Remembering Jean Vanier
10th July 2019
By Peter Millar
When Jean Vanier visited an asylum for 80 men with learning difficulties in northern France in 1964, he found the residents walking around in circles and doing little else. They were enclosed by high concrete walls; some were screaming. Suddenly, one man came out of his reverie, looked at Vanier with hopeful eyes and asked: “Will you be my friend?” In the moment that it took him to smile and nod, Vanier’s life was changed.
As a young man Vanier had struggled to contain his restless soul until it became rooted in the idea that those with disabilities could become the teachers of their carers. Both would heal the lives of the other.”Those people who society typically considers the weakest enable the strong to recognise and welcome their own vulnerability,” he later wrote.
After this epiphany, Vanier tested his beliefs by buying a stone cottage in the village of Trosly-Breuil, 60 miles north of Paris, and inviting Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux, two men who lived in the asylum and did not have any immediate family, to live with him. As the years went by, Vanier founded more communities that he named L’Arche (The Ark) to signify inviting people in pain to take refuge. In each L’Arche house, people with disabilities live in equality with their carers. His vision was that every resident would be involved in decisions about the running of the community. Many of the young people who volunteered to be carers in the L’Arche houses ended up living in them permanently. There are now 154 L’Arche communities throughout the world, including 12 in the UK and when we lived in South India, Dorothy and I had the privilege of being linked to the L’Arche community near Madras (now Chennai.)
After several years of this important work, Vanier had experienced enough to know that not everyone was suited to live with others, so in 1971 he started Faith and Light with Marie Helene Mathieu. The idea was to create communities that met once a month for worship, fellowship and mutual support. There are now 1,800 Faith and Light communities in 81 countries. Throughout his life many regarded Vanier as a living saint, but he himself hated having this kind of praise lavished upon him. “I feel that people are saying, ‘You are doing beautiful work’: and that doesn’t interest me because what they are really saying is, ‘I’m glad you are doing it, not me.”
In one of his best known books, Community and Growth, he wrote: “The weak ones in our society have taught me so much. They have shown me what it is to live simply, to love tenderly, to speak in truth, to pardon, to receive openly, to be humble in weakness, to be confident in difficulties and to accept handicaps and hardships with love.”
To view Jean Vanier’s incredibly moving funeral service held recently in the L’Arche Community in Trosly in France, Google: Jean Vanier Funeral on You Tube. It is a beautiful event which takes us more deeply into the meaning of this visionary work in our world.
Editor’s Note: There are several L’Arche communities across Australia. To learn more, visit their website which includes volunteer and other support opportunities. https://www.larche.org.au/
For more information on Jean Vanier https://www.jean-vanier.org/en