Vanier: 'Close to a saint'


The founder of L'Arche has spent nearly a lifetime championing the severely disabled.

Imagine a hotel ballroom so big it is difficult to see from one end to the other. Imagine it filled with 2,000 folding chairs and sitting on those folding chairs are 2,000 high school students from all over Ontario. All have awoken early, piled into school buses and then been shipped to a bleak commercial strip on the edge of Toronto. Now imagine keeping their attention while delivering a message about gentleness, love and community and how the mentally and physically disabled can be a door to salvation.

The man who is to speak to them, Jean Vanier, is a lanky 6-foot-4, and at 79 years old slightly stooped. The serenity in his face seems to radiate out through the fine white hair on top of his head. He has spent most of his life telling people that by tending to society's weakest it can transform humanity.

As he takes the stage, the sea of teenage hormones is stilled. He half sits, half leans against a table and begins to speak in a voice so soft and measured it envelopes. He makes no attempt to prove he is tuned in to teenage culture. But his message is subversive.

"Weakness becomes our strength. Because when I say I'm weak, I say I need you. Weakness can be beautiful because it can bring us together in community," he tells them. He challenges them to eschew what everyone else does — making money and climbing the ladder of promotion.

A few days later, sitting in the home of a friend in the city, he talks about what he hopes his talk imparted to his young audience: "I would think a seed is sown. And one day, particularly when they hit failure, or when they think they're not coming up to expectations, it will come back.

"The sign of being human is to be a friend to the weak person. There's something in the history of humanity that shows being human is to care for the weak — the fragile, the orphans and the widow."

As he takes the stage, the sea of teenage hormones is stilled. He half sits, half leans against a table and begins to speak in a voice so soft and measured it envelopes. He makes no attempt to prove he is tuned in to teenage culture. But his message is subversive.

It is the philosophy behind his work as a founder of L'Arche (the Ark), communities around the world for severely disabled people — work that has earned him a Companion of the Order of Canada and a Nobel Peace Prize nomination. The first L'Arche was a single home for just two mentally disabled men; there are now 130 such communities around the world for about 2,500 people with all sorts of disabilities — people who might have otherwise been left in grim institutions or gone begging.

Mr. Vanier founded L'Arche more than 40 years ago in the small French town Trosly, where he lives to this day and from where he travels the world spreading an interpretation of the Gospels that demands engaging society's discards.

He has written many books — Befriending the Stranger, Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John and his most secular book, Becoming Human. He has just released Our Life Together — A Memoir in Letters, which traces the history of L'Arche and his extensive travels through a series of letters to colleagues and friends. It will likely be his last book and will stand as part of his final legacy. He has even begun contemplating how L'Arche will transform "from the oneness to the group" once he passes on.

But there is little sign of him slowing. Over five days he took part in a two-day conference with high school teachers and students in Toronto, flew to Washington for a meeting with theologians, and then back to Toronto, en route to France, for a few hours to promote Our Life Together.

All this to spread a singular message of compassion.

In the introduction to Our Life Together he writes: "[We] see the face of God within the disabled. Their presence is a sign of God, who has chosen [quoting St. Paul] 'the foolish in order to confound the strong, the proud and the so-called wise of our world.' And so those we see as weak or marginalized are, in fact, the most worthy and powerful among us: they bring us closer to God."

Many of the people who live in L'Arche cannot speak, see or hear; many need help with the most basic human functions. Those who have travelled to his L'Arche homes, whether in Honduras, the Ivory Coast, or Canada, say you always find a similar spirit of communion in each. The paid assistants live with those who are disabled as a family. Every effort is made to live as true equals.

In Toronto, I met a man at a L'Arche home who had been found in an institution more than 20 years ago. This man, who is lovely and friendly but is physically deformed and mentally challenged, holds down a job cleaning at a supermarket. One of his house-mates is in a wheelchair; she cannot speak, her body is in constant spasms, and the assistants who live here — who are young, intelligent and are of good cheer — must feed and clean her.

