In L’Arche Sydney, we have gathered from very different cultures, language groups, faiths and backgrounds. It was important then from the very beginning of the community to develop traditions which had meaning and provided a reminder that each one was important and welcome. It was home for those who had known only institutions; it was family for the many who had experienced isolation and loneliness and it was a place of love and security for the vulnerable or fearful.
All cultures and families have rituals and traditions which began as customs. These draw the members together and give meaning to actions both in joyful and sad times. A new member gradually is drawn into the group through a process of experiencing and understanding the relevance of these rituals.
Garry John was the first one to come to the community, after years of institutional living –in fact about thirty years. Garry loved nature and animals of all kind and so each evening, a khaki wooden duck serviette ring graced his place at the table. He was so proud of this mark of belonging. It then became the tradition that each person would receive a serviette ring with an image of something he/she loved. Of course this also made finding one’s own place at the table much easier! Today the tradition remains that each new member person receives a unique serviette ring.
Birthdays are significant events in everyone’s life. In L’Arche Sydney we have the tradition at prayer of passing the candle. Each one has the chance to speak to the birthday person to say a prayer, or to just hold the candle reverently for a moment before passing it on. As some members of the community do not have language, or become anxious about sharing, this symbol has great richness as everyone is included. The person celebrating receives expressions of love and tenderness through this custom.
To give a few more examples:
People of the household gather to share the riches and challenges of the week. To help this, a stone and flower are passed around as tactile symbols. When words don’t come, these express the feelings.
Perhaps the most important ritual of the community occurs at Easter time. Because the liturgy of Holy Thursday is difficult for the group, the Washing of the Feet becomes the point of unity. It is very powerful not only to see the community leader washing the feet of members, but to see a person with a severe level of disability tenderly washing and drying another’s feet. The symbols of servant leadership and mutuality are almost palpable throughout this ceremony.
These are but a few of the very rich traditions which have grown up in L’Arche Sydney. We have them in every part of our lives and for as long as they retain meaning they enrich and nourish us.
The many traditions in L’Arche Sydney have nourished me for almost thirty years. They have been a means of deepening and strengthening my spirituality and my quest to know and love God. Just as the disciples found Jesus on the road to Emaus, I continue to find the richness of God through the people of L’Arche and in the moments when we share deeply.
Helen Merrin OP