Lessons From The Vulnerable





Jean Vanier, great modern prophet, turned 80 two years ago among the disabled in Kolkata, India, where he was sent off into “retirement” by a brass band and a parade of nine elephants. “As my life draws closer to the end,” he wrote to his friends, “I discover more and more that those who are poor and weak are a presence of God: they have transformed me.” On that occasion, he published: “Our Life Together,” the story of that transformation. His adventure in love started with a visit to an institution for the mentally disabled in the late 1960s. “Do you love me? Will you be my friend?” they asked him; and he realized instinctively that what they needed was a loving family, a place of belonging – not an institution which saw them, firstly, as ill. 

He began with a series of small, family-like homes in the village of Trosly, outside Paris, and began to write and give retreats about his experience. He spent the next 40 years riding the wave which followed, as his reputation grew. The popular retreats, written up as best-selling books (most famous: “Community and Growth” in 1973 and “Becoming Human” in 1998), inspire people to found L’Arche communities of the disabled or Faith and Light communities for people caring for them at home.

The central insight of L’Arche is that society can ultimately be healed only by those whom it rejects. The disabled are a part of the “poor” with whom God has chosen to identify Himself, shaming the wise and the strong in their illusory self-sufficiency. Reaching out to them becomes a means of being led – by God to God.


Out Of Security And Career

Jean Vanier was born on September 10, 1928, in Geneva, Switzerland, where his father, General Georges Vanier, was on a diplomatic mission. Most of his early schooling was in England where he lived until World War II when his parents sent him and his four brothers and one sister back to Canada. Two years later, the young Jean decided to enter the Royal Naval College in England. Too young to become a soldier, he assisted his mother in her Red Cross work in Paris after the liberation, helping with those returning from the concentration camps.

In 1945, Jean received his officer’s commission and began his naval career. Despite the promising perspective that lay in front of him, he was more and more drawn into prayer and reflection on what might be God’s call for him. In 1950, he resigned from the Navy to study philosophy and theology at the Catholic Institute in Paris. It was there where he met Father Thomas Philippe, a Dominican priest and professor who was to become Jean’s spiritual mentor and friend.

In 1963, having published his doctoral thesis on Aristotle, Jean returned to Canada to teach at the University of Toronto. Again, he decided against the security of a career and left job and homeland to join Father Thomas Philippe who had become chaplain to a small institution for men with developmental disabilities, the Val Fleury, in Trosly-Breuil, France. 

In 1964, Jean decided to settle in Trosly to live with people with an intellectual disability. He welcomed two such people to be with him and bought a small house and named it “L’Arche,” the French word for “Noah’s Ark.” Though heavily involved in the rapidly growing community, Jean began to give conferences and retreats around the world. In 1969, following a retreat he gave in Ontario, the first community of L’Arche in North America was founded. The next year, again after a visit by Jean, the first L’Arche community in India was founded. 

In 1968, Jean Vanier also co-founded Faith and Sharing. In these communities, families who have a member with a disability and their friends meet once a month for prayer and mutual support and celebration. Three years later, the organization of a pilgrimage to Lourdes, of 12,000 people with developmental disabilities, their friends and families, led to the co-founding of Faith and Light with Marie-Hélène Mathieu. This movement unites people with an intellectual disability and their family members and friends for regular gatherings and periodic pilgrimages of friendship, prayer and celebration.


“Dare To Touch Them!” 

The teaching of Jean Vanier is as fascinating as his life witness: “Sometimes we approach those who suffer but in our hearts there is a rebellion that blinds us and stops us from seeing Jesus’ light in the person who suffers. Sometimes we make use of the poor as the object of our charity or our professional competence, in order to affirm our value and manifest our glory. These few lines want to tell you not to escape or run away from the persons who are suffering and are wounded. Dare to approach them, to touch them. Dare to enter into communion with them. Then you will discover within yourself and them a source of life, seeds of resurrection. It is the great secret of Jesus and His Gospel. In every person, it doesn’t matter if wounded, hardened, authoritarian, cruel, apparently closed to God and steeped in sin, there is a hidden source of living water ready to spring up.

