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Jean Vanier – prophet for our troubled times

Jean Vanier – prophet for our troubled times

Andy Walton reflects on the life and legacy of Jean Vanier (1928–2019). 07/05/2019

In a wide–ranging and wonderful interview for the NPR programme On Being a few years ago, Jean Vanier was asked about whether, like many of his admirers, he considered himself to be a saint.

It’s a title which has followed him round for many years. Despite the Catholic Church only conferring sainthood on the dead – who’ve been through an extensive approval process – the question remained.

Many of the online tributes to Vanier, who has died aged 90, referred to him as a ‘modern saint.’

The desire to reach for such language when faced with a man like Vanier is understandable. We refer to skilled footballers as “legends,” and musicians as “greats.” How, then, can we find the right terminology to describe the quiet heroism of Vanier’s life of service to people with disabilities?

It’s right and proper many already consider him a saint, and the formal designation might well follow in the fullness of time. Vanier dealt humbly with that question. “What is important is just to become a little friend of Jesus,” he answered Krista Tippett in that 2007 On Being interview.

As well as saintliness, there’s another category for Vanier which rings true. Assessing the colossal impact of his life and ministry, we must declare that Jean Vanier was a prophet.

In his ground breaking book The Prophetic Imagination, theologian Walter Brueggemann describes the Hebrew prophets and their role in society. He says, “The prophet does not scold or reprimand. The prophet brings to public expression the dread of endings, the collapse of our self–madeness, the barriers and pecking orders that secure us at each other’s expense, and the fearful practice of eating off the table of a hungry brother or sister.” (p46)

Jean Vanier, in his dying days, gave the most thorough example of resistance to our contemporary culture’s dread of endings, to weakness and vulnerability. Among his last recorded words he said, “I am deeply peaceful and trustful. I’m not sure what the future will be but God is good and whatever happens it will be the best. I am happy and give thanks for everything. My deepest love to each one of you.”

This prophetic role Vanier played is truly radical in our late capitalist, western society. Through his example more than his words, but very often in words too, he gently corrected our deeply misguided notion that it is possible to thrive, or even to survive as atomised individuals.

His revolutionary idea – that disabled people shouldn’t be hived off to the margins, but should be at the centre of communities, gave him that powerful, prophetic voice in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. With our societies rapidly losing their Christian ethos, they risk becoming prey to the ‘greed is good’ philosophy of Herbert Spencer and Ayn Rand.

Vanier had the philosophical training to deal with this head on – he was an expert in Aristotelian ethics. But his answer to the selfishness of our time and place wasn’t to seek election or to compose demands for a better world. He got on with it and created one.

Having left the Canadian Navy, he experienced life in religious community which shaped him profoundly. In 1964 he visited a centre in France where his friend worked as a chaplain for men with learning difficulties. Shocked by their Spartan conditions, he invited two of them to live with him.

L’Arche (the Ark) was born. That radical idea – of people with and without disabilities living together and sharing life, caught fire around the world. There are now 145 L’Arche communities in 35 countries – while Vanier’s work has inspired many more.

Vanier embodied what Paul Ricœur called “second naiveté.” Approaching the Bible with the seriousness of someone who understood the moral value of the Gospels, he also took seriously the very plain words of Jesus. As the BBC Obituary rightly said, “Jean Vanier devoted his life to what has been described as the upside down economics of Christianity: that the first shall be last. He embodied a principle first outlined in the New Testament by the Apostle Paul, who said, “When I am weak, then am I strong.”

His work provided a context for one of the 20th Century’s great spiritual writers, Henri Nouwen, who lived in a L’Arche community in Canada. This deeply accomplished priest and academic found a home at L’Arche, which he had never found at Harvard or Yale. He said of his fellow residents, “If they express love for you, then it comes from God. It’s not because you accomplished anything. These broken, wounded, and completely unpretentious people forced me to let go of my relevant self – the self that can do things, show things, prove things, build things – and forced me to reclaim that unadorned self in which I am completely vulnerable, open to receive and give love regardless of any accomplishments.”

The true genius of Jean Vanier was to create a place where everyone was valued equally. In our attempts to make our institutions more welcoming to those with different abilities and experiences, the word ‘inclusion’ is often used. But it is in danger of becoming a desiccated term – more to do with a tick box culture than the kind of ‘thick community’ Vanier created. “The point of inclusion,” Vanier argued in his book Becoming Human, “is the belief that each of us is important, unique, sacred, in fact… we need other people who will call forth what is most beautiful in us, just as we need to call forth what is most beautiful in others.” (p95)

Jean Vanier leaves behind very little that is conventionally seen as important. His promising military career ended. His obvious intellectual talents were never developed into an academic career. He didn’t have a biological family.

Yet the outpouring of grief and thankfulness today tells its own story.

Jean Vanier 1928 – 2019

*Since this article was published, the L’Arche community have produced a report detailing acts of sexual misconduct by their founder Jean Vanier. You can read L’Arche’s statement here.

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“Jean Vanier Receives 2015 Templeton Prize” by Catholic Church (England and Wales) is licensed under CC BY–NC–SA 2.0

Andy Walton

Andy Walton

Andy Walton is a writer, broadcaster and media consultant. He is the author of the Theos report ‘Is there a ‘Religious Right’ emerging in Britain? @waltonandy 

Watch, listen to or read more from Andy Walton

Posted 7 May 2019

Jean Vanier, L'Arche, Prophet, Saint


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