A Joy, Not a Nuisance

What the Disabled Taught Jean Vanier
This story is included in these collections

In the fall of 2014, when he welcomed my two companions and me at the gate to the “holy grounds” that comprise the motherhouse of the L’Arche movement in Trosly-Breuil, France, his pace was slower than I remembered. To be sure, it had been fifteen years since we last met, and he was in his upper eighties by now. But the serenity and gentleness of the man had in no way abated. Philosopher, theologian, and humanitarian; former naval officer; author of nearly three dozen books on such topics as faith, community, and disability; 2012 nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize; winner of this year’s Templeton Prize: Jean Vanier remains Jean Vanier.

Even so, there was a sadness to his gait and demeanor. 2014 was an annus horribilis for him: two of his siblings, Georges, who was a Trappist monk in Quebec, and Thérèse, a distinguished hematologist in Britain and pioneer of palliative medicine, had died. He had been close to them, sharing a common vision of service to the marginalized, and their deaths were pointed reminders of his own mortality.

Over a cup of coffee, after meeting the friends who accompanied me—an Anglican priest and a prominent businessman—Vanier listened intently to queries he no doubt had fielded countless times before, yet nonetheless received with sincere earnestness. There followed a stimulating luncheon and conversation with members of the L’Arche community. Afterward, while walking back to our car, Vanier quietly mentioned his personal disappointment, even anger, following his recent trip to Rome. Invited to participate in a consultation with Pope Francis, he had been struck by the resistance many exhibited to the pope’s eloquent call to become a church for the poor and of the poor. The pope’s attempt to implement his ecclesiological vision—clearly and unequivocally articulated in his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii gaudium—was going to be a bigger struggle than Vanier anticipated.

That distressed Vanier, because a church of the poor—a church of the marginalized, the isolated, the abandoned—is the church he has given his life to serve. And now, finally, that church has a pope who is utterly sympatico with that vision—yet surrounded by spiritual tepidity, institutional recalcitrance, and deep fear at the highest levels. If there is a corrective strategy Vanier can deploy to offset the forces of reaction, it lies in the continuing work and witness of his decades-long commitment to providing a special kind of sanctuary, a place where the emotionally and physically challenged can school us in the ways of love.

Jean Vanier has spent his adult life immersed in the lives of the disabled, and in a November 2013 interview in the United Church Observer, he spoke frankly about why. People with disabilities present us with a mystery, he explained; they are the very presence of Jesus. We can see their fragility, their weakness, their pain, but at the same time we recognize their special place with God. In fact, as we—sometimes reluctantly, even fearfully—enter into relationship with them, we discover that they change us. There is something very particular in their kindness, in their affection. For a year, Vanier lived at la Forestière with the most severely disabled members of the L’Arche community in Trosly-Breuil. At la Forestière he bathed them, and in so doing discovered a great and liberating mystery in tending to the bodies of those who couldn’t communicate verbally. Instead, communication arose naturally from the very depths of who they are—from their bodies, broken, ruptured, fragile, incomplete, but wrapped in love. In this very brokenness inheres a deeply significant truth. Vanier recalls at one point asking the community psychiatrist what it means to be a pure human person, and the man’s unhesitating answer: “tenderness.”

The tenderness of the disabled heals us, breaks us free from what Thomas Merton, quoting Albert Camus, called the “plague of cerebration.” For Vanier the hyper-intellectualizing of the faith by the church obscures the greater truth that is embodied and not conceptualized, the truth that allows the other—whether Jesus or the unnamed and ignored—to rest in our heart. Jesus lives in our hearts as we live in his: this truth is the essence of the teachings of Jesus, and it is the principle, ethos, and the very life of L’Arche itself.

The L’Arche message is the text of the person and life of Jesus, and particularly his radicalism. It insists that when we hold a meal it is not the familiar we should invite, and not the wealthy and affluent, but rather the poor, the lame, the blind, and the disabled—in a word, the marginalized. The disabled remind us of the deeper truths that sustain us as a culture, humanizing and ennobling us—and this reminder is never more imperative than now, when we are besotted with the allure of wealth, and when medical and pharmaceutical interventions seduce us with illusions of escaping our mortality. The intellectually and physically challenged force us to confront the reality of humanness; and in doing so, they serve as true sentinels of our larger hope.

