"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
The world, he said, was "deeply broken". The challenge was "how
to make a society where there are meetings between people who are
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
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
"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
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
To see a video of Mr Vanier's speech, click here