“I think that we human beings have a compass—a mysterious compass—which leads us to do what is right. It’s something about the inner voice. The birds could go off and make a nest and help their kids to fly, but there’s an instinct that is there. I believe that we human beings have that instinct—about peace and about universal justice. But that instinct is something very quiet.”
Title cards at the beginning of Summer in the Forest tell us that in 1964 a Canadian ex-naval officer was invited by a priest to visit a house outside of Paris that was filled with “idiots”. For Jean Vanier, this became the focus of his life. Vanier invited two mentally disabled men to live with him. That has grown into L’Arche, an international network operating in fifty countries. Now 87, Vanier continues to live with and serve those who much of the world chooses to ignore.
Summer in the Forest is not a history of the movement, or even a recounting of Vanier’s work. Rather it is a snapshot of what the L’Arche community looks like. We meet some of the residents in a few of the houses in Trosly-Breuil, France, and others in a L’Arche program in Bethlehem that serves Palestinians with disabilities. It allows us to discover their unique personalities and learn a bit of their dreams and aspirations—which really aren’t that different than the dreams and aspirations of the rest of the world. We learn that their lives need not be defined by what they cannot do, but rather by what they can do when they are supported, encouraged, and treated with dignity.
While the film doesn’t make any note of it, L’Arche does have a Christian foundation, although its programs are open to people of any or no faith. (Some may have heard of L’Arche because of the work and writings of Henri Nouwen, although Nouwen’s contributions are not a part of the film.) The most central tenets of Vanier’s work are that of compassion and acceptance. It’s not every film that gets a papal blurb, but the film’s website notes that Pope Francis sent a message to the filmmakers to mark its release: “His Holiness Pope Francis wishes to affirm his warm support of all initiatives to foster and integrate at the heart of our societies the mentally disabled.”
One of the points that Vanier makes in the film is that “L’Arche is not a utopia, but a hope.” It is that sense of hope in the community of people who care for and about one another that is the real value of the film. We see a way of life that may be counter to the wisdom of the world, but Vanier reminds us of the scripture that says that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.” The people of L’Arche have great wisdom to share with us all.