 

VANIER’S OWN beginnings were anything but marginal. He was the child of a prominent Canadian family, his parents a famed diplomatic duo and vice-regal couple whose life together is recorded in Mary Frances Coady’s 2011 biography, Georges and Pauline Vanier: Portrait of a Couple. Pauline Vanier came from a family with an impeccable Quebec pedigree: her father was a Superior Court of Quebec justice, while her mother, Thérèse de Salaberry Archer, was a profoundly pious woman who shared a spiritual director with the Carmelite French mystic St. Thérèse de Lisieux, known to millions as the Little Flower. Georges Vanier came from a prosperous business family that traced its roots to the seventeenth century in New France. He studied law at Laval University, was instrumental in helping organize the legendary Royal 22 Regiment or “Van Doos,” and returned from WWI a decorated officer, having lost a leg in battle.

Married in 1921, the Vaniers were soon thrust into the hectic world of international diplomacy. Appointed Canada’s representative to the League of Nations Permanent Advisory Commission for Naval, Military, and Air Questions, Georges was dispatched to Geneva, where Jean was born on September 10, 1928. “Jock,” as his father called him—the family’s Scots nannies found the soft J difficult to pronounce—was the fourth of five children: Thérèse, Georges, and Bernard preceded him, while Michel followed. Jean/Jock’s arrival compounded the difficulties Pauline faced in being both a diplomat’s wife and young mother: seven years of marriage witnessed four births, five household moves, and a fire that destroyed their rented holiday house at Pointe-in-Pic, north of Quebec City. In addition were the challenges of an emotional disposition colored by heightened religious sensitivity and periodic bouts of depression; her success as an extrovert “working” the social room and facilitating conversation as a host contrasts sharply with her accumulating personal anxiety and exhaustion.

In 1942, as a teenager, Jean approached his father with a plan to re-cross the Atlantic, through U-boat-infested waters, to join the Royal Naval College in England. Rather than dismiss the request as mere adolescent romanticism, Georges offered a respectful response—and many decades later, Vanier can recount the conversation with minute accuracy. His father asked him to explain why, at the age of thirteen and in the midst of a war, he wanted to join the navy. After listening to his reasons, Georges announced that he trusted his son, and that if readying himself to serve was what he wanted, then it was what he must do. Looking back, Vanier believes that his father’s considered response underlined for him what later would be an operating principle in his life and ministry: we must listen to the young, because they have in them the light of God, and because they will never be able to trust themselves unless someone trusts them first.

And so began the next phase in Jean Vanier’s life, a phase that would start with a farewell to his parents, a perilous journey to England, and enrollment in the navy college at Dartmouth. As it turned out, the war was over by the time he finished his training. Still, the war directly touched him. Following the liberation of Paris in August 1944, he accompanied Pauline, who was working with the Canadian Red Cross, to the Gare d’Orsay, where he witnessed survivors of Dachau, Buchenwald, and other camps debarking from the trains. Years later Vanier would recall with a sad vividness the searing impression made by their suffering and anguish. He could see now, as with the survivors of Hiroshima, the devastating capacity for self-destruction that lay within humanity’s reach.

 

LAUNCHED ON HIS post-war career with the Royal Navy, Vanier eventually transferred to the Canadian Navy. In this new role he traveled on board the HMCS Magnificent to Cuba, engaging in exercises with the U.S Navy. There he spent his time onshore exploring local churches—and devouring Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. That a young man such as Vanier would be drawn to Merton is not surprising. The immediate postwar period saw a reawakening of religious fervor, as veterans returning from the carnage hungered for direction and meaning in their lives. The Seven Storey Mountain offered a life of regulated prayer, ordered activity, genuine community, and viable hope to a lost generation. Though only a teenager during the war, Jean Vanier experienced strong intimations of its destructiveness. Merton would naturally appeal to a young man poised to discover his path to God, keen on finding his way.

Indeed, so engaged and challenged was Vanier by his reading of Merton’s autobiography that he visited Friendship House in Harlem, eager to experience the community of and for the poor founded by Catherine de Hueck, an exiled Russian noble and Catholic social worker whose life work exalted the gifts of poverty and humility, the demands of social justice, and the imperative of racial harmony. Impressed, and increasingly restless of spirit, Vanier began to think seriously of a shift in direction. In 1950, following a month-long Ignatian retreat, he resigned his commission in the navy. He was ready for something new. But what?

