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My encounter with the truly charismatic founder of L’Arche

For 46 years Jean Vanier has travelled the world spreading a transformative message. Yesterday I saw him at Blackfriars

By on Thursday, 20 January 2011

Jean Vanier, co-founder of L'Arche, pictured in 2002 (Photo: CNS)

Jean Vanier, co-founder of L'Arche, pictured in 2002 (Photo: CNS)

There is a new blood test for women considered at risk of having a baby with Down’s syndrome, which analyses foetal DNA. It has been hailed as a “new, non-invasive test” that would avoid around 98 per cent of the invasive diagnostic procedures currently carried out, such as amniocentesis, and it would help women “make an informed decision regarding possible termination”.

Alongside news of this medical “breakthrough”, I happened to go to a talk yesterday, given by Jean Vanier at Blackfriars, Oxford. Vanier, for those who have not heard of him, is the co-founder of L’Arche, an organisation that welcomes people with a severe learning disability and helps them live alongside their assistants in small, family-style communities. He has spent the last 46 years, when not sharing in the life of his own L’Arche community in Trosly, France, travelling the world and writing books in order to spread the message of L’Arche: the disabled are our brothers and sisters and accepting them, rather than aborting them or hiding them away, is transformative for those who live with them and for society at large.

It is not a message that attracts large headlines – unlike a medical “breakthrough” to detect handicap “non-invasively” so that “an informed decision” can be made about a possible “termination”. Such terminations are themselves, of course, hugely invasive but this is never mentioned in the good news.

Vanier looks and sounds like an Old Testament prophet, crying in the wilderness of modern medical advances. A former naval officer who studied for a doctorate in philosophy, he said his own life had been transformed (“and although I am now 82, the journey is still going on”) when, in the early 1960s, he welcomed two severely handicapped men into his own home. “We are obliged to enter a mystery when encountering a severely disabled person,” he told his audience. This mystery can involve anguish and guilt on the part of families, and the question: “Where is God in all this?”

The answer, as Vanier indicated, is that God is here, alongside the lonely, the anguished, the rejected and the outcast. Life, he told us, is not about the “tyranny of the normal” or about climbing the ladder of success; it is about building relationships. Building relationships with the handicapped teaches us valuable lessons about our own weakness and vulnerability. He quoted the Jewish diarist, Etty Hillesum, who died in Auschwitz and who achieved an inner freedom because, as she wrote, “I have now integrated death into my life”.

Vanier spoke for an hour without notes, quietly and compellingly. He is a man for whom the word “charismatic”, often used so carelessly, is appropriate. His talk was entitled, “The Road to Freedom”. This is usually translated as meaning the freedom to vote or freedom from persecution. But the deepest freedom of all, as this tall, white-haired and soft-spoken man argued with conviction, is inner freedom: freedom from fear.

The coalition talks a lot about the Big Society. Is it big enough to welcome the words of Jean Vanier and allow them to transform our treatment of disabled babies in the womb and those who lose their faculties later in life?

  • Jack Regan

    Brilliant article, thank you :)

    I have had a lot of contact with L’Arche over the years and they have always been outstanding. They bring something really special to the Church.

  • Diffal

    I am lucky to have a L’Arche community near where I live and both the staff and core members,really are a blessing . If this “new, non-invasive test” were a test for gender, skin colour or sexual orientation, and it was claimed it would help women “make an informed decision regarding possible termination”. I wonder what the press would make of it?

  • Mjtomaino

    My husband and I spent a heart warming reality check with the L’Arche community in Massachusetts a few years ago . It was a life changing experience. Jean Vanier visited South Africa as well and we attended his presentations in Cape Town . He is truly the most sincere and compassionate person I have ever met . We would do well to take note of what he has to say on this matter!.

  • peter

    Jean Vanier is a Canadian and an inspiration to all of us. He is an intellectual and spiritual antidote to H. Morgenteler- a notorious Canadian abortionist!It is a shame that he has not receiced Nobel Peace Prize.
    Should we start the movement in support of his nomination?

  • Swanna

    Thank you, as the leader of a L’Arche community, it is wonderful to see our founder recognized as the true leader that he is.

  • Liliane

    Mr. Jean Vanier is a grand exemple for our age! May his voice be heard by many in our society.

  • Anonymous

    This is a very interesting article and Vanier sounds like a very nice, and very kind man.
    When I taught RE in a very “liberal” Catholic school in the south of England, they were very keen on promoting the L’Arche Community so it was well covered in RE lessons, thanks in the main to the enthusiasm of one of the Deputy Heads. Since the senior management were about as Catholic as an Orange Flute Band, I was very suspicious of L’Arche. I looked into to it and, of course, nobody could do other than praise the wonderful work they do for the disabled and I agree with Francis that their attitude to disability stands in stark contrast to the abortion mentality so sadly dominant in our society today. So, as far as that goes, I do admire them a great deal.

