Key moments in Jean Vanier’s Life – “Change the world, with love, one heart at a time”
In 1941 Vanier’s family was forced to leave France after Germany invaded, they escaped to London just in time for some of the fiercest bombings of the war where they made the dangerous Atlantic crossing into Canada. Less than two years later, Vanier at the young age of thirteen entered his father’s office and asked if he could “cross the U-boat filled ocean again to join the Royal Navy College” this demonstrates values deep in his family: service, courage, and responsiveness to the needs of the times. His father said to him, “I trust you and, if that is what you want, well then that is what you must do.” Vanier later reflecting on this event writes, I did not realize it at the time but that was probably one of the most healing moments in my life. Because my father, whom I loved and admired, trusted me, then I could trust myself.
Vanier had a very successful career in the Royal Navy during this time he learned a lot about himself.
“When I was in the navy, I was taught to give orders to others. That came quite naturally to me! All my life I had been taught to climb the ladder, to seek promotions, to compete, to be the best, to win prizes. That is what society teaches us. In doing so, we lose community and communion.”
In 1947 Vanier’s metaphorical use of the “ladder” has a curious irony, he nearly died falling off a rope ladder in gusting winds and rough seas. He lost consciousness immediately and was swept away by the strong current. The boats chaplain and some sailors spotted his fall caught up with him in a small boat and rescued him.
In 1950 Vanier chose to fall off the ladder of promotion into the arms of Providence, after a thirty-day retreat following the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, Vanier had made his decision. He resigned his position in the navy, with little future direction other than a hunger to follow Jesus and live according to the Gospels. After finishing his naval career, his mother introduced him to her spiritual director, a Dominican priest named Thomas Philippe. The powerful bond that was immediately formed with “Pere Thomas” would shape the rest of his life. Vanier moved into a community, Eau Vive, that Pere Thomas began for students to study philosophy and theology while living a communal life of love, reconciliation, and charity.
In 1952, Pere Thomas was removed by Rome for unorthodoxy and for spiritual direction that was considered too mystical. Jean Vanier took over the leadership of the community until 1956 Next Vanier worked on his doctoral thesis from the Trappist monastery of Bellfontaine, then in greater solitude in small villages, Longing to follow Jesus and to live simply, he focused on his studies, times of prayer, and daily Mass.
In June 1962, Vanier defended his thesis, “Happiness as Principle and End of Aristotelian Ethics,” and was graduated as a Doctor of Philosopy cum maxima luade. His research into the basis of Aristotelian ethics brought a great deal of light and helped him to grasp the connection between ethics, psychology, and spirituality.
In January 1964 Vanier takes a temporary teaching position at St. Michael’s College, University in Toronto. He was offered a permanent position but instead decided to move back to France to be close to Father Thomas who had moved to Trosly, France to be chaplain to the Val Fleuri, a small institution for men with intellectual handicaps. Vanier despite his discomfort became impressed by the men who were becoming Father Thomas’ friends, he also began to visit centers for people with intellectual disabilities. He was struck by people’s screams and the heavy atmosphere, yet also by a mysterious presence of God
“I was touched by these men with mental handicaps, by their sadness and by their cry to be respected, valued and loved.”
August 1964, Vanier moved into “L’Arche” a house so simple that there was no toilet, only a bucket, and no electricity. He brought three men with disabilities home from an institution to live with him- after the first night he had to send one of the men back because the small house could not meet his needs. Vanier does not consider himself the founder of L’Arche but saw it as a call from God, a call revealed to him through Father Thomas Phillipe
In 1966, the L’Arche communities traveled together to Rome for an audience with Pope Paul VI, who declares, “Seeing you all together makes me realize that you are a small group united by love and an active will to help one another. You are a community in whose midst Jesus is happy to live.”
In 1969, spending time in India with Mother Teresa and learning from the vision of Gandhi deeply impacts him. The first L’Arche community opens in India in 1970.
In 1976, after returning from India the exhaustion from all of the expansion of the work of L’Arche catches up to Vanier. He becomes sick for over five months, two of them in the hospital. Through this illness he learned a great deal and Jesus used it to renew him spiritually as he was forced to slow down. He writes:
“Let us simply stop and start listening to our own hearts. There we will touch a lot of pain. We will possibly touch a lot of anger and possibly touch a lot of loneliness and anguish. Then we will hear something deeper. We will hear the voice of Jesus; we will hear the voice of God. We will discover that the heart of Christ, in some mysterious way, is hidden in my heart and there, we will hear, “You are precious to my eyes and I love you.”
In March 1980 Vanier was in Honduras when Archbishop Oscar Romero was murdered in nearby El Salvador, he was asked to give the official Mass for Romero. Vanier spoke of Romero as, “a man of peace who indentified himself with the poor and who preached non-violence and reconciliation, and he was like Jesus in that he was not afraid to speak the truth.”
In 1980 he left the role of community leader in Trosly (the original L’Arche community) and took a “sabbatical year”, during this year he becomes more aware of his own suffering, and the importance of each person to recognize their own, “hidden places of pain…little by little we can become a friend of our weakness.”
