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Obituary: Jean Vanier

10 May 2019


Jean Vanier, outside his home in Trosly-Breuil, on 7 March 2015

Jean Vanier, outside his home in Trosly-Breuil, on 7 March 2015

Pat Ashworth writes:

THERE was a strong sense of closure about Jean Vanier’s last book, A Cry is Heard: My path to peace, published in September 2018. The founder of L’Arche acknowledged his failing strength and declared: “My desire in growing old is to live what I have always proclaimed: that God is at the heart of weakness. I would like in my old age, with the possible loss of memory, mobility and even speech, to keep proclaiming his presence.”

Jean Vanier, who died on 7 May, aged 90, was born in Geneva in 1928, one of five children of devout Christian parents who originated from Quebec. His father, Georges, had experienced a Wesley moment when listening to a sermon by an eloquent Jesuit; and his mother, Pauline, had been spiritually drawn to the Carmelites. Georges became a military adviser with the League of Nations after losing a leg in the First World War. Diplomatic life and the vagaries of war caused the family to move many times before he became Governor-General of Canada in 1959.

In 1942, at the age of 13 and prompted by what he called “an inner voice”, Vanier sailed to England unaccompanied to enter the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth. He spent eight years in the Navy and was on track to become an officer, but felt called to pursue peace, as he wrote, “not with weapons of war but as a disciple of Jesus”. He went to L’Eau Vive in Paris, an international lay centre for teaching theology, at the invitation of a Dominican priest, Fr Thomas Philippe, whom he credits with his spiritual formation.

Vanier was profoundly shaken 50 years later when Fr Thomas was found to have abused women in the context of spiritual direction, the more so since he had succeeded Fr Thomas as leader of the L’Eau Vive community. The priest’s departure had been part of the tensions between French Dominicans and the Roman Curia, which resulted in a purge in 1954. Vanier owned that when he heard the testimony of the abused women, he felt a “painful disbelief” in the face of having to hold together compassion for the victims and thankfulness for Fr Thomas’s part in the birth of L’Arche.

No longer feeling called to the priesthood after four years at L’Eau Vive, Vanier sampled monastic life with the Cistercians at Cholet; completed a Ph.D. thesis on Aristotle’s ethics at Fatima; and, in 1962, took up a post teaching ethics at the University of Toronto, where he stayed until April 1964.

Fr Thomas had meanwhile become chaplain to Val Fleuri in the French town of Trosly-Breuil, a centre for adults with intellectual disabilities. On visiting, Vanier felt as drawn to these adults as they clearly were to him: this, at a time when most were doomed to be shut away for life in asylums or psychiatric hospitals. His vision, articulated many times in the years that followed, was for a small family community, living with the poor in the name of Jesus and not just “doing good” to them.

In search of a better understanding of disability, he visited an institution in eastern France where he was shocked and distressed to discover 80 men with intellectual disabilities squeezed into a facility designed for half that number and with staff unable to cope in an atmosphere of violence and boredom. Two residents in particular became his friends: Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux. With the help of friends, Vanier bought, and made habitable for the three of them, a dilapidated house that was to be a foster-care unit under Val Fleuri.

That was the foundation of L’Arche, which, like the Ark from which it took its name, was dedicated to welcoming all manner of fragile beings — a place where “people with a disability yearn for a real encounter,” he said. In March 1965, Vanier — with some misgivings — took on administrative responsibility for Val Fleuri itself, which he described at the time as a place of chaos but which, with much support, was transformed over the five years that followed.

L’Arche absorbed Val Fleuri and became a movement. Young people in particular, many of them motivated by the Second Vatican Council in 1965, were drawn to the idea of living in community with the poor, in the name of faith. An Anglican ecumenical L’Arche community was set up in Toronto after two visiting Canadian Anglicans were inspired by their encounter in France; a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi invited Vanier to India, resulting in the setting-up of an interfaith L’Arche in Bangalore in 1970; other communities began in Haiti, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, England, and Belgium. L’Arche now has 140 communities in 40 countries.

“I felt myself being carried by the breath of the Spirit and the prayer of my many friends. . . God, through L’Arche, wanted to make known the message of people with a disability in the churches and the countries where we opened houses. They have a privileged place in the body of Christ, the Church, and in the whole human family,” he wrote of that heady time. “Together we realised that L’Arche is truly a work of God and does not belong to us. It was beyond us.”

The Roman Catholic Church held him at arm’s length at first. Ecumenism did not make a lot of noise, he once remarked, describing how someone had asked him, “You are Catholic; how can you live in communion with Jews and Muslims?” His reply was characteristically simple: “It is because of my love for Jesus: he is my friend and my model. He loves everyone, no matter their culture, their religion, their abilities or inabilities.”

