Friday, 18 July 2014

The Funeral of Thérèse Vanier at Canterbury Cathedral

By Maurice Billingsley

The Funeral of Thérèse Vanier, Canterbury Cathedral, 10th July, 2014.
For the second time in a week L’Arche gathered at Canterbury Cathedral. Still full of the joy of the double jubilee of L’Arche in France and the UK, we came to say goodbye to Thérèse Vanier, founder of the UK communities, here in Kent, where the seed was sown. Here was a Catholic Requiem at the beating heart of the Anglican Communion, a generous and appropriate gesture to one who was alive to the scandal of disunity, still achingly present in this Eucharist as the Very Reverend Robert Willis, Dean of Canterbury, welcomed the congregation and remained near the altar throughout the service.

From the welcome at the door to the carrying out of the coffin, and on to her interment at the country churchyard of Barfrestone, community members with learning disabilities played a full part in her requiem. She lies next to her good friend Bill Armstrong, who in 1974 left a local long-stay hospital to become one of the first members of L’Arche Kent, living up to his name with hard devoted work, setting Thérèse’s dream on sure foundations in Kentish soil.

Fr David Standley welcomed the surviving founders, Ann Morgan and Tony Gibbons, with long-standing and younger community members from Kent and London, where Thérèse was part of the Lambeth community after handing Kent to others’ leadership. Former assistants and friends of L’Arche swelled the congregation in the nave, where the coffin was placed over the compass rose, the symbol of the Anglican Communion, worked into the stone of the Cathedral’s floor.

Jean Vanier, Thérèse’s ‘Little Brother’, told of her listening to God, after meeting another long-term hospital resident during a pilgrimage to Lourdes and of her starting L’Arche UK in Kent, at the invitation of Archbishop Michael Ramsey. He described the shock at St Thomas’s Hospital when their consultant haematologist left to work with people with learning disabilities.
There was L’Arche, but also Thérèse’s commitment to St Christopher’s Hospice where she worked with dying patients for eighteen years. Jean spoke of his sister’s competence and love, of her bringing people together in love. Of her ecumenical work he said, listen to God, he will lead us to openness; be with the weak, they will lead you to unity. Unity, Jean said, is a vision, not an ideal, and Thérèse had that vision.

Fr David Standley described Thérèse’s love of John’s Gospel and her chosen reading of the raising of Lazarus, (11:17-44) poignantly enacted by members of L’Arche Kent as he proclaimed it. She could also have chosen the washing of feet, a symbolic liturgy that she made a part of L’Arche’s life: the weekend’s Pilgrimage had concluded with this ceremony. Why the raising of Lazarus? Jesus wept: he loved this man who was living at home with his two sisters, a most unusual situation. Was this because Lazarus had a learning disability?
Thérèse certainly loved the sisters’ feisty protest, their anger with God, the underlying sense of humour there. She loved the drama of this story: ‘take away the stone’; ‘unbind him’. Now L’Arche removes stones to let people come out and let Jesus unbind them – and allows us to unbind each other.

Thérèse recognised that she had been unbound by many individuals.
As a faithful Catholic, Thérèse had a passion for Christian Unity, and suffered for it. Her teachers were the people of the communities, who showed her that we are all weak, we all need God, we are all called to be priests and ministers to one another. Fr David concluded with reference to the reading from Romans (14:7-12):If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. If we belong to God in life and in death, we live in Christ, we live in each other; Thérèse is not lost in death.

At the offertory gifts symbolising Thérèse’s life were brought forward by friends and colleagues, including the Communities’ Prayer Companions from Minster Abbey, and Dr Mary Baines of St Christopher’s Hospice, as a soloist sang The Apple Tree:
Under the shadow I will be
Of Jesus Christ the apple tree.

After Communion we heard more about this long life well-lived: the escape from occupied France, War Service with the Canadian and Free French forces and her time in St Christopher’s, where a doctors’ acronym (for once complimentary) might be found on a patient’s notes after she had admitted them: TGFT, thank God for Thérèse. The Kent Community, the elders of whom had lived with her, made a final contribution, ‘mostly non-verbal’ of Thérèse’s gifts and the things she enjoyed (such as the colour blue: of course, ah yes, I remember it well, and thank you for the memory!).

Forty years on from her arrival to found L’Arche in the village of Barfrestone, Thérèse came home, to wait in sure and joyful hope alongside Bill, David and other friends; the circle of her earthly life completed but not ended.

Over her grave her own prayer was recited:

… may seekers for truth give life to those who are satisfied that they have found it.
May the dying who do not wish to die be comforted by those who find it hard to live.
May the unloved be allowed to unlock the hearts of those who cannot love…
That we may be healed. Amen.

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