Editor's Note: The print issue of Commonweal (March 2020) in which the following review appears went to press two days before it was reported that Jean Vanier sexually abused six women. We regret that the magazine's production schedule did not allow either the editors or the reviewer to take this news into account before the review was published. Michael Higgins has since written an article for Commonweal about the revelations of Vanier's misconduct. That article is scheduled to appear in the magazine's April print edition.
When Jean Vanier died in May 2019, he left behind 153 L’Arche communities in 38 countries on five continents, comprising 10,000 members with and without “intellectual disabilities” (the L’Arche term). He also left behind “Faith and Light,” an international movement, cofounded with Marie-Hélène Mathieu, to develop bonds of friendship among people with intellectual disabilities, their families, friends, and others drawn to help. He had given hundreds of speeches and retreats, authored thirty books, and received scores of awards, including the Paul VI Prize given by Pope John Paul II in 1997 and the Templeton Prize in 2015. In 2016 he was named Commander in the Legion of Honor—France’s highest decoration.
All this was possible because Vanier was, as Anne-Sophie Constant indicates in the subtitle of her book, “a free man,” a man “who knew how to become himself, who knew how to free himself from restraints and prejudices.... He knew how to free himself from this great current in which we all swim, because he knew how to listen to his own inner voice—the conscience, which Saint Thomas Aquinas tells us is not just the ability to distinguish between good and evil, but a force that pulls us toward liberty, justice, and light.”
Constant’s “portrait” is based on interviews with Vanier and on a careful reading of his books. It comes in seven chapters, organized chronologically. The first three deal with his life before L’Arche. His father Georges joined the Canadian military in the Great War, became a career officer after the war, and then a career diplomat, starting as Canadian representative to the League of Nations. He married Jean’s mother Pauline in 1921. Jean, born in 1928, was the third of five children. In 1939, Georges Vanier was appointed Canadian ambassador to France and brought the family to Paris in April, a month before Germany invaded. They fled to England, made their way to Montreal, and remained there the rest of their lives. The Vanier household was well-off, cultured, and oriented toward civic service. It was also very Catholic, providing Jean with the faith needed for what would be a circuitous path to his vocation.
At the age of fourteen, in 1942, Jean Vanier enrolled in the Royal Naval College in England. By the time he had graduated, the war was over, but he stayed on in the Navy and was promoted to lieutenant of Canada’s only aircraft carrier. In spite of his success, “he felt an increasing pull toward something else.” This impulse was cultivated by his religious practice and his reading of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Catherine de Hueck Doherty, whose Friendship House in Harlem he visited in 1950 when his ship docked in New York. Soon after, Vanier resigned from the Navy and, at his mother’s suggestion, joined Eau Vive (Living Water), a community of students in Soisy-sur-Seine, near Paris. There he met Fr. Thomas Philippe, OP, leader of the community of eighty young students from twenty countries. Philosophy, theology, the spiritual classics, daily Mass, gardening, silent prayer: Vanier drank it all in while receiving direction from Fr. Thomas. When the priest was suddenly transferred, Vanier was asked to lead the community but got caught between factions fighting for control and left in 1956. Eight years of wandering followed: a Cistercian monastery, a house in Normandy, a cottage at Fatima, a rental in the Swiss Alps, back to Paris to finish and defend his dissertation on Aristotle at the Institut Catholique, then to St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto to begin teaching in the fall of 1963. But at the end of that academic year, Vanier resigned his tenure-track position and returned to France.
What spurred Vanier to abandon this prestigious academic post? Constant explains that it was the people he met on two return trips to France that year. Over Christmas break, Vanier visited Fr. Thomas, then chaplain for thirty intellectually disabled men living in a chateau called Val Fleuri in the village of Trosly-Breuil. These people generated in Vanier “an attraction and repulsion,” he recalled, “an attraction toward a mystery and a repulsion from the abnormal. But over and above that, what charmed me was their crying out for friendship. They all fluttered around me like bees. They touched me and asked, ‘will you come back to see us?’” Vanier went back to France the next spring to visit psychiatric hospitals and care homes. Constant writes that he “was horrified by what he found: a world of neglect and misery, of violence and exclusion.” He saw people in chains, confined behind metal gates. At one place he saw dozens of people in pajamas staring into a void. Everywhere he heard the plea: “Do you love me? Why have I been abandoned? Why am I not like my brothers and sisters who are married and who live in a house? Why am I here?” To these questions, the newly minted professor had no answer, Constant writes. “All his philosophy was silent.”