An encounter with Marie-Hélène Mathieu, founder of the Office Chrétien des Personnes Handicappées (Christian Office for People with Disabilities) in 1969 made Vanier aware of the prejudices experienced by families with intellectually disabled children. One couple had experienced a disastrous visit to Lourdes, where they had met with hostility and been told by hotel staff that their presence was undesirable. It led three years later to the launch of Faith and Light: regular gatherings for fellowship, activities, camps, retreats, and pilgrimages. Faith and Light now numbers around 1500 communities in 85 countries.

There is a wildness and passion about photographs of Vanier as a younger man — an energy, humour, and clear gaze that never weakened. He declared that it was not easy to be a good shepherd, acknowledged his own sometimes hasty impatience, and was always honest about the strains as well as the joys of living at L’Arche, a place that brought out his inner child.

At the fractious Lambeth Conference of 1998, he stilled the hall when he knelt in front of Archbishop George Carey to wash his feet in a basin. The Archbishop embraced him in prayer before washing the feet of his wife, Eileen. The ceremony continued, mirrored at multiple stations and with hundreds of bishops, spouses, staff, and guests. It was an act of humility which Vanier encouraged, most recently in 2017, when he was invited by Archbishop Welby to mediate at the Primates’ Meeting. He instructed the bishops to wash each other’s feet — the healing impact of which was enormous, the Archbishop said, declaring himself “quite unravelled by it”.

Honours flooded in, many from France and Canada: humanitarian and peace awards that included the Joseph Kennedy Foundation Award, with Mother Teresa, in 1971; the Paul VI International Prize in 1997; Officier de la Légion d’Honneur in 2002. In 2015, he was awarded the Templeton Prize, which honours a living person who has made exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.

Sir John Templeton’s granddaughter, Jennifer Simpson, said on that occasion that Vanier had brought a much-needed perspective to how the power of love could advance spiritual progress in the world: “His powerful message and practice of love has the potential to change the world for the better, just as it has already changed the lives of countless individuals who have been touched by this extraordinary man.”

Vanier constantly reiterated that the secret of L’Arche was that it transformed the lives of those without disabilities as much as those with them. Assistants who sought out L’Arche, he observed, had been formed by their cultures to be strong, knowledgeable, and successful, and to climb the ladder of promotion. When they came to L’Arche, they discovered that they were being invited to learn not to be a success, but to create relationships of love and friendship with those at the bottom of the ladder of society, the most vulnerable and weak.

Vanier’s story was told by his biographer and personal friend, Kathryn Spink, in The Miracle, The Message, The Story: Jean Vanier and L’Arche (2005). She had first encountered L’Arche in 1988, and subsequently visited its communities all over the world. Religious belief was not obligatory, she noted, though all had simple, sometimes improvised, chapels.

Attending mass in the oratory at Trosly-Breuil, she commented: “Mass there bore daily witness to a profound relationship between the broken bread upon the altar and the broken but life-living presence of the people with disabilities, who might shuffle their feet, comb their hair or even cry out their anguish, but who no-one could judge to be irreverent.”

Vanier was at pains, she said, to disclaim the title of founder, declaring that growth in community meant progression from “my work” to “our work” to “God’s work”. It reinforced his conviction that God had chosen the weak, the poor, the “crazy”, and the despised to confound the strong, the clever, and the respected. “Ask him to talk about L’Arche or about St John and he was fine,” she wrote. “Take him to a dinner party and he would find that he had nothing to say.”

He wrote more than 30 books, the earliest, In Weakness, Strength, in 1969. They include Finding Peace (2003), Encountering “the Other” (2006); Being Human (2008); Life’s Great Questions (2015). The Gospel of John, The Gospel of Relationship, also published in 2015, was the fruit of many years of reflection, study, prayer, and living in community. He said of it: “The insights that I share in this book come from the life of Jesus in me, what Jesus teaches me in prayer and study.”

A documentary in 2018 by Randall Wright, Summer in the Forest, followed the day-to-day lives of residents of L’Arche in Trosly-Breuil and in Bethlehem and won critical acclaim: the Daily Mail said of the film: “The sheer humanity shines through. Viewing should be compulsory.”

Vanier, who had a heart attack in 2017 and continued living in a small cottage in Trosly-Breuil, celebrated his 90th birthday last year. He acknowledged his increasing fragility but told the RC network Aleteia: “Today my life is great. . . My principle is that today, I have no future, but I am happy in the moment. Each moment.”

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