To love is to reveal the hidden beauty in the hearts of all people, to trust them and to call them forth to greater trust. To love is a way of looking, of touching, of listening to all: taking time with others, especially with those who are broken, depressed, and insecure revealing to them their importance.
In 1981-82 Vanier forms a deep friendship with Henri Nouwen and they spent a year together in 1985 in Trosly then Henri Nouwen moved to the Daybreak L’Arche community as their priest and remained there for 10 years until his sudden death in 1996
In 1989 Vanier writes expanded version of ‘Community and Growth’ and dedicates it to Father Thomas Philippe, “with whom I made my first steps in community.”
In 1993 Father Thomas, instrumental in the birth of L’Arche and who stayed at the heart of it for 28 years dies.
In 1998 Vanier gives a series of lectures about what it means to be human, which develops into a best selling book titled Becoming Human.
In 2004, Vanier publishes a book about the Gospel of John that reflects his experience of prayerful silence writing, “I have come to see that to pray is above all to dwell in Jesus and to let Jesus dwell in me,
“That we are healed by the poor and the weak, that we are transformed by them if we enter into relationship with them, that the weak and the vulnerable have a gift to give to our world. They call us together, in unity and peace, to build community.” Jean’s parallel conviction is that the poor and the weak are also ourselves, each one of us.
Two insightful stories by Vanier:
A man came to see me when I was director of the L’Arche community. He was a man with many problems and a very sad person. I suppose he was somebody very normal. I don’t like the word ‘normal’ but if anyone was normal, it was this man. While he was sharing his sadness with me there was a knock on the door, and before I could answer it, Jean Claude was in my office and laughing. Some people call him mongoloid or Down’s syndrome but we just call him Jean Claude. He is a happy man, he likes to come by my office and shake my hand. And that is what he did. He shook my hand and laughed. Then he shook the hand of Mr. Normal and laughed and he walked out laughing. Mr. Normal looked at me and said, “Isn’t it sad that there are children like that.” The great pain in all of this was that this man was totally blind. He had barriers inside of him and was unable to see that Jean Claude was happy. You couldn’t find anyone more relaxed and happy than Jean Claude. When people start lamenting because there are people with handicaps in our world, the question is whether it is more sad that there are people with handicaps or that there are people who reject them. Which is the greater handicap? Is it that there are men like Jean Claude or is it that Mr. Normal has this barrier which renders him totally blind to the beauty of people?
When Vanier was visiting one of the L’Arche communities he was preparing to address the community and one of the long-term members David, dragged a mat to the front and sprawled out at Vanier’s feet. “you always put me to sleep, Jean,” he commented. Vanier smiled delightedly and addressed us all.
“This is that dangerous sleepy time after lunch. Its alright if you go to sleep. Ill keep talking as long as one person is still awake.” Then he leaned forward and spoke quite earnestly. “But when you wake up, listen. That is the prophetic word for you, the word for which you’ve been awakened.”
Vanier’s life choices have been based on his conviction that for each of us there are prophetic moments that God will initiate, the wake-up calls of our lives. Every person, no matter how socially marginalized, has a unique call and purpose from God in the world.
My heart is transformed by the smile of trust given by some people who are terribly fragile and weak. They call forth new energies from me. They seem to break down barriers and bring me a new freedom. It is the same with the smile of a child: even the hardest heart can’t resist. Contact with people who are weak and who are crying out…is one of the most important nourishments in our lives. When we let ourselves be really touched by the gift of their presence, they leave something precious in our hearts.
As long as we remain at the level of “doing” things for people, we tend to stay behind our barriers of superiority. We ought to welcome the gift of the poor with open hands. Jesus says, “What you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me.”
“People may come to our communities because they want to serve the poor; they will only stay once they have discovered that they themselves are the poor. And then they discover something extraordinary: that Jesus came to bring the good news to the poor, not to those who serve the poor! I think we can only truly experience the presence of God, meet Jesus, receive the good news, in and through our own poverty, because the kingdom of God belongs to the poor, the poor in spirit, the poor who are crying out for love.”
“I am always moved as I read the gospel and see how Jesus lives and acts, how he enters into relationship with each person: Will you come with me? I love you. Will you enter into communion with me?” He calls each one he meets into a personal, intimate relationship with himself. But as he invites people to follow him, he is also telling them that they must make a choice. If they choose one thing, it means refusing another. If they choose to follow Jesus, they receive a gift of love and communion, but at the same time they must say “no” to the ways of the world and accept the loss; they must own their choice.”
“Communion did not come easily to me. I had to change and to change quite radically. When you have been taught from an early age to be first, to win, and then suddenly you sense that you are being called by Jesus to go down the ladder and to share your life with those who have little culture, who are poor and marginalized, a real struggle breaks out within oneself. As I began living with people like Raphael and Philip, I began to see all the hardness of my heart. It is painful to discover the hardness in one’s own heart. Raphael and others were crying out simply for friendship and I did not quite know how to respond because of the other forces within me, pulling me to go up the ladder. But over the years, the people I live with in L’Arche have been teaching and healing me.”