Vanier moved to Trosly and bought a house. Soon he invited three disabled men with no families—Philippe, Raphael, and Danny—to move in with him. He had no plan, no large-scale vision, no charter. The learning curve for this kind of hospitality was steep. But the meals got prepared, the utilities got paid, routines took hold, volunteers appeared, donations came in. Nine months after the original house started, Vanier was given responsibility for the men at Val Fleuri, thus absorbing thirty-two more core members into the community. The common life was marked with a family atmosphere, yet Vanier set up a board of directors and recruited doctors and nurses to care for the core members, striking a balance between spontaneity and structure, personal friendship and professional medical care. This became a distinguishing feature of the L’Arche approach.
The original L’Arche community grew by leaps and bounds: 73 members by 1968, 112 in 1970, 126 in 1972. It became a community of communities with a central gathering space, later a farm that became a worship and retreat center. During these years, L’Arche communities were founded elsewhere in France, Canada, India, England, Haiti, Honduras, and Australia. Most years Vanier spent months on the road giving retreats for these communities, for the “Faith and Light” movement, for priests and young people in many countries. L’Arche communities multiplied in the decades to follow. Some start-ups were ecumenical, others were interreligious. It became a worldwide movement. As Constant tells it, this was largely due to Vanier’s guidance. She gives numerous examples of how Vanier listened to people carefully and spoke to them personally. She attributes this to his deep desire to follow Jesus and bring Jesus to others.
At times, Constant puts Vanier on a pedestal and veers into the realm of hagiography. In the introduction, she admits that Vanier was apprehensive about her project for this reason. At the same time, she mentions the tensions and heartbreaks faced by Vanier in leading L’Arche. There was community life itself: demanding, exhausting, and, in L’Arche especially, chaotic. There was the temptation to overwork, to which Vanier succumbed—so much so that in 1976 he ended up in the hospital and learned, as he wrote in a letter to friends, the importance of patience and detachment. And then there was the revelation brought by several women in 2014 that Fr. Thomas, who died in 1993, had sexually exploited them in the context of shared prayer and spiritual direction. The news was “shocking and devastating for everyone, and a huge trauma for Jean Vanier.” A canonical investigation validated the complaints in April 2015. Initially reacting with disbelief, Vanier “was overcome with a deep compassion for these abused women,” which he expressed in a public letter—dated October 17, 2016—that condemned Fr. Thomas’s actions. By then, L’Arche had established a group of psychiatrists to listen to further reports of abuse by Fr. Thomas. A Mass was held for victims in April 2017. Absorbing these revelations led Vanier “to undertake a harsh and difficult reinterpretation of their relationship.” There are questions here that Constant does not pursue. Why did Vanier’s reckoning take more than two years? What wisdom did Vanier have to share after his own personal process of sifting and judgment? These days, in these matters, his wisdom would likely be helpful.
Constant’s book is conversational, meandering. It is not a biography of Vanier, nor a history of L’Arche. It is what it calls itself: a “portrait,” painted in the written and spoken words of the subject, making no attempt to be impartial or critical. While this approach has shortcomings, it does provide insight into Vanier’s intentions in founding L’Arche. He wanted to follow his heart, knowing that it would make him happy, as Aristotle understood happiness (the topic of his thesis), and lead him to God. This hope is poignantly expressed in the message Vanier sent to friends and coworkers shortly after his ninetieth birthday in January 2019. Diagnosed with thyroid cancer, living in a state of frailty, he wrote of his impending death, “I know that new weaknesses, new forms of poverty and new losses are awaiting me. It will be descent into what is essential, that which is hidden in me, deeper than all the parts of success and shadow inside me. That will be what is left when all the rest is gone. My naked person, a primal innocence which is awaiting its encounter with God.” Jean Vanier died as this book was going to press, making it a timely tribute to a good and holy man.
Jean Vanier: Portrait of a Free Man
Translated by Allen Page
Plough Publishing House $17.89 | 162 pp.