My latest column in the Christian Courier.
You couldn’t help but notice Jean Vanier when he entered a room. This was simply on account of his size – he was a big man, standing six feet, six inches tall. So just by virtue of his physical presence, he would likely draw your gaze. But if Jean Vanier drew sustained attention, and more than a passing glance, it was on account of the loving attention he gave to others. Many were drawn to him because his large hands and his wide embrace so evidently embodied a deep and sincere love for others.
Several weeks ago I had the privilege of listening in as some who knew Jean Vanier (1928-2019) shared stories of encounter with him. This took place at the 10th annual Summer Institute on Theology and Disability, held this year at Western Seminary in Holland, Michigan. Almost all of the stories that were shared painted a picture of someone who drew you in by giving his full attention. He was decidedly present in the moment, listening and sharing in a way that demanded as much of you as he gave of himself in the encounter.
One participant in the conversation shared about a time Vanier visited the Daybreak (L’Arche) community in Toronto. It was a mob scene as Vanier entered the home and was surrounded by members of the community. Yet this wasn’t adulation; not the adoration of a celebrity. Rather, as the speaker put it: “They drew near to him because he was a shepherd and these were the sheep who knew his voice; these women and men with intellectual disabilities knew he was responsible for this place (Daybreak) that had given them life.” By his loving presence, Jean Vanier shared and embodied the loving presence of the Good Shepherd. It is perhaps no surprise that so many were drawn to his life and voice.
It is often remarked that Vanier was born into a family and history of privilege. That is certainly the case. His father, George Vanier, was the 19th Governor General of Canada, a post to which he was appointed following a successful career as a lawyer and as a diplomat (he also served as the Canadian Ambassador to France). Jean Vanier’s mother, Pauline Archer, also came from an established Canadian family, her father having served as a judge of the Quebec Superior Court. Archer herself was a nurse and, later, following the death of her husband, served as Chancellor of the University of Ottawa.
It is less frequently observed that Jean Vanier’s parents were people of deep faith; they were devout and prayerful. During their time at Rideau Hall one of the upper rooms was converted to a chapel so that they would have a place for daily prayer. The Vaniers were also active in areas of social concern, which is expressed in Pauline Archer’s work with refugees in the 1950’s and the couple’s shared establishment of the Vanier Institute for the Family in 1965.
All of this is to say that while Jean Vanier was certainly born into privilege, he was also raised by parents who lived their devotion to Jesus Christ intentionally through faithful prayer and social action. With his founding of L’Arche in 1964, Vanier was not somehow departing from the life and faith of his family but was living it in his particular and compelling way. With the establishment of L’Arche, now with residences in 38 countries around the world, he inaugurated a life shared with those with intellectual disabilities, a life of learning from others, and a life in which he encouraged all of us to discover the truth of our humanity through encounter.
At the centre of Vanier’s life and writings is a conviction that there is a wound at the heart of the human – of each human. As he puts it in Becoming Human (the published version of his Massey Lectures): “We human beings are all fundamentally the same. We all belong to a common, broken humanity. We all have wounded, vulnerable hearts.
At the Summer Institute, John Swinton recalled an exchange between Jean Vanier and the well-known American theologian Stanley Hauerwas. In that discussion, Hauerwas described the difference between himself and Vanier in the following way: “Where I see an enemy, he sees a wound.” While many of us are inclined to see others as a threat, or as a source of conflict and difficulty, Jean Vanier was inclined to see others as carrying a wound in their soul. This of course, is a difference of vision that makes all the difference for our relationships with others.
This wound in the human soul can be described in different ways, but in Becoming Human Vanier describes it in terms of loneliness. By this he means that we all have a deep sense of being unwanted and unloved – we experience ourselves as being alone in the world. Vanier suggests, further, that there is “nothing in human existence that completely fulfills the needs of the human heart.” Here Vanier is riffing on the famous words of Saint Augustine: “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” But Vanier’s focus is not only on the rest that we find in the love of God, but also on the belonging and rest we find with each other.
For Vanier, L’Arche was intended as a place to heal human loneliness – both the loneliness of those with disabilities and the loneliness of those who accompany them. He wrote: “In our L’Arche communities we experience that deep inner healing comes about mainly when people feel loved, when they have a sense of belonging. Our communities are essentially places where people can serve and create, and, most importantly, where they can love as well as be loved. This healing flows from relationships – it is not something automatic.”
For those who are exploring (theologically, through research, and otherwise) how we should think faithfully about disability, and for those who live alongside those with some disability, Jean Vanier’s life and vision have been a source of inspiration. Fundamental to this inspiration is his insistence that all of us (including those with disabilities and those we mistakenly characterize as “normal”) are wounded. That we all have a fundamental need for relationships of trust and openness and that it is only through such relationships that we will find healing.
There are two types of stories that Jean Vanier tells in his writings – stories of those with intellectual disabilities who have found a place of love and belonging at L’Arche and stories of volunteers and assistants who have found a place of love and belonging at L’Arche. In other words, there is really only one story. The most significant thing about us is something we all have in common – that we are lonely and broken; it is only in relationships of trust and love that we begin to discover and become our true selves.