Summer in the Forest: Can a Special Community Teach Us to Love?

“The big human problem is learning to love people as they are… What I’ve found here in L’Arche is a message for all of us, about all of us.”--Jean Vanier

In 1964, a Catholic priest invited ex-soldier Jean Vanier to a home for “idiots.” Arriving there, he found that several men with intellectual disabilities were receiving the treatment that most disabled people received then: a violent, inhumane experience of degradation and neglect. Rescuing two of the men, he took them to a home in Trosly-Breull north of Paris, where he lived with them, in the face of his neighbors’ derision and lacking any financial support. Now, forty years later, L’Arche (The Ark) has grown to support communities in fifty countries, integrating people of various levels of disability and those who live in relationship with them.

“The whole of history is groups fighting for more power. Somewhere, in the desire to be human, is to show that my group is the best. When it comes down to it, what makes us human? Is it power, then we’ll kill each other?”--Vanier

Prior to watching the documentary by Randall Wright, my knowledge of L’Arche was limited to the writings of theologian and philosopher Henri Nouwen. Watching Summer in the Forest, there’s a sort of magical journey alongside some of the L’Arche residents and Vanier himself that opens us up to the way that the community can teach us something about loving the least, and welcoming the stranger. The L’Arche community shows us something about humanity that we don’t regularly see in the media or necessarily our interactions in a society aimed at capitalism and getting ahead. It’s this message of acceptance, of peace, and of patient servitude that Wright’s documentary focuses in on and asks us to consider for ourselves.

Beautifully shot, wonderfully scored, and innocently portrayed, Summer in the Forest is a powerful film in its calm quietness, in its attempt to show us the ordinary extraordinary, the normalcy of peace, of comfort, of quiet. Wright has captured this in his nine-month immersion in the lives of these people, and it slowly draws us into its exploration of life, of war, of community.

“The weak and the foolish have been chosen to confound the wise and the powerful. Somewhere, the weak lead us to reality, where the wise lead us to ideologies. For peace, it’s to accept weakness, and then weakness becomes transmission of a cry, and the end of the cry is a coming together.”--Vanier

While it might seem remarkable that one man would choose to leave the race that he’s expected to embrace, that a soldier would choose a life of peace and servitude, it becomes even more amazing that groups of people would embrace the same. For Vanier, the love of the stranger comes easily and powerfully, almost in an infectious way. But watching the normal day-to-day interactions of individuals like Michel or Philip or Patrick, or experiencing the marriage ceremony that shows the bonding of the community, the audience is challenged to consider what a love-filled neighborhood, church, or family might do if it embraced the example of L’Arche.

While L’Arche is founded on the ideals that Vanier first embraced, it goes even deeper to his Catholic faith and the teachings of Jesus. There is innocence, and peace, and love that we see here in the context of a Summer in the Forest, and it’s something that we all want in our hearts.

Even if we don’t know exactly what it looks like, or how it would start, or who it would grow to include. We know we need it, that our hearts yearn for it.

We can see that the forest is really Eden, and we’re all trying to get back to the Garden.