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The secret of L' Arche is meeting people, Vanier says

23 January 2015

Ania urbanowska

Seats of power: Jean Vanier walks through the invited audience at the House of Lords on Monday evening

Seats of power: Jean Vanier walks through the invited audience at the House of Lords on Monday evening

"WHEN people have been trained to trust themselves and not others, it's a long road. I see situations sometimes where people are foolish and powerful, and how can they be changed?

"My hope one day is that they will fall down and break their leg, and then maybe in hospital, in a little bit of quiet time, they can change."

The 70 people crammed into an upper room in the House of Lords on Monday evening were powerful, certainly; but perhaps coming to listen to Jean Vanier, the 86-year-old founder of the L'Arche communities, spared them from the charge of foolishness.

Mr Vanier, a Canadian, had been invited by the charity Together for the Common Good to speak on the subject why the strong need the weak.

The world, he said, was "deeply broken". The challenge was "how to make a society where there are meetings between people who are very different."

His credentials for delivering such a challenge were of the firmest. L'Arche, where people with disabilties live together with able-bodied assistants, was begun in 1964, when Mr Vanier began living with two men from a Parisian asylum with severe mental disabilities. There are now 146 communities around the world, 11 in the UK.

He told his audience of parliamentarians and the heads of charities and welfare organisations: "It's sometimes too painful to listen to the story of other people. That's what Mother Teresa says.

"To begin, there is repulsion and anger: you don't know what to do with people with severe disabilities. And then you get closer, and you discover compassion, you begin to weep. . . But somewhere, then, she says, we can move on and find wonderment, because hidden in that person is a human person.

"To meet people is not to do things for them; it's not to tell them what to do; it's not to teach them. But somewhere in a meeting with humility, [there is] the capacity somehow that we can hear each other's stories."

His concern was that the world was increasingly fragmented, so that the people who were on an upward trajectory were immured, sometimes literally, from those at the bottom.

"The secret of L'Arche is to meet people. A lot of young people come to do good, but they have also been formed by a culture of winning, of success, of being recognised, applauded, and so on. And so, when those who are moving up to the top through education meet those who are at the bottom of society, something happens. There's a spark, and both groups change.

"People who came to do good discover that the people with disabilities are doing them good: they are becoming more human."

The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster were among the invited audience, and were asked to respond. Cardinal Nichols interpreted Mr Vanier's words as a criticism of Western society.

L'Arche showed up, he said "the real limits of the Enlightenment. . . The way we've constructed our society over the last 200 years has led us to this point, and this point is not a happy point. And what we have to learn is that functional rationality is only a fraction of the story."

Archbishop Welby spoke of the creation of the Community of St Anselm at Lambeth Palace, formed for the purpose of learning to live more closely in community.

He referred to "this constant discipline in the busyness of life to allow our eyes to be drawn back to who are the weakest. The busier you are, the less easy that is; and the more successful a community, the harder that is."

L'Arche, he said, had "demonstrated most extraordinarily" this ability to "draw back to the weaker", leading to transformation.

To see a video of Mr Vanier's speech, click here

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