Mercy within Mercy: Georges and Pauline Vanier and the search for God
Mary Frances Coady
Church Times Bookshop £9
JEAN VANIER’s is a name to conjure with. His parents, according to this biography, had a large part to play in developing the virtue of mercy which is a hallmark of his ministry. The founder of the L’Arche communities, with their distinctive approach to the care of what used to be called the “handicapped”, Vanier was the son of Georges and Pauline Vanier, the Governor General of Canada and his wife.
Born into their devout Roman Catholic family in 1928, Vanier was the fourth of five children. Pauline took an English Carmelite nun as her spiritual director, who spelt out to her the meaning of the word “miseri-cor-dare”, namely, to give one’s heart to those in need. She would seek out Dominican and Jesuit priests in her quest for an inner life compatible with the increasingly public life that her husband was to embrace in the inter- and post-war worlds of international diplomacy.
As a couple, they found a via media between the strict Jansenism in which Georges was raised and the far more pious temperament and religious practice of his wife. The author, a Canadian religious sister, has analysed this progress through scrupulous research, notably of the correspondence between the couple, their children — especially the oldest boy, who became a Trappist monk — and various spiritual directors. Photographs of them all enhance the storyline, showing the family at work and play, and reminding the reader how extraordinarily handsome Pauline was.
The book’s interest lies in its portrayal of a devout lay life lived under pressure in a world replete with conflict: Georges’s professional life gives us its gritty backbone, while the story of Pauline’s own discovery of the spirit of L’Arche spells out where true mercy lies.
Lavinia Byrne is a writer and broadcaster.