Once again—and not for the last time—Pauline Vanier intervened in the life of her son at a critical moment, introducing him to the man who would become a spiritual mentor for his life and vocation: the Dominican friar Thomas Philippe. Père Thomas was a man of daunting spiritual gifts and quiet charisma. Like many of the distinguished French Dominican thinkers of his day, he was a Thomist, but more inclined by both temperament and intellectual conviction to a conservative reading of the texts. His spirit was powerfully fired by the mystical. Vanier saw in Père Thomas a priest determined to help people discover a certain kind of mysticism—not the secular, humanistic variety, but one deeply embedded in orthodox theology. To that end he had founded Eau Vive, a small community of priests and scholars some twenty miles southeast of Paris, where students—and not only those intending to become Dominicans—could study philosophy and theology in the context of Christian living.

Vanier recognized in Eau Vivre, Père Thomas’s “school of wisdom,” the core imperative of the Dominican’s postwar vision: doing the “international work of the heart.” Père Thomas’s commitment to doing theology and philosophy in a community of prayer and love attracted Vanier, and he joined the community in the fall of 1950. Vanier would recall years later that he had needed “a master, a teacher, a spiritual father.” So transformative and foundational was the meeting with the mystical French friar that Vanier likened it to Jesus’s summons to two disciples to leave John the Baptist and follow him, to come and see where he dwelled.

The spiritual mentorship of Père Thomas was not a matter of paternalism, control, or cultish manipulation. Quite the contrary. It opened Vanier to possibilities, to vulnerabilities, to self-knowledge. He came to see that Christians had lost faith in the essential truths of the New Testament. Modern Catholics had forgotten that all is love; that Jesus is really the Way, and the Truth, and the Life; that the Cross is Love and that Jesus actually perished from an excess of love. Restoring this faith, and doing so in the context of devoted communal living, was an effort easily misunderstood by others. Denounced in both Dominican and Curial circles for a theology of Mary that was unorthodox and dangerously “mystical,” Père Thomas was removed from his position at Eau Vive and summoned to Rome in 1952. Vanier would eventually, with deep hesitation and amid political and canonical squabbling, succeed him as director of Eau Vivre—until his own summary removal by the Holy Office of the Inquisition in 1956.

In The Miracle, The Message, The Story: Jean Vanier and L’Arche (2006), biographer Kathryn Spink highlights Jean Vanier’s indebtedness to Père Thomas’s way of doing theology. Père Thomas’s theology, Spink writes,

gave [Vanier] strong and solid principles to the extent that he did not really seek anywhere else. They also gave him a freedom to think for himself so that in later life, when concentrating on the gospels or theology he did not feel obliged, as others might, to quote other sources or authorities, but rather had a strong sense of the synthesis of his own knowledge and experience: “If people find that I am very free in my intellectual life,” he was to write many years later, “even in my interpretation of the Gospel of St. John and in my development of an anthropology which is bound to human and spiritual reality, it was because I was molded by the thinking and methods of Père Thomas.”

ONE OF THE spiritual fruits of Père Thomas’s influence was the founding of L’Arche. On August 4, 1964, the Ark was born, without electricity or plumbing, yet equipped with a special beauty and simplicity. The first inhabitants, besides Vanier, would include three men—Raphaël, Philippe, and Dany—who were previous denizens of an asylum for the intellectually handicapped. Vanier’s housemates constituted a unique kind of community. It wasn’t going to be an easy trip, this journey into the deeper meaning of life, and it wasn’t going to be without its obstacles, frustrations, moments of stunned incomprehension, and days of dark disappointment. But for all that, it would be a journey into the light one informed by the knowledge that community cannot be established by fiat; that it is built on blood, tears, resolve, and unremitting love.

From the outset Vanier was determined to tell the story of L’Arche—to solicit funds and support from like-minded people, to heighten awareness of the life of the handicapped, to bring into conversation and commitment those on the periphery, and to deepen the understanding of those at the core. One practical way he did this was via the circular letter. The first one appeared on August 22, eighteen days after the opening of the home in Trosly-Breuil. It succinctly articulates the philosophy of L’Arche:

L’Arche is convinced that if the handicapped are unable to find their stability in modern society, which is becoming more and more complicated with its bureaucracy and techniques, they can find true human and spiritual growth in a family-like environment. L’Arche wants to create homes where life is focused on service to those who are the poorest of the poor in this twentieth century. L’Arche does not want to be a center where those who have been rejected are simply kept or cared for; it wants to be a place where they can truly grow and develop according to their specific qualities and capacities.

