Summer in the Forest, Randall Wright’s documentary on Jean Vanier and his L’Arche communities for the disabled, contains a number of indelible moments. In one, an elderly man sits, docilely, for a haircut. As a younger worker clips his hair, he holds out his knobbled hand and receives the milkweed-silk trimmings in his palm.
The elderly man is not one of the disabled L’Arche residents, but Jean Vanier himself. Wright’s documentary is timed perfectly. By following Vanier as an old man, the film allows Vanier’s body to offer the witness of his words and actions: We are all fragile, and we must love one another.
The filmmakers follow several residents of L’Arche in the French village of Trosly-Breuil, as well as another L’Arche community in Jerusalem. Each resident is introduced by name and age, but there is no discussion in their chyrons of exact diagnoses or deficits. For Vanier, and for the filmmakers, the task is to encounter these men and women as individuals.
This person-forward choice left me, as a viewer, confused (in a good way) about exactly what the capacities of the various residents were. Several of the men featured are elderly, and it often feels as though they might “pass” as mentally typical. Any intellectual disabilities are masked by the slowness or uncertainty that seems natural with age.
Later in the film, I was surprised when the gardener I had seen in the background on a riding mower got a chyron and an introduction of his own. He wasn’t a member of the staff, as I had expected, but one of the permanent residents—contributing what he could, where he could. By the time I saw one of the older men carefully spooning dessert into the mouth of a woman with attenuated motor functions, I was no longer surprised by these revelations.
A dear friend of mine became a Dominican sister at Hawthorne, tending to poor people with terminal cancer. When I visited her community, one of the other sisters told me about her experiences with their patients. Frequently, when the family of a patient came to visit, they’d make a point of explaining what the patient had been like before the illness. The sister always listened to their stories, but she found them superfluous to her calling to love. She needed no additional argument or evidence in order to love the people entrusted to her—she was happy to love them exactly as they now were.
Vanier’s communities are built on this assumption. The filmmakers frequently find Vanier in moments of quiet contemplation and community. In one scene, he sits with Sebastian, a thirty-something black man in a motorized wheelchair. Sebastian can move his own chair, but he does not speak in the film. Vanier speaks to him for a little while, then sits in silence with him, seeming dazzled. “You are very lovely, Sebastian,” Vanier says, quietly. He is looking at his friend in the way I look at babies, staggered to be in the presence of someone who seems almost too wonderful to be.
Somehow, it seems much more natural to be moved to awe by an infant than by a person who is grown, but who may have the same dependencies as a child. More than his age and his own infirmity, it is his look of awe that makes Vanier appear most like the other residents of L’Arche. I was struck by the degree to which stillness can look, to me, like intellectual disability. I see ability when it is channeled into action, but Vanier routinely steps back to be receptive, not active.
Summer in the Forest is an invitation from L’Arche to give oneself over to love and receptivity. We are invited to realize that all the moments in which we have most been awed by the face of God in another were part of God’s ceaseless invitation to love. It is my slowness to accept His offer, not any deficiency in those I might love, that prevents me from experiencing Vanier’s joy.
“The weak lead us to reality,” Vanier says during the film.
Near the end, one sequence at the Jerusalem L’Arche helped me catch a glimpse of that reality. Maha, 24, struggles to wrap her fingers around a teacup. The camera zooms in, filling the frame with her fingers as they fumble, tipping the cup. The shot is still, like Vanier, simply staying present for what feels like a painfully long time.
I want to reach through the screen to help her, but as Maha finally lifts the glass, I realize I’m not sure that she was suffering, despite her setbacks. To me, always thinking about efficiency, her movements seemed burdensome. But the patience of Vanier, the rich expressiveness of the L’Arche residents, had cleared just enough space for me to imagine seeing differently.
It might be that slowness could be natural to Maha, as it is in old age (when it guards us from injury) or in infancy (when we are still learning our own bodies). It might be natural, as pain is natural when it aids our recovery by forcing us to respect the limits of our bodies.
For a moment, I understood how I might expect better of Maha, not by expecting less, but by simply expecting Maha and refusing to let any image of my own obscure her presence and particularity. But Vanier is right, and I am fragile. I will struggle to hold onto the gift extended to me.
Summer in the Forest plays in New York City through April 5th.