Full of Grace: Learning How to Be

L'Arche is teaching Sarah Ruszkowski how to be tender, and tough. Photo by Bethany Keener

Since the very first time I heard the song, my two favorite lines of “Be God’s” were always “Where there is no tenderness, be God’s child.  Where there is loneliness, be God’s smile.”  I have learned more about tenderness and the power of a smile in my home this year than ever in my whole life.

After graduation, I moved into a L’Arche home in Washington, D.C.  L’Arche homes provide faith-based communities for adults with and without physical and intellectual disabilities.  It has simultaneously been one of the most beautiful and most difficult years of my life—one of the most challenging to my faith and one of the most nourishing.  I have truly witnessed those words from “Be God’s” lived out.

Yes, the physical care of another human being demands tenderness.  You cannot hold someone’s complete vulnerability in your hands—literally hold someone’s naked body, in your hands—and live God’s love fully, without tenderness.

But more than that, my housemates with disabilities have taught me how to love someone’s soul with God’s tenderness.

My initial understanding of their vulnerability was fairly focused on the physical nature of the way that they entrusted themselves to me. But their entrusting themselves to me is so much more than just the fact that Francis trusts me not to push the toothbrush too far into his mouth so he won’t choke.  It is even more than Benjamin trusting me to help fully clean him up after he has a huge accident, without stripping him of his dignity.  Their truest vulnerability comes from the fact that “filters” and “masks” pretty much do not exist in my house.  How much more vulnerable can you be, than lacking the ability to censor any of what you are thinking or feeling?  I must proceed with tenderness, because they have trusted me with their souls.

But my understanding of that particular line of the song is much less about how I have learned to be tender and much more about how I have been treated with tenderness.  William is the most tender-hearted person I have ever met in my entire life.  He is also the housemate I describe as my “crotchety old man.” (He has been known to tell me to be quiet because I am laughing too loudly and hurting his head, as well as bossing me to go take a shower because I am the smelliest person in community.  We have also fought fiercely about the need for fire drills).

Recently, I was in a car accident with a van full of my housemates.  Thank God, no one was hurt, but I was so scared.  I spent that night consumed by the backward-looking fear of what could have happened.  At home, William, who had been in the car too, held me as I cried.  After a little while though, he simply instructed me to stop crying because babies cry, and I am not a baby.  It was the most tender way that he could have given me strength.  And that is what he did.  William needs me to help him shower and tie his shoes and floss his teeth. He needs me to help him count his pennies to put in the collection basket at Mass.  And I need his tenderness.  I need him to hold my soul gently and embolden me.

And then there is Maria.  Maria is “my lady” as I like to call her.  She is my rock here.  She is a woman of few words, especially when she is eating.  She will actually sit in complete silence during a meal (even when it is just the two of us at a restaurant).  For those who have met me, you know that silence is perhaps something I struggle with sometimes.  On one of our first meals out with just the two of us, I was talking enough for the both of us.  She calmly looked at me and said, “We can just eat”.  At first I was taken aback, and then I could not stop laughing.  It was true.  We could just be together.  I didn’t have to prove anything to anyone.  More than most, she knows the power of a smile for a lonely heart.  She knows when I need her to hold my hand or just sit next to me.

It has been hard for me to be so far from home.  It isn’t something I have ever done before, given that I am from a Chicago suburb and went to Notre Dame.  I am really blessed and have wonderful friends…who now live all over the country.  That can lead to feeling pretty lonely, even in a house with 9 other people.  More than once I have lamented the fact I am no longer “surrounded by people who really know me.” But Maria knows. And she will sit there and look at me with these eyes and give me a smile that assures me I am not alone.  She is there for me.

Maria has taught me how to be present.  In L’Arche, our mission is shared life.  Our mission is to live life in such a way that everyone in our home—those with disabilities and those without disabilities—know that they are worth it, that they are worthy of God’s love.  And it doesn’t come from grand gestures, big plans, or meticulous schedules.  It comes from the fact that you show up everyday.  I have been reflecting a lot lately on what it means to “be God’s love”.  In my life in L’Arche, it is most often seen in silent couch-sitting (together), chaotic 12 person dinners (together), and awfully harmonized song-belting-out (together).  It is so easy for me to become entangled in these big notions of what it means to be God’s love.  But where I have received God’s love the most, where I have been able to share it the most, is in those moments when we are just “together”.  Just being.  But that fits, doesn’t it?  Just “being”?  When that phrase was used with me before, my planner, list-making mind would often wonder, just “being” WHAT?  I think I get it a little more now.  It’s “just being” God’s love.

Our community has suffered a lot this year, and has lived through challenges that people who have been around for many years say, “never happen all together, so rapidly like this year.”  There have been more than a few moments when I have prayed for just a minute to catch my breath between things.  But I have learned to be tougher.  I have learned to be gentler.  I have learned how to forgive and how to be forgiven.

As I continue to struggle and live through all these things—the beauty and the challenges of the past year—I often find myself connecting them back to my time in Notre Dame Vision, a summer program in which college students mentor high schoolers.  The other day, in search for something else, I found a page of notes I had taken during my second Vision summer.  I looked down, and what I read was simply this: “Life is hard.  The only thing you can do is receive the Eucharist.”

I cried.  Things have been really hard here lately.  Challenges have been bigger, my self-doubts have been scarier, and I have felt farther away from home than I ever have before.  Those two sentences were the best instruction I could have possibly received.

Smile, love tenderly, and receive the Eucharist.  Three lessons I learned in those two beautiful summers of Vision and lessons I continue to learn each day.

Sarah Ruszkowski is a 2011 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. She is the home-life leader at Ontario house, one of L’Arche Greater Washington D.C.’s four homes.

Note: the names in this reflection have been changed to preserve anonymity. Used with permission from the University of Notre Dame’s blog, Full of Grace.