Answering the Call to Love: The Legacy of Jean Vanier

We’re saddened to learn of the passing of Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche and champion of the developmentally disabled, at the age of 90. When writer Michael Giesterfer interviewed Vanier at his L’Arche community in France for the January 2003 issue of Reader’s Digest, Geisterfer confessed to being profoundly moved. "Jean Vanier exudes such wisdom and compassion, I just wanted to pour my heart out to him," he said. "But instead, I listened and he revealed his soul to me."

Jean VanierPhoto: Kotukaran/Wikimedia Commons

Remembering Jean Vanier, Founder of L’Arche (1928-2019)

Born into a Canadian diplomatic family in Geneva, Switzerland, Jean Vanier stunned his friends and family by giving up a promising career as a professor of Aristotelian philosophy at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto to live and work with developmentally handicapped people.

In 1964 he invited two men from an institution—Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux—to live with him in a village in northern France. He called their house L’Arche (The Ark).

That small house grew into a community of homes for over 200 disabled men and women-most of whom had been abandoned in large institutions and had never experienced a sense of belonging. As word spread, young people from across the globe were drawn to L’Arche to live and work. There are now over 120 L’Arche communities on six continents; in Canada alone there are 26, with more ready to join.

In 1971 Vanier cofounded a sister organization called Faith and Light that brings together parents, friends and people with developmental disabilities in networks of support. There are now 1,700 Faith and Light communities around the world, many of them in countries where support for people with disabilities is virtually nonexistent.

Vanier, meanwhile, has become a figure of almost iconic proportions. Recipient of the Companion of the Order of Canada in 1986, he’s since been awarded a prize by Pope John Paul II and is considered by many to be a philosopher and prophet in addition to a humanitarian. He is the author of numerous books, including the 1999 best-seller Becoming Human. A symbol of hope and compassion to millions, Vanier, at 74, travels nearly six months of the year, traversing the globe on behalf of “the most oppressed people of this world.”

Jean Vanier was interviewed at his home in Trosly-Breuil, the village in northern France where L’Arche began. Some 20 years ago, interviewer Michael R. Geisterfer spent two years in Trosly’s L’Arche community as an assistant.

RD: Are those the same clothes you were wearing 20 years ago?
Vanier: [Laughs.] They’ve been cleaned. I was in the subway in Paris one day, and this panhandler came walking down the aisle demanding money from everyone. He took one look at my clothes and said, “You’re in the same boat as me.”

RD: I recently saw you give a talk in Ottawa’s largest cathedral. The place was packed. As you moved up the middle aisle, everyone spontaneously rose and gave you a standing ovation. What goes through your mind when this happens?
Vanier: There are all these conflicting elements. Sometimes I go into a talk and I’m tired, I have a headache or I’m jet-lagged, and I just want to get it over with. I know I have to go up there, and I’m not always sure how it is going to work out.

RD: Do you get nervous?
Vanier: Not nervous. Inside of me is a deeply rooted sense of duty. This is what has to be done, and I do it.

RD: When you are up there, are you aware of the cry for help coming from the audience?
Vanier: It’s not so much a cry for help, but a thirst. If I can fill up a large auditorium like I did in Ottawa, it is because people are thirsty for meaning; they are thirsty for a vision.

RD: Doesn’t this intense thirst scare you? How can you possibly sate it?
Vanier: Saint Augustine says something beautiful: The desire of the person listening brings forth the words of the person speaking. There is something triggered. They trust me. Because they trust what I have to give, it gets drawn out of me. That is the only answer I can give, because sometimes I’m not entirely sure of what I’m going to say. I have a general sense, but I never read notes; and yet it does come out, and I think it comes out because of the thirst in people, their desire.

RD: What is it, that desire? What are they longing to hear?
Vanier: That there is hope. Human beings can change. There is something incredibly beautiful in every human being. There is a source of life, a spring of water or compassion in each of us, a need to give life. Human beings are fundamentally compassionate. If an old lady falls in the middle of the street, 95 per cent of people will want to help her. Why do people become doctors? Why do they become social workers? They want to make people happier than they were before. Why were there 17,000 people at that AIDS meeting in Barcelona, Spain? It’s because they want to respond to death, and I’m not just talking about physical death. I’m talking about the death of hope. There are hundreds of thousands of orphans in Africa, and people want to help.

RD: What about psychopaths?
Vanier: I once met a man on death row who had killed seven women, and it was a frightening experience. I was conscious of layers and layers of barriers in him. He must have been hated when he was in the womb. He might have been abused when he was six months old, and so he had to protect himself. Even a child who is just born knows whether he or she is loved or not. If a child senses that he is not loved, not wanted, he will be deeply wounded. His heart will close up, and he will create barriers and hide behind them. He can’t conceptualize. He can’t tell himself, I am not loved. Yet everyone knows whether or not they are loved and appreciated; and if they are, then life flows as it should. But if the message is that you are ugly, deplorable, that you have no beauty, then there will be a strong emotional reaction.