    It is this that bothers me (taken from their website):

    “Generally the communities reflect the predominant faith tradition or traditions of the local population. Thus, with the foundations of the communities of Daybreak in Canada and Asha Niketan in India, the Federation became first ecumenical and then interfaith. Most communities today consider themselves as Christian, some are ecumenical, some identify as Anglican or Protestant, and the majority are Catholic in their practice. The four communities in India and the project in Bangladesh have an interfaith character. All communities of the Federation welcome people of any or no faith and seek to respect and support members in their particular faith choice.” END.

    I am sorry to always seem to be “negative” but what would be truly wonderful would be to find someone with, not just the charisma of Jean Vanier, but the strong Catholic Faith and missionary zeal of the great saints of the past, who spent their lives establishing organisations like hospitals and schools, to help the poor and needy, but all in the name of Christ, to ease the bodily pains of the suffering, in order to prepare their souls for Christ and to bring them into Christ’s Church.

    Thinking back to my comment about being judged “negative” – isn’t it rather sad that such an aspiration should be viewed as “negative”? That so many people clearly think that the main thing is to alleviate the human suffering – a laudable aim, I agree – and that, really, in the end, it doesn’t matter about the religious stuff?

  • brencel

    EditorCT, do not undervalue actions and good deeds.

    In Mathew 25:31-45 Jesus talks about the final judgement and he does not seem too concerned regarding peoples religion, but is more interested in their actions.
    Similarly in the parable of the Good Samaritan it was the action not the religion that was important – the Samaritan was the one like Christ and loved his neighbour.

    The two Commandments Jesus emphasised were to love God and to love your neighbour (and people of every religion or none are our neighbours).

  • Diffal

    I have to say I am in agreement with EditorCT when it comes to this weakness of religious ethos in the L’Arche mission statement. It would be nice to see it, as an organisation, being more Catholic

  • Anonymous

    Exactly! God bless.

  • Jim Cargin

    Thanks to Ms. Phillips, for this accurate and inspiring blog on one of the true prophets of our time.

    Just to comment, from the point of view of a longterm member of L’Arche, and as a Catholic, on the inter-religious aspect, which is slightly frowned upon by EditorCT, who wishes that L’Arche were more Catholic.

    From long experience, I would agree with Vanier when he has said previously- though perhaps not in this lecture at Blackfriars- that he would prefer to live in community with an assistant who was a good caring person, but without belief, than with a person who professed to believe, but wasn’t a good caring person.

    At present, with the policy of openness of L’Arche, a wide variety of people of all traditions are drawn to share life in community, with people with a disability. This can be a rare opportunity for many people, especially at the start of their adult lives, to experience first hand a faith-based community that emphasises less what they have to give, (though their service is important!) but what they have to learn – often at the hands of people with a disability. I believe that cumulatively, this work contributes in a small way to the humanisation of our society, making it friendlier for all, especially those on the edge, a place many people with a disability are sadly familiar with.

    Given the make-up of contemporary secular society, more and more young people ( but by no means all) arrive without any explicit faith. What they find, and hopefully take with them when they leave, is an understanding of what it means to care for others, and for themselves as well. The built in diversity can, as you might imagine, be problematic at different levels, but mostly it is very enriching.

    I am far from saying we have found a fruitful way to integrate all the diversity, but I am glad that it is there. For instance, those of us for whom our faith is a rock could get better at finding ways to put across our faith in ways that engage those without faith, and raise in their minds the kind of questions to which faith is for us a natural answer. But I also find it important to listen: what are these people who profess no faith, actually saying: is faith more something that one does, rather than what one professes?

    Certainly, there are many people with an intellectual disability who would not be able to express their faith verbally, but who have a clear heart-understanding of human nature, and what makes for ‘the good life.’ This is why, as Vanier often states, a disabled person can be a teacher, a person for whom life obviously ‘clicks’, and who is thankfully generous in sharing the wisdom of their heart with the rest of us.

    Would I want L’Arche to be more Catholic? It might be a lot simpler if it were! But possibly also less open to the many in secular societies for whom religion in any organised form, has ceased to make sense.

    One of the many challenges facing us in L’Arche ( there are always quite a few of these!) is the insight offered by a French theologian, Christian Salenson, with whom L’Arche in France has been in dialogue: to paraphrase: ‘In L’Arche, you describe yourselves as a ‘faith’ community. But history shows that a ‘faith’ community, not rooted in a religion has no future!’

    As we try and take this insight on board, and be true to ourselves, I would ask for your prayers. Thanks again to Francis Phillips for raising this issue.

  • Mjtomaino2

    A truly remarkable man who is qualified in everyway to make this special statement.