A tender touch of gospel paradox

The Life of Jean Vanier

June 5, 2019 | Opinion | Volume 23 Issue 12
Will Braun |
Jean Vanier, centre, died on May 7 at age 90. (Photo courtesy of Jean-Vanier.org)

Jean Vanier, who died on May 7 at age 90, was a spiritual leader who shared the gospel in a way few, if any, had before.  

Born into near-aristocracy—his dad became Governor General of Canada—Vanier withdrew from a promising military career at age 23, shaken by the Holocaust and the bombing of Japan. A devout Catholic, his spiritual quest then took him to a centre for spiritual formation in France.

There, he met Father Thomas Philippe, who became his mentor. During that time, he also studied philosophy, obtaining a doctorate in 1962. In 1964, he returned to Canada to teach at the University of Toronto, where he quickly became a popular teacher.  

But again he stepped off the ladder of success, after just one term, and returned to France, where Father Thomas had been appointed chaplain of a small institution for intellectually disabled people. Vanier helped him out. They visited other such institutions, where Vanier saw people warehoused, locked up. He felt their anguish and sense of abandonment. He heard the cry of these people, literally: “Will you come back?”

At 36, with the support of Father Thomas, Vanier did more than go back to visit. He bought a ramshackle house and invited Raphael Simi and Philippe Sieux, two men from one of the asylums, to live with him. One man had a vocabulary of only 20 words, the other seemed in a dream world, talking repeatedly about the same things. Vanier shared life with them.

“We did everything together—the shopping, the cooking, the gardening,” Vanier told journalist Maggie Fergusson in 2014, “but, above all, we had fun. We found we could really laugh together.”

“Before meeting [Raphael and Philippe],” Vanier told Fergusson, “my life had been governed largely from my head and my sense of duty; [the men] brought out the child in me. I began to live from my heart.”

The founders of L’Arche, from left to right: Rafael Simi, Jean Vanier and Philippe Sieux. (L’Arche Canada photo)

That is the simple essence of Vanier. He went to the margins. He heard the cry. He responded with integrity, love and great humility. His companions revealed the gospel to him, teaching him about vulnerability, love, belonging, his own brokenness and the tenderness of God. 

In creating a holy, broken little family, these three men also ended up founding L’Arche, which now includes 154 communities in 38 countries, where people with disabilities (core members) and people without disabilities (assistants) live together. 

Vanier wrote 40 books and received many honours. 

I have never been part of L’Arche, but Vanier and L’Arche have shaped me like few other influences. One of my most valued documents is a stapled, tattered, stained and re-stapled set of speaking notes from talks Vanier gave at a retreat for L’Arche assistants in 1986 about how Jesus descends to “join the cry of the poor.” A friend in L’Arche gave it to me.

For Vanier’s disabled teachers, this cry was from a sense of abandonment: children who didn’t understand “why Mama can’t be here.” People who had “a sense of being a disappointment to their parents,” and the “impression that they always upset everything.” 

The cry of the poor is most evident in the weakest members of society, but Vanier said that deep within each of us is the cry to be loved, to belong, to be healed of our brokenness. 

Jean Vanier, seated right, and L’Arche members at the 50th anniversary celebration of L’Arche in 2014. (L’Arche International photo)

Vanier speaks candidly about discovering his own woundedness. He speaks about Lucien needing his diaper changed, and how he touched a “weak spot” in Vanier. Lucien “screamed and screamed and screamed,” Vanier recalls, “and I was not able to do anything. I discovered in myself the power of fear, aggressivity, and the capability to hate. . . I can really understand now the phenomenon of the battered child.” 

This was part of discovering his own poverty but also his discovery of acceptance. 

“We come to L’Arche to serve the poor,” Vanier told the assistants at the retreat. “We stay in L’Arche when we discover we are the poor. But also because in L’Arche I am loved.”

Vanier saw in the weakest not an opportunity to do something for them, but to enter into relationships of mutuality. His gift was to bring out the gifts of the most vulnerable and rejected people in society. 

“To love someone is not first to serve him/her,” he said. “It is to reveal to him/her their own beauty.” It is to say to someone, “I am happy you are here because you yourself are a gift. . . . I am not here because I am able to do something for you.”

“The good news,” said Vanier, “is very simple: You are loved. You are not bad. I want to live with you. . . . I am happy to be with you.”  

Jean Vanier, centre, died on May 7 at age 90. (Photo courtesy of Jean-Vanier.org)

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A word of appreciation for the article by Will Braun reminding us of the sacred, gracious and life transforming ministry of Jean Vanier.

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