L’Arche is a Catholic home. It believes that if those who are handicapped cannot be educated or work in the same way as others do, they are nevertheless open to spiritual values. Their very poverty is a predisposition to receive the graces of love that Jesus has promised them. L’Arche homes are open to all those who suffer, without any distinction of class, culture, or religion; religious practice is entirely optional.

The ecumenical and interfaith foundation of L’Arche is remarkable on several fronts. At the time of this first circular letter, the Second Vatican Council was still in convocation, and openness to other doctrinal and spiritual traditions remained a rarity in the Catholic world. Vanier’s bold declaration of welcome to all, irrespective of canonical status, gender, religious outlook, and formation, was a harbinger of subsequent developments in the postconciliar period. The core of L’Arche’s vision is personal, relational, and biographical. For all his training in philosophy, Vanier never lost the primary importance of the individual response and the power of the heart. Certainly his service to the L’Arche family was shaped by a Christian humanism, a Gospel-centeredness, that spoke to the universal in all of us. But it started with the personal. What he learned in his early days with Philippe and Raphaël would put flesh on the bones of his theory:

As I began to live with Philippe and Raphaël, the first thing I discovered was the depth of their pain, the pain of having been a disappointment for their parents and others. One can understand their parents’ reaction to them. What parents would not be distressed, grief-filled or even angry to discover that their child would never be able to talk, walk, or live like others? Parents whose children have disabilities suffer deeply, but their children who have the disabilities suffer deeply, too. Raphaël and Philippe had incredibly sensitive hearts. They had been deeply wounded and humiliated by rejection, and by the lack of consideration shown them by those around them. Because of this, they sometimes became very angry, or escaped into a world of dreams. It was quite clear that they had a great need for friendship and trust, and to be able to express their needs to somebody who would really listen. For far too long, nobody had been interested in listening to them or in helping them make choices and become more responsible for their lives. In fact, their needs were exactly the same as mine: to be loved and to love, to make choices and to develop their abilities.

Under Vanier’s guidance the L’Arche community put forth two objectives. First, homes had to be created for the psychologically and physically wounded, allowing for a “new autonomy.” We must all remember, Vanier insisted, that along with the “primary wound” come other, often far graver wounds of marginalization, indifference, and condescension. The handicapped are often made to feel unwanted, a nuisance rather than a joy. The best way of undoing those feelings is by encouragement, building confidence in the face of rejection and recognizing the value of the weak in a world that worships the strong.

The second objective is the community-building thrust of a L’Arche home. Vanier notes that “the pedagogy of the heart must go beyond our personal egoism and open us up more to the sufferings of others.” L’Arche provides—requires—an experience in self-emptying, based on egoless service in genuine community. Such high rhetoric could be mistaken for pious exhortation, out of touch with the real world, but in fact it is that real world that has always interested Vanier: the world where despair and struggle are the rule, people are discarded because they are not productive, and the powerful have little patience for the broken; the world that crucified divinity and aches for redemption.

Vanier never makes light of the struggles of working with the disabled; he refuses to minimize their demands. In the kind of community that L’Arche seeks to create, everyone must be real. To that end, those who work and live in it must find the right balance between their individual needs and dreams and the imperatives of living together. That balance or harmony between what he terms competence and spirituality, Vanier argues, is something every L’Arche member—novice and veteran alike—must struggle with. It remains a constant of genuine community living.

Janet Whitney-Brown, a recent assistant at Trosly-Breuil who served as our host for lunch, captures the prophetic quality of Vanier’s spirituality:

Jean is like John the Baptist, who was not the light but came to bear witness to the light. Jean is the friend of the bridegroom, who rejoices to hear the bridegroom’s voice and who says that Jesus must become more while he becomes less. A spirituality of becoming less while God becomes more might seem surprising for someone who is by nature authoritative, with strong leadership skills, who takes up a lot of space—even physically.

Jean writes about his desire to become transparent to God, wishing to disappear, and let Jesus appear in response to the spiritual hunger of the people he meets.

The herald is with us still—cajoling, bearing witness, teaching the truth that lies in community and in service. In a time when the “throwaway culture” so vigorously condemned by Pope Francis still holds sway, and when economic disparities have rarely been so dangerously wide, the witness and teachings of Jean Vanier have never been so necessary.

Published in the December 18, 2015 issue: 

Michael W. Higgins is Distinguished Professor of Catholic Thought, Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, past president of two Canadian Catholic universities, and co-author of the forthcoming Impressively Free: Henri Nouwen as Model for a Renewed Priesthood.

This story is included in these collections:

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion