Quest for meaning in the everyday

09 September 2016

Lavinia Byrne reads a large-hearted look at big questions

Life’s Great Questions
Jean Vanier
SPCK £9.99
(978-0-281-07595-9)
Church Times Bookshop £9

 

 

THIS is a book by a man who is profoundly familiar with God and the divine ways. Jean Vanier was born in 1928. A Roman Catholic layman, he founded L’Arche at Trosly-Breuil in France — where he still lives — in 1964. Here, people with developmental disabilities live alongside their carers and all learning is mutual. There are now 147 such communities worldwide, and much of Vanier’s output — he has written some 30 books — comes directly from his experience of reaching out to those whom others might fear. Here is a man with a large heart and a simple, direct faith.

So, when he claims: “we must dare to ask questions,” it is worth listening to them — and also to the answers that he gives. They range from the obvious ones, about reality, suffering, evil, and the nature of love, to others that are more testing, about why we are here, and the nature of death.

A further question underpins everything else that he writes; for he says, almost in an aside, “what does this mean in more everyday terms?” Every question deserves an answer but only an answer that speaks directly to the human heart and imagination. Hence the value of the anecdotes that illustrate the points he makes, most of them gleaned from his work with the poor and dispossessed.

Vanier turns again and again to the writings of Etty Hillesum for clarification: “I shall no longer flirt with words,” she wrote; “for words merely evoke misunderstandings.” His reflections on death are among the most simple — that is to say, profound. An example: “The mystery of compost should give us confidence to live experiences, to accept change, to risk loss and to be open to the movement of life. . . Compost is integral to growth. Death is integral to life.”

No flirting with words here; no room for misunderstandings.

 

Lavinia Byrne is a writer and broadcaster.

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