"The particular thing about many people with disabilities is that they cry out for relationship," Mr. Vanier says. "They're not crying out for power or success. They say, 'Do you believe I'm a person, that I have value?' If a child comes in here, that child can transform us by looking up and saying, 'Do you love me?' The child brings down our defence mechanisms and our barriers, and touches something deep within us. In people with disabilities there is something similar. It touches us and opens us up to something new."

He believes that society's fear of people with disabilities is rooted deep in the human psyche. Every young married couple, he said, is frightened that their child will have a handicap.

Mr. Vanier grew up in a distinguished family, the second youngest of five children. His father, George, was a hero of the First World War and later became a diplomat and the governor general of Canada. His mother, Pauline, considered the convent until she met George in Montreal. The family was in Paris when the Second World War broke out and fled to England and then Canada.

Shortly after returning to Quebec, Mr. Vanier, then 13, applied on his own to study at the Royal Navy Academy in Dartmouth, England. His mother was horrified but his father gave him permission, saying he trusted his young son's decision. It meant crossing the Atlantic when it was crawling with German U-boats. He left the navy in 1950 and, through his mother, fell under the influence of a French spiritual advisor named Thomas Philippe, a Dominican priest. Pere Thomas became for Jean the "presence of God."

"The particular thing about many people with disabilities is that they cry out for relationship," Mr. Vanier says. "They're not crying out for power or success. They say, 'Do you believe I'm a person, that I have value?'

Mr. Vanier never became a priest but lived a life of celibacy, devoting himself to L'Arche, his writing, spiritual retreats and visits to grim corners of the world preaching his message of transformation. He completed a doctoral thesis in Paris on the ethics of Aristotle, and even taught for a short time at the University of Toronto before returning to France for good in 1964.

Judging by his legacy, Jean Vanier is a holy man — but he would never say that. He also does not want to be called a saint. He finds "this saint stuff annoying and ridiculous," says his friend and colleague Joe Egan, who has known him for 35 years.

Despite his passion for the disabled, he has avoided getting involved with such issues as pre-natal genetic screening or the anti-abortion movement. "I say to those who are pro-life, 'You say you don't want people to have abortion.' OK, I'm in agreement. But then we must give help to those mothers. To remain just on a legal principle of right or wrong without commitment ... that is something wrong. I'ma little frightened of anyone who is pro-life who doesn't get committed."

The stance is all part of an outlook that disdains lecturing or judging and prefers to create an example by action. It is also why, in part, he does not want to be seen as saintly, because that would elevate him above others and people will forget the hard work on the ground that was done by him and others.

It is part of the reason why he is not even so sure Mother Teresa, who he worked with Calcutta over the years, should be canonized. "People will now say Mother Teresa is a saint. But are they really listening to her message? There can be danger of focusing on the person more than the message."

But to Amy Laura Hall, a theologian at Duke University, Jean Vanier is not like the rest of us. "[He] is pretty close to a saint. I'm a Protestant so I don't use the language of sainthood very often."


Charles Lewis "Vanier: 'Close to a saint'." National Post, (Canada) November 3, 2007.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post. Charles Lewis writes for the National Post.


Jean Vanier, is the founder of the international movement of L'Arche communities, where people who have developmental disabilities and the friends who assist them create homes and share life together. Distressed by the plight of people with developmental disabilities, in 1964 he welcomed two men from an institution to live with him in a little home he called “L'Arche,” after Noah's ark in the French village of Trosly Breuil. L'Arche grew quickly as this new way of sharing life together in community with people who would otherwise be shut away in institutions attracted many young people. And Vanier himself began traveling and speaking about his own life-changing experience of coming to know people with developmental disabilities. Today, there are 130 L'Arche communities in 30 countries on six continents. Jean Vanier is the author of many books, including Our Life Together: A Memoir in Letters, Becoming Human, From Brokenness to Community, Finding Peace, Seeing Beyond Depression, and Jesus, The Gift of Love.

Copyright © 2007 National Post

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