If you walk with Jesus along this road, it will lead you to the poor, the weak, the oppressed and isolated, without fear or despair, without anger and rebellion, without theories and ready-made solutions, without guilt feelings or sensations of impotence. In order to make you taste the peace that comes from the communion of the hearts, Jesus will reveal to you the hidden sense of suffering and darkness and how joy can spring from all that is wounded and broken. 

He will reveal to you that He Himself is hidden in the poor, the weak and oppressed. He will reveal to you that He is also hidden in the poor, the weak and oppressed that is in you. He will reveal to you how to discover anew, renew and reconstruct and receive this communion of love and faithfulness that is the wellspring of every life, unity and peace. He will make you discover it as a very tiny seed but capable of growing so as to renew the world. 

If you like, let us walk together along this road; together with our brothers and sisters who are suffering. In this world so divided, let us walk together with Jesus, our Beloved Brother, in order to discover that it is a road of hope.”


The Pope’s Conversion

Vanier returned frequently to India, where L’Arche expanded quickly, noting with pride the nine new rooms and two milk-producing buffalos at their house in Bangalore. He was overwhelmed by the poverty of Calcutta, going twice a day to the station where hundreds of naked and mentally-disturbed people used to sleep on newspaper and jute sacks. “I feel powerless,” he wrote, “but I want to experience the anguish of this powerlessness, asking Jesus to pull down the walls in my being which prevent me from seeing my wounded brother and sister.” Vanier’s travels, as he went to support his initiatives, covered many of the world’s hot spots and put him in touch with remarkable people, among them Cardinal Arns of São Paulo, John Paul II, and Mother Teresa.

He was in Honduras when Archbishop Romero was killed in nearby El Salvador in 1980; two years later, he was in South Africa, penning a brilliant summary of apartheid; in 1988, he was on the West Bank after the first intifada broke out. He has a cool, reporter’s eye, but he has also the best reporter’s gift of empathy: he understands the fear of the poor that lies behind the brutality, how it leads to an evermore violent clinging to power and greater oppression. And he knows how easy it is to be part of this fear. “You find the same reality all over the world,” he noted. “We are all so mediocre, so easily frightened. In order to have the strength to do something, you must be part of a loving community and on the path towards greater transformation in Jesus.”

Struck by how societies “continue to be places of suffering, oppression, violence, conflicts and inequalities,” despite social reforms and movements in favor of rights, he noticed how L’Arche signals the deeper conversion that needs to take place for authentic social change to occur. As he says in the L’Arche charter: “The disabled are living reminder to the world of the essential value of the heart without which knowledge, power and action lose their meaning and purpose.”

Even Pope John Paul II needed converting on this point. At breakfast with the (then fit and healthy) Pope in 1987, Vanier found that John Paul II had difficulty understanding what he meant by a disabled person having a healing presence. Then the Pope got sick and, “a deep bond arose between us,” wrote Vanier who had a leading role in the Pope’s 2004 visit to Lourdes. “Our Pope is poor. He is fragile, but he is the glory of God. God manifests Himself in him,” said Vanier, standing just a few feet from John Paul II, who never took his eyes off Vanier’s. It was, he wrote, “an exceptionally moving moment.”

In the early 1990s, Jean Vanier founded Intercordia, which provides university students with an accredited cross-cultural experience in social education and personal growth among poor or marginalized peoples in the developing world. 

L’Arche was spreading rapidly, and aware that it was important to call forth others who could lead, Jean handed over the leadership of the International Federation of L’Arche communities to the first International Coordinator in 1981. Jean Vanier continued to sit as Founder on the International Council of L’Arche. 

He also continued to travel a great deal encouraging L’Arche communities and giving spiritual accompaniment and guidance to the many people who come to him from within and beyond L’Arche. Jean Vanier has received numerous awards, amongst which are the French Legion of Honor and the Chicago Catholic Theological Union’s “Blessed are the Peacemakers” Award. Up until today, Jean Vanier continues to travel the world over to give retreats and conferences. He also continues to write; his books have been translated into 29 languages. Jean Vanier still lives in his first L’Arche community in Trosly-Breuil, France. 


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