RD: Do you see light in such a person? Is there any hope for him?
Vanier: I don’t believe anyone is totally dehumanized. Some situations seem utterly impossible, yet people who are deeply, deeply rejected and wounded can be healed. But they need to experience an authentic, committed love. I was deeply touched by the story depicted in Dead Man Walking. This man, “Matthew Poncelet,” had killed a young couple in Louisiana and was on death row. He was frightened of people, frightened of himself. One day he meets Sister Helen Prejean, who sees the person underneath all of the violence and pain and brings that person out. She can do this because she has the love and support of a network of friends, including her religious community.

RD: How do families of the victims of violence forgive a person who doesn’t even recognize the need for forgiveness?
Vanier: It is normal after such an experience to feel anger and hatred. It takes a long time to move from the hatred that a family might feel to the realization that the one responsible for the murder, though a dangerous guy who needs to be in prison, is also a human being who must have been terribly hurt to do something like that. People don’t just become murderers. The key to becoming free from anger, hatred and bitterness is, ultimately, compassion and understanding.

RD: What have you learned from the developmentally disabled men and women with whom you live?
Vanier: I’ve learned a great deal about tenderness. I discovered the child in me. I didn’t have many friends when I was young. I didn’t go out on Saturday nights with girls. I was rather closed and serious. To come here, to be with Raphael and Philippe, opened me up to a completely new ball game. The language is normally one of fooling around, of laughter, of making jokes. I learned to celebrate life.

RD: What was the most troubling thing you learned about yourself?
Vanier: I learned of my own capacity for violence. When I was in the navy or teaching, I don’t think I ever really felt that I was a violent person. But when you live with people with disabilities, and when you have one guy who is continually annoying you, asking the same question 150 times, you can get angry and explode. I had to work on things inside of myself, to bring light into the shadows.

RD: Did you ever think L’Arche would grow so big?
Vanier: I never thought about that. The needs of people with disabilities were there, and people kept coming to help. Every time we had an extra room, we took in someone else.

RD: Why?
Vanier: I had found meaning in my life. I was so enthusiastic about what I was living that I simply began communicating the good news to others.

RD: What was that news?
Vanier: In every person, there is a cry for the infinite. We are very different from cows grazing in the field. None of us is satisfied with the limited. We want more, more, more. More power, more love, more knowledge. This cry for the infinite is a cry for God, and we will be dissatisfied until we find it.

RD: Did you find God?
Vanier: When I left the navy, I was fortunate to meet Father Thomas Philippe, a Dominican priest. He became my spiritual father and was a man of prayer. I found God’s presence in prayer. I also found God in the weak and the poor, because they cry out for love and friendship. They call forth love in us. And God is love.

RD: Most religions tout God as being powerful and in control. In wars, everyone wants God to be on their side. What is your view?
Vanier: Bringing peace to the world is not God’s problem; it is our problem. Are we making peace in our families and in our communities? Are we doing acts of justice? God will not walk into an institution and take disabled people by the hand and walk out with them. God can only do it if people are inspired and say, “Yes, we will do it.”

RD: How do people make the transition from self-centredness to serving others?
Vanier: The interesting thing is that we can only become healers if we know we need to be healed. We can only become peacemakers if we are at peace with ourselves. We can only be compassionate with others if we are compassionate with ourselves. We can only be people who love if we have received love. Many people, before coming to L’Arche, think that they have to have a car, lots of things and be successful in order to be someone. After a while here, they discover their value: that they are lovable not because of what they do but because they are a person. That can be quite a revelation for many people today, that they can be themselves…they don’t have to be what society or others want of them.

RD: Many people consider you a saint. Are you?
Vanier: Dorothy Day [cofounder of the Catholic Worker Movement, which encompasses many houses of hospitality for the poor and the homeless] used to say: “Don’t call me a saint! I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.” In other words, if welcoming the poor and the rejected makes me a saint or somehow “special,” then others don’t have to do it. I believe that we are all called in one way or another to be close to the weak and those in need. We are all called to grow in compassion.

RD: What happens when people discover that you are not perfect?
Vanier: They turn away and say it was hypocrisy. They go away angry. This is the movement from the ideal to reality. When we touch reality, we discover that God is not in the perfect, that God is hidden in the reality, which is a broken reality.

RD: There are many out there who feel they must be like Jean Vanier. Do you want people to be like you?
Vanier: No. What is important is that you be you.

RD: How do you feel about your life at this point?
Vanier: I’m happy. Profoundly happy. I sense that something beautiful has happened in my life and through my life. I know that the day I die many people here in this community will weep because of the relationships that have been built up over 30 years. That’s the beautiful thing about L’Arche. What I have learned is that if you love people, they will change. Not the other way around. God does not say “Change, and I will love you.” If you feel loved in all your mess, then you’ll change.

For further information about Jean Vanier’s L’Arche communities in Canada, visit L’Arche Canada.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada