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Lessons from a life in community

29 August 2014

Ali Lutz considers the conclusions of the founder of L'Arche

Signs of the Times: Seven paths of hope for a troubled world
Jean Vanier
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FIFTY years ago, Jean Vanier founded the L'Arche communities to share his life with people with learning disabilities. In his latest book, Vanier offers his insight into what living alongside people who suffer has taught him about personal transformation and the exercise of power.

Vanier identifies seven forces that threaten to dominate life today, and he lays out a path of transformation for each of them. For example, Vanier charts the way from humiliation to humility, and from isolation to community.

Although Vanier devotes a chapter to each movement, he weaves all seven throughout the book. Any confusion that this circling engenders at the outset soon yields to a fuller perception of the immense conversion of heart to which Vanier points: not a simple formula for self-improvement, but a life-altering encounter with Jesus through the vulnerable encounter with the other and then the self.

When Vanier describes life in community with people with learning disabilities, he heeds the prophetic cry of people whom society casts as weak. They are partners in his personal conversion, and in the work to transform the world which follows from it.

Vanier strikes an uncharacteristically flat note, however, when he writes about the transformation of powerful social institutions - in this case, the Roman Catholic Church. Because Vanier is so eager for church leaders to encounter their own vulnerability, he gives the impression that this is the end goal. But it is not enough for the powerful to recognise the weak along the path to the vulnerable self. People on the margins of society demand a transformation of the social patterns of domination which created their misery in the first place.

Nevertheless, this resonant, slim book will touch the heart of anyone in the Church who seeks to live the hope of the gospel in today's world.

The Revd Ali Lutz is an Episcopalian priest from the diocese of New York.

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