After celebrating his 90th birthday last September, Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, a community of volunteers who care for the intellectually disabled, passed away peacefully on Tuesday, 7th May.
Vanier’s health had weakened considerably during the preceding weeks and he had to be hospitalised at the palliative treatment centre Maison Médicale Jeanne Garnier, in Paris.
“Jean has left us at the end of a long, exceptionally fruitful life. The Trosly community, the whole of L’Arche, Faith and Light, many other movements, and thousands of people have been nourished by his word and his message,” announced Stephan Posner and Stacy Cates-Carney, who are both in charge of L’Arche International.
“The secret is always in the descent”
The son of Canadian parents, Jean Vanier was born on 10th September, 1928, in Geneva, Switzerland while his parents were there on a diplomatic mission. When he was 13 years old, during WWII, he joined the British Royal Navy and served for eight years. In 1945, while his father was Canada’s ambassador to France and his mother a delegate of the Red Cross International, he actively participated in assisting those who survived concentration camps. These events left a profound impression in him.
So in the early 1960s, after getting his doctorate in philosophy in 1962, this young philosophy teacher from one of Canada’s most distinguished families, gave up his job and moved to France. He had no idea what he was going to do there. Just an itching notion that he wanted to “follow Jesus and discover the message of the Gospel”.
He bought a ramshackle house in Trosly-Breuil, a windswept village 50 miles north of Paris. There was no electricity, no toilet and one tap. An old family friend, a Dominican called Fr Thomas Philippe, lived in the village. The priest asked Vanier to join him on a visit to a local institution for mentally handicapped men, where he worked as chaplain. The young man knew nothing about people with intellectual disabilities. He was shocked, incensed and inspired by what he saw in the home. After discovering the terrible living conditions psychiatric asylum patients had to endure, he decided to do something about it and sought permission to ‘rescue’ a small group of people* to care for himself at home. (Originally there were three, but one later had to return to the asylum.) That was the moment L’Arche was born: now a worldwide network of communities where both people with and without disabilities live together. Vanier has given numerous retreats and has also written many books about his experiences. “I write because it’s what I’ve lived and what’s true,” he says passionately.
[* Jean Vanier had discovered Raphael and Philippe, living in that cold, grey mental asylum of Trosly-Breui, a place full of hopelessness and despair.]
All his life, Jean Vanier tried to live as close to the Gospel as possible, and never ceased defending the value of fragility. “The secret is always in descending, not ascending. This means accepting that we are fragile,” he said. “I think the real sense of fragility came when I started the L’Arche adventure with Raphael and Philippe. Raphael had meningitis and did not speak. Philippe had encephalitis with a paralysed leg … and he was talking too much. It was a world of fragility … But we were so happy! The joy of both of them led me to find my joy.”
“I see two things in that,” he continues. “First of all, they were able to draw out the child in me. We had fun, we laughed, we had parties. Then, with them, I found a home, a place where I felt good and where I wanted to stay. Raphael and Philippe needed me, and I needed them and their joy, and their way of being. The heart is made to be loved. If you regularly visit a single person, then for her, you become the messiah. Relationship is the place of happiness. But sometimes, the physical suffering is too great. We shouldn’t pretend that everything is easy. Fragility needs to be loved.”
Jean Vanier was a devout and prayerful lifelong Catholic with a selfless loving heart who sought to imitate Jesus in His love for the weak and unloved of the world. In loving and caring for these outcasts of society, the love of Jesus shone through Vanier (God’s instrument) pouring love into their closed and wounded hearts, gradually allowing them to recognise themselves as truly loved by God, thus joyfully freeing them of their fears.
It is not power and possessions, argues Vanier, but humility and simplicity that will urge us toward Heaven. “I don’t think there is a big difference between compassion and prayer,” he says. Referencing Christ’s words in the Gospels, he continues, “‘Blessed are you, enter the kingdom, which is being prepared for you since the foundation of the world, and you gave me water when I was thirsty. Everything you did to the least one of these…’ so the mystery of God is the mystery of compassion…”
“The world is upside down. The Gospel is the world right side up. It is a Copernican revolution“, said Vanier.
Jesus, Vanier says he doesn’t want lukewarm disciples. He wants people who are on fire with love. “There’s something in the Gospel message so simple, so loving, so extraordinary, so excessive,” he explains, “because everything Jesus does is done to excess. At Canaan, he gives an excessive amount of wine. When he multiplies the bread, he does an excessive amount. To love our enemies is an excess of love. When you are hit on one cheek, turn the other. Everything is excessive, because love can not be otherwise than excessive.”
He continues: “There’s something incredibly beautiful in the Gospel message, but at the same time incredibly demanding. And yet, it’s not demanding. It’s the place of joy, because we know that we can’t do it ourselves. It’s when we think we have to do it by ourselves that everything becomes heavy.”
And what about married and professional people who cannot live in a community like the L’Arche helpers, what can they do to help those who are marginalised or suffer from disabilities?
“Try and find somebody who is lonely. And when you go to see them, they will see you as the messiah. Go and visit a little old lady who has no friends or family. Bring her flowers. People say, ‘but that’s nothing’. It is nothing – but it’s also everything. It always begins with small little things. It all began in Bethlehem. That was pretty small.”
Jean Vanier was surely a true saint!
For further reading on Jean Vanier, see these CATHOLIC HERALD articles: Jean Vanier taught my family about becoming human and becoming holy and A luminous example of the Gospel : in memory of Jean Vanier