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Wednesday March 11
“As close as we can get to sitting at the feet of Christ”, is what one person told me about the experience of listening to Jean Vanier preach, and I know what she meant.
The founder of the L’Arche movement is giving his fifth talk in three days to a retreat in Edinburgh. He talks for 45 minutes with no notes at all, and a good 200 people – including children and people with quite severe mental and physical disabilities – are completely rapt. He speaks in little more than a whisper, gentle but powerful and absolutely compelling. This really is the ‘still, small voice’.
He speaks about the raison d’être of L’Arche, in which disabled and able-bodied people work, rest and play together in small communities throughout the world, of ‘living with broken lives’. “Living with people with disabilities changed something very fundamental within me. I saw a new vision, something about the person hidden under the pain, or the person hidden under the disability or the person hidden under the difference.
“The work of God is something very simple: to love people as they are, to reveal to them that they are precious.”
Get Jean on his own, and the voice is unchanged as he describes what led him to start the very first L’Arche (The Ark) community at Trosly-Breuil, north of Paris.
The fourth of five children of Georges Vanier, who went on to become Governor General of Canada, and Georges’ wife Pauline, Jean was born in 1928 in Switzerland. His childhood was spent criss-crossing the Atlantic following his father’s diplomatic career.
The family returned to Canada in the early stages of World War Two, but the 13-year-old Jean announced his decision to return to the UK to enlist at the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth.
He spent eight years in the Navy before going into lecturing in philosophy, but reached his 30s still unsure about his path in life. A devout Catholic from a family of devout Catholics, Jean had spent a lot of time exploring his faith and had become close to a priest named Père Thomas Phillippe, whom he came to regard as his spiritual father.
In 1963, Père Thomas became chaplain of Val Fleuri, an institution for the disabled in Trosly-Breuil. Jean was invited along to help refurbish the small chapel, and it was then that Père Thomas suggested that he might have a role to play among disabled people. The idea stuck and the following year he returned to Val Fleuri and began looking into the conditions many disabled people lived in. By the end of the year, he had secured a small house in Trosly-Breuil, and invited three disabled men to move in with him. One was unsuitable and had to be returned to the institution that he came from, but the other two stayed and L’Arche was born.
“The motivation behind the original L’Arche was firstly, I wanted to be close to Père Thomas, and secondly I had discovered the amazing beauty and authenticity of people with disabilities. I discovered that people with disabilities are crying out not for people to do things for them but essentially for friendship.”
One house in Trosly-Breuil quickly became two, then more, and the movement spread throughout the world as visitors became inspired to launch similar communities in their homelands.
The aim in the L’Arche communities is always to live together in a situation as closely resembling a family as possible. Usually four or five disabled people, known as core members, live with at least the same number of volunteers. “It’s a question of playing together, of being friends together, becoming vulnerable one to another, becoming happy together,” says Jean.
“It’s a question of helping each person to grow. The same thing could be said of people in prison: they need to grow in themselves, grow out of their angers and depression. They need help, but at the same time they need to know they have many friends. Not just professionals, but real friends.”
There is something much deeper than an altruistic desire to do good in Jean’s dedication to the weak and the broken (not just the disabled, but also the poor, the sick, the homeless and people in prison). These are people he cannot only give to but receive from; and those whose bodies are broken have open hearts in which he recognises the presence of Jesus. He has written: “The whole vision of Jesus is the gradual discovery that the poor are not people whom we have to change from our pedestal and make them like us, but people from whom we can drink.”
He also feels that in order to commit to the poor you must become poor yourself, not just in possessions but internally, in feeling yourself poor: “The presence of God is in our own littleness and poverty.”
Which must be quite a challenge for a man as féted as he is. Jean has been likened to Mother Teresa, inspires headlines such as ‘a modern saint in the making’, and received multiple awards including the French Légion d’Honneur and Companion of the Order of Canada. “My life is not just going round looking for awards,” he shrugs. “My life is for living with my people.”
He will admit, however, that the honours are useful in terms of spreading the word about L’Arche and the importance of community, of family and belonging: not just for disabled people, but for all of us. “There is an element of transmitting the message, that it’s a good thing to do to live with people. I don’t say I can’t be sensitive to awards, but essentially my life is not there. When people say ‘you are doing a good work’ that doesn’t interest me, but if they are talking about creating communities it will.
“To learn to live with people who get us fed up and who provoke us, that’s what it is about. You learn to grow in love and accept people as they are. The reality for us is always to help new communities to grow or begin.
“The need for belonging is so deep because fundamentally we are vulnerable and weak. I believe the future of humanity is not of individuals striving to be in competition with each other, but in places of community. But family has broken down: with many husbands and wives both working, children don’t know the meaning of their lives. People with disabilities and a lot of old people don’t know where their place is.
“The whole question for humanity is how to help the strong and the weak to live together. It’s about people coming together and each one finding their place.”
Jean will be 80 next year, his imposing 6’4” frame is stooped, he needs hearing aids and leans on a volunteer when he walks. He says that ‘the knowledge that it is right’ is what keeps him going, although he acknowledges that increasing age will slow him down. “I get tired more quickly and a time will come when I can’t travel any more. The body is realistic – if you listen to your body you know when you have to stop.”
Slowing down is a relative concept though: he says he spends ‘at least a half’ of his time at home in Trosly-Breuil, as if that was a lot. The rest is spent jetsetting, from visiting L’Arche communities around the globe to meeting world leaders (secular and religious) or running retreats like this one. If that’s slowing down, then Jean in his prime must have been quite a sight.
Later, the retreat concludes with the ritual of the washing of the feet. This evolved as something in which members from all denominations and religions could share, and is a representation of the servant ministry that is so central to L’Arche.
The gathering breaks into the groups – of about ten – in which they have taken part in the group activities of the weekend. I’m standing at the door, feeling a little awkward and, for the first time, left out. A lady who doesn’t know me from Adam beckons me into her group.
One by one, each washes the feet of the person to their left, and then the person who has been washed lays their hands on the head or shoulders of the washer and blesses them. Disabled people are helped to take part as much as they can. It’s solemn, unhurried and silent. The whole process takes about 45 minutes
I’m one of the last to be done. The man to my right asks my name, then kneels in front of me and washes my feet. He has absolutely no idea who I am, what I am doing here or whether I am worthy of this. I can’t imagine a better metaphor for Christ’s unconditional, unquestioning love for each of us, and our calling to love each other the same way.
This seems to me to be Jean Vanier’s great gift and legacy: it sounds trite, but wherever there is a L’Arche or a Faith and Light community, there is a small, shining beacon of God’s love.
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