Jean Vanier, RIP

Sohrab Ahmari honors Jean Vanier, who has passed away:

Jean Vanier, the Canadian Catholic philosopher and humanitarian who died on Tuesday aged 90, was a giant of a man. Well over six feet tall, he towered over me when I visited him for an interview in Trosly-Breuil, France, in 2015. In Vanier, however, even his height and bearing were transfigured into a source of warmth and humility; I ended up describing him as a “gentle giant” in my write-up.

He was due to receive the $1.7 million Templeton Prize that year, in recognition of his “exceptional contributions to affirming life’s breadth of spiritual dimensions”. Yet he was painfully reluctant to talk about the prize. I remember how he lowered himself somehow (again, both physically and emotionally) when I brought up this great honour. “Don’t push me up, don’t push me forward,” he insisted, in a voice that was almost a whisper.

Vanier would have preferred that I write not about him but about his friends at Trosly-Breuil, the site of the first L’Arche community he established. L’Arche, or the Ark, is the movement of people with disabilities and their non-disabled peers (called “assistants”) who live together as friends and equals.

Today L’Arche is among the most luminous examples of what it means to live Catholic social teaching and Gospel values in the modern world. It’s also the most powerful counter-witness to the culture of death and the eugenic revival that has some countries boasting of having “eliminated” Down’s syndrome.

Vanier’s story, and that of L’Arche’s founding, are legendary, though these are true and well-attested legends. …

L’Arche has grown to some 150 communities on five continents. Part of the point is of course to help people with disabilities live lives of laughter, dignity and happiness. But the non-disabled who come to L’Arche soon learn that they need as much help and healing as the disabled do. The non-disabled helpers are also counted among the poor at L’Arche.

“What people with disabilities want is to relate,” Vanier told me in that 2015 interview. “This is something unique. It makes people who are closed up in the head become human. The wonderful thing about people with disabilities is that when someone important comes, they don’t care. They care about the relationship. So they have a healing power, a healing power of love.”

I got a light touch of that healing power during my own visit to Trosly-Breuil. After interviewing Vanier, I was invited to lunch at the Ferns, the group home that serves some of the most severely disabled residents. I’ll be honest: all the spitting and gurgling of food at first discomfited me. As an only child, my heightened sense of personal space was also at risk. But then we held hands and thanked Almighty God in song, and I opened up. By the time the meal was over, I didn’t want to leave the Ferns.

Afterward, I asked Vanier what people like me, who can’t give up married and professional lives to live in community, can do to help. Here’s what he told me:

“Try and find somebody who is lonely. And when you go to see them, they will see you as the messiah. Go and visit a little old lady who has no friends or family. Bring her flowers. People say, ‘but that’s nothing’. It is nothing – but it’s also everything. It always begins with small little things. It all began in Bethlehem. That was pretty small.”

I learned of L’Arche only this past fall as part of Leonine Forum.

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