December 2015. Opening a newsletter from the association L’oreille de la rue, in Nantes (Loire-Atlantique), I am struck by reproductions of surrealist paintings in bright colors and evocative titles: Misery without sadness, Between life and death, Beyond. The vibrant life and strength of these paintings appeal to me. Their author, Alphons Metten, lived on the streets for a long time and is battling oral cancer. The bulletin quotes the artist: “Painting gives meaning to my life. God gave me this gift at 41 and it saved me.” Here is a man seriously ill, but full of life, capable of creating beauty. This amazes me. Do not lock yourself in unhappiness, even if you are mistreated by life: this challenge is so familiar to me. What if I went to meet him? A few months later, I was able to meet him. My proposal to write his story meets a deep desire on his part. We meet around ten times in his workshop.
Full of humor, Alphons tells his story in fragments, sometimes vehemently – his paintings, his damaged childhood in Flemish Belgium, his travels, his faith, his anger against the Church. I discover the world of the street and its words move me. “Life is beautiful!” he keeps telling me, when the harshness of his journey overwhelms me too much. Trust grew between us, to the point of giving birth, in December 2017, to a small book illustrated with his paintings, self-published with the help of donors and sold for the benefit of Listening to the Street. He would like the book to reach out (how?) to a daughter he had in Belgium, Anne. Increasingly tested by illness, but firmly clinging to life, Alphons is proud of “his” book, which he readily talks about with infectious joy.
The L’Arche community invites him to sell his work and exhibit his paintings for its end-of-year party. After the mass – joyful and celebrated outdoors – I worry: “You won’t be able to eat the grilled food!” His response bursts out, unexpected and radiant: “I have just been fed! I don’t need anything!” Surprised and moved, I give thanks for the journey I have taken, the anger that has disappeared, the hope that he has renewed in me. At the end of June 2018, Alphons was exhausted. He offers a last painting to a friendly family and returns to the Father’s house at the beginning of July.