Jean Vanier found humanity in the disabled

His organization, L’Arche, is demonstrates that people of different cultures, religions and abilities can live together in peace

Louise McEwanAt the end of a steep hill in the neighbourhood where I grew up stood a house shrouded in mystery. Adults whispered about a “retarded” child who lived there and who was confined to a room. They argued about whether his parents should put him in a “home”.

I was both fascinated and afraid when I passed by the house. I wondered about the boy, about his appearance and how he spent his day. Was he lonely? Would he hurt me if he came out of the house?

That was in the mid-1960s, around the time that Jean Vanier, the 2015 Templeton Prize winner, visited an asylum, a “home” in Trosly, France. It was the house of my neighbourhood on a grand scale and he was as ignorant of it as were the people in my neighbourhood.

He discovered a hidden world of anguish, shame and hopelessness, a place where intellectually disabled people were shut away from sight. He invited two of the men who had no family to live with him. Their mutually transformative experience of living as peers – eating, doing chores and sometimes fighting together – gradually began to attract others.

This was the humble beginning of L’Arche, an organization of 147 communities around the globe that emphasizes our common humanity. L’Arche is a sign of hope for the world, demonstrating that people of different cultures, religions and abilities can live together in peace.

Vanier’s experience in that first L’Arche community was liberating. Freed from the culture of success where people are valued for their abilities and achievements, Vanier discovered what it means to be fully human. Before being a Christian or a Jew, before being an American or a Russian, before having visible or invisible disabilities, we are a person.

When Vanier speaks of what it means to be fully human, he embraces the vulnerability that many of us try to hide. For Vanier, the story of every individual is the discovery of one’s fragility; we are born, grow and die in weakness.

Living with vulnerable people has taught him that the cry of the disabled for love is the common cry that echoes the heart of God. When people are loved for who they are, not for what they can do, the spirit soars and they can enter more deeply into relationship.

“To become fully human is to let down the barriers, to open up and to discover that every person is beautiful,” Vanier writes. “Under all the jobs and responsibilities, there is you.”

I first heard of Jean Vanier in the 1970s. “He preached the gospel by the way he lived,” said my late mother-in-law, who was instrumental in bringing Vanier to our diocese to give a retreat. He made a lasting impression on her, as he did on others who attended that retreat, and who, despite the passing of decades, still speak about him with great clarity.

One woman said Vanier opened up a God of love to her with his gentle manner and the love in his eyes. Listening to Vanier, she said, “was like sitting as a child at the feet of the Master.”

“He could have said anything and reached me.”

Another individual said: “He is the most authentic person I have ever met. His commitment to the gospel was remarkable and he was living it beautifully.”

The Templeton Prize, valued at approximately US$1.7 million, honours an individual who has made an extraordinary contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension. While it is clear that Vanier’s Christian faith and love of Jesus is at the basis of his lived theology, he is not pushy about creed.

When asked what he would say to a person who does not believe in God, Vanier replied, “Do you believe in love? You don’t need to believe in God. God is love. The important thing is not belief – but can you grow in love?”

That may be the tougher question.

Louise McEwan has degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation. 

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