Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The healing power of community

Helena*, the oldest member of our L'Arche community, suddenly took sick last week. Unfortunately, her common cold became pneumonia in a hurry, and on Saturday morning, she was taken to the hospital because she wasn't doing well. Over the following days, her oxygen levels dropped, her heart seemed to be affected, and yesterday the doctor told the community leader that she might not recover.

Emails went out in the afternoon to let everyone in L'Arche know that Helena wasn't doing well, and to invite them to pay her a visit, though she wasn't conscious. Last night, every home sent a little group of visitors to her semi-private room, and though our gatherings were rather subdued because we didn't want to bother the other two ladies sharing the space, people spoke and sang quietly to Helena.

Later in the evening, after most of the others had gone home, I was able to visit and remind her of a few stories from her life that I've heard from others too far away to visit. Before leaving, I kissed my thumb and made the sign of the cross on her forehead. My arm was in the way and I didn't see her reaction, but the two other friends in the room said, "Did you see that? Her eyebrows went up." I laughed and said, "We need to get all the men in the community to come and give her a kiss, and she'll be just fine!"

Helena may have appeared to be sleeping, but all the visitors who came and everything that happened in her little curtained cubicle last night were clearly very important to her. This morning our community leader sent an update saying that when she visited Helena this morning, she was responding to voices, mumbling and opening her eyes, and humming along to "You Are My Sunshine." Her heart's rhythm is stronger and more regular, and antibiotic treatment will continue. I don't think we're saying good bye yet!

It's just another example of the fact that the most potent drug of all is community, also known as human connection. We've seen a similar situation recently in our L'Arche community where Harry*, who suffers from the onset of dementia, had the worst of his symptoms alleviated with the help of a better drug regime and the love of his friends, who never gave up on him even when the situation wasn't looking hopeful.

And this morning, it seemed my thoughts were aligning with the universe yet again when I bumped into an article by Johann Hari. He sees the necessity of community, too, and talks about it in a book he's written about drug addiction and the importance of human connection for recovery. He wrote an excellent summary which you can access by clicking here. It hits upon the truth, a truth that the L'Arche community discovers over and over again -- every day, really:

There is incredible power in community.

*I use pseudonyms online in place of the names of my L'Arche friends.

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