“I discovered something which I had never confronted before, that there were immense forces of darkness and hatred within my own heart. At particular moments of fatigue and stress, I saw forces of hate rising up inside me, and the capacity to hurt someone who was weak and was provoking me! That, I think, was what caused me the most pain: to discover who I really am, and to realize that maybe I did not want to know who I really was! I did not want to admit all the garbage inside me. And then I had to decide whether I would just continue to pretend I was okay and throw myself into hyperactivity, projects where I could forget all the garbage and prove to others how good I was. Elitism is the sickness of us all. We all want to be on the winning team. That is at the heart of apartheid and every form of racism. The important thing is to become conscious of those forces in us and to work at being liberated from them and to discover that the worst enemy is inside our own hearts not outside!”
“I do not believe we can truly enter into our own inner pain and wounds and open our hearts to others unless we have had an experience of God, unless we have been touched by God. We must be touched by the Father in order to experience, as the prodigal son did, that no matter how wounded we may be, we are loved. And not only are we loved, but we too are called to heal and to liberate. This healing power in us will not come from our capacities and our riches, but in and through our poverty. We are called to discover that God can bring peace, compassion and love through our wounds.”
“The cry for communion in the poor and the broken makes us touch our own inner pain. We discover our own brokenness and the barriers inside of us, which have gradually been formed during our childhood to save us from inner pain. These barriers prevent us from being present to others, in communion with others; they incite us to compete and to dominate others. It is when we have realized this that we cry out to God. And then we meet the “Paraclete” (Holy Spirit) whom Jesus and the Father have promised to send us. The word “paracleta” means “the one who answers the cry.”
“We are all wounded, we are all poor. But we are all the people of God; we are all loved and are being guided. They have taught me what it means to be with brothers and sisters in communion, in community. They have revealed to me the well of tenderness that is hidden in my own heart and which can give life to others.”
“We do not have to be saviors of the world! We are simply human beings, enfolded in weakness and in hope, called together to change our world one heart at a time.”
-Jean Vanier (‘Becoming Human’)
People with intellectual disabilities are not able to assume important roles of power and of efficacy. They are essentially people of the heart. When they meet others they do not have a hidden agenda for power or for success. Their cry, their fundamental cry, is for a relationship, a meeting heart to heart. It is this meeting that awakens them, opens them up to life, and calls them forth to love in great simplicity, freedom and openness. When those ingrained in a culture of winning and of individual success really meet them, and enter into friendship with them, something amazing and wonderful happens. They too are opened up to love and even to God. They are changed at a very deep level. They are transformed and become more fundamentally human.
L’Arche is a family created and sustained by God. Being a family means sharing one spirit, one vision and one spirituality. This is particularly true of a family created by a response to a call from God, without the natural bonds of flesh and blood. A spirituality is a way of life that implies choices and a particular ordering of priorities. The gospel is the source of Christian spirituality, but there are many ways of living out the gospel. Throughout history, according to the needs of particular ages and cultures, the Holy Spirit has called forth men and women to create new families and to bear witness to the love of God, the resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit. In the East as in the West, in the early days of the church, there were the desert fathers and mothers and the foundation of monastic families. They developed a spirituality centered on a life of prayer, community life, obedience, and liturgy. Much later, Franciscan families came into being. They lived a life of poverty and belief in the presence of God in nature and in the poor. Other spiritualities have stressed the importance of integration with and commitment to society. Each one has the same foundation: the gospel and the life of Jesus. Each one offers a way to grow in love and become liberated from fear, a path to communion with Jesus and other people, particularly those who are marginalized.
“Our world has more and more need of…places where young people can stay and find a certain inner freedom before the make their decision. They need somewhere where they can find their inner liberation through a network of relationships and friendships, where they can be truly themselves without trying or pretending to be anything other than they are…It is only when they discover that they are truly loved by God and by others, and that they can do beautiful things for others, that they begin to get in touch with what is deepest in them…For a community to play this intermediate role, it must have a core of people who are really rooted there.”
“True growth comes as members of the community integrate into their hearts and minds the vision of the community. In that way they choose the community as it is and become responsible for it.”
“Healing does not come from outside a person but from inside: medication is for the stimulation of the healing forces within the body. A healer is one who activates and calls for these healing forces within a wounded person, through the transmission of love, of trust, and of hope. A healer acts not through imposition of law, but by attraction: the attraction to life and of life. To be healed one must want to live and to give life, not just to escape from suffering and to be comfortable.”
Yes, in that broken child, a light is shining; in that man in prison, a heart is beating; in that woman, victim of prostitution, there is a yearning for life; in the rich and greedy person, seeking power, there is a child of purity; in that young man dying of AIDS, there is the light of God; in every person, no matter how broken, sinful, hardened, dominating, or cruel, there is a spring of water waiting to flow forth.
Each one of us needs to grow from brokenness to community. In community, we discover that we are bonded together. We can let down the walls that close us up in ourselves and learn to accept those who are different; we can learn to listen to others and to forgive; we can work through conflict. We can discover our deepest call: to love, to grow in compassion. Sharing life together as a community, we can become the bridge between the able and the disabled, the rich and the poor. Community is a place of growth for all.