Thérèse Vanier: Pioneer of L’Arche, palliative care and spiritual unity
Church Times Bookshop £11.70
AS SOMEONE who is rarely drawn to biographies, I opened Ann Shearer’s Thérèse Vanier: Pioneer of L’Arche, palliative care and spiritual unity with similar feelings to those I experience when going to the gym. I know that it will do me good, but have low expectations in terms of enjoyment. I was right on the former expectation, but wrong on the latter.
This book is a gentle, honest, and transformative read, in which the reader somehow feels as if Thérèse Vanier, a woman far more interested in action than word, has become a valued friend.
Shearer responded to Jean Vanier’s request to write a book about his sister’s life by drawing together the memories and reflections of some 50 colleagues and friends. She deals with them thematically, considering the three main strands of Thérèse’s life and work: her pioneering work establishing the L’Arche community in the UK, her significant contribution to the world of palliative care, and her tireless work in ecumenism.
When there are so many different voices, it would be easy for this to feel like a somewhat disjointed read. Shearer carefully and creatively pieces together each story and reflection, however, with the artistic talent of a master quilt-maker, whose many individual squares combine to make up a breathtakingly beautiful finished piece.
What emerges is a grace-filled picture of a talented and prayerful woman, who understood that Kingdom values are seen most clearly when the most vulnerable in society are not only cared for, but are also listened to, and respected as “core members” (L’Arche’s term for those with intellectual disabilities who are at the centre of their community).
There are poignant moments that moved me to tears, as Thérèse faces the inner struggles that are often the price of a prophetic life. What she calls her “resident alien” of depression was often present, but rarely evident. There are glimpses of the flashes of anger she expressed as she worked for inclusion and unity in the face of the institutional barriers of church disunity and societal prejudice. In all of these, her strategy was simple: “We just keep on trying.”
Amid the struggles, there are moments of sheer and unexpected joy when accounts of life within a L’Arche community remind us of the healing power of laughter.
Shearer achieves so much in this book — not least an inspiring insight into the life of a woman who humbled herself and took a less glamorous route than she might have done, for the sake of others. Shearer also achieves something, however, that she may not have intended to do. After the acknowledgement that she did not share her friend’s Christian faith, it is a surprising gift that, somehow, a deep spirituality seeps out from her writing.
Having read this book, I feel energised and encouraged to “keep on trying” as I go about my daily work of accompanying others. Read it, and give it to someone who
might need a reboot in his or her vocation.
The Revd Dorothy Moore Brooks is Chaplaincy Deputy Team Leader of the Great Ormond Street NHS Foundation Trust.