hand thrusts out as a voice exclaims, “HERE. A big bug!!!” In his hand, he holds a palm-sized stuffed ladybug that belongs to one of the other core members, and I dissolve into relieved laughter as I take the stuffed animal. That’s enough excitement for one day.

While I’m certainly settling into life here, I don’t think there is such a thing as “getting used” to L’Arche. There are always unexpected moments of humor, laughter, joy, sorrow, and frustration. There are five core members and four assistants living in my house (plus another three assistants who live here and work in other houses), in addition to the many people who come in and out each day. Consider all of these individual personalities, preferences, pet peeves, and interests, and you’ve got a whole lot going on in one house. Life can get pretty chaotic—but I’m learning to embrace the chaos.

There’s a lovely quote by James Keenan, SJ, a theologian, where he says that “compassion is the willingness to enter into the chaos of others.” Such an accurate way to describe compassion! In L’Arche, you don’t just enter into the chaos; you thrown right into it! When you share life with others, you will inevitably experience their chaos, which consists of a mixture of their frustrations, struggles, triumphs, sufferings, and joys. L’Arche immerses you in the chaos of others’ lives, and you’re invited to open yourself up to allowing others into your own chaos. Chaos can be scary to confront because it’s not neat and tidy, as we would like things to be, and we don’t always know what we will find. Sometimes it’s a joyful chaos, full of laughter and surprises, and other times it’s a chaos that involves confusion and even anger. But having the courage to embrace this chaos allows us to feel true compassion and form authentic relationships. If we are willing to head straight into the chaos, rather than running in the other direction, we will find in one another that still, sacred place where God dwells. I don’t think we can truly experience God in one another unless we are willing to face this chaos.

Being in true relationship means that we choose to love the whole person; we cannot pick and choose which parts to love. It would be much easier to love the parts of others that are neat and tidy and easy to understand, but to enter into fruitful, authentic relationships means to love the parts of others that are messy and confusing as well. Feeling compassion for others means embracing the light and darkness inside them, saying “I am not afraid to walk beside you through the chaos of your life. Together, we will find our way.” Compassion means that we are willing to sort through the chaos in order to reach the place where God is, in the core of each of our beings.

As challenging as it can be to plunge into another’s chaos, I’ve found through living at L’Arche that the real challenge lies in allowing others to see my own chaos. I find that as an assistant, in a role where I provide care for the core members, I want them to see me as someone who has it all together—someone that is always in control of the situation, someone they can come to who will fix their problems. But I didn’t come here to L’Arche to simply be a caregiver, and I simply didn’t come because I have some special gift for fixing problems. I came to enter into relationships, to learn about God, and to learn about myself. I’m struck by how brave the core members are in allowing me to experience their chaos, in a world where any kind of messiness is undesirable. Their courage to live authentically challenges me to stop striving to keep up the pretense that I have everything figured out and under control. I hope that as I continue to grow in this community I can begin to allow others to experience my chaos, so that together we can learn what it is to be truly compassionate.