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17 May 2019
Beyond Cliché … A Man For All Seasons
Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche – The Ark – died recently in Paris. He was 90. His life and enduring work offer reassurances that our weary world still fosters heroic, even saintly, persons. His generosity of heart with the mentally disabled stands as witness to Hope and Goodness, and to the immeasurable value of simply giving one’s caring attention to others.
Vanier’s selfless accomplishments rest on the simplest of principles: give your self and your attention generously to others – not only the disabled, but to all others … for, in some ways, we are all disabled; we are all, in some ways, vulnerable and needy persons.
Vanier and his colleagues understand that our shared human infirmities are universal. They also recognize that many misguided paths exist in our morally-adrift culture where lawless individualism and twisted notions of “liberty” benumb many hearts and corrode many souls.
Jean Vanier was born in Geneva, Switzerland in 1928. His father, Georges, was a Canadian diplomat, later Governor General of Canada. The Vanier family traveled extensively in France and England, and in 1942, during the Second World War, when he was 13, Vanier entered the Royal Navy College. He spent eight years in both the British and Canadian navies.
When war ended in 1945, he was (as he reports in his illuminating book, “Becoming Human”) so committed to his naval career that he had “…impoverished other parts of my being – my heart and intelligence, which remained undeveloped...” So, in 1950, he resigned from the Canadian Navy to follow his spiritual yearning, inspired by the question every human being sometimes asks: “What is my mission in life, the reason I was born?”
During those searching years, he sought to live the Gospel more fully. He earned a Doctorate in Philosophy in 1962. He read deeply in Theology, and he joined a community called Eau Vive -- Living Waters -- a center for Catholic theological and spiritual formation for lay people.
Eau Vive was headed by Father Thomas Philippe. Vanier wrote fondly of Father Thomas as “…a man of heart. He loved people and helped many to discover their true selves … he was truly free and he, in turn, freed others...”
Truly free … In what does true freedom consist? We shall return to this question shortly.
The Need For Human Connection
In 1963, Father Thomas was appointed chaplain of Val Fleuri, a small institution north of Paris, which cared for thirty men who suffered profound intellectual disabilities. At this point, Vanier returned to Canada to teach at the University of Toronto, but he was soon drawn back to Val Fleuri to study the human cost of intellectual disabilities and to experience the problems of the disabled.
He examined living conditions at Saint-Jean-les-Deux-Jumeaux, a psychiatric hospital just south of Paris. Jean was overwhelmed by the atmosphere of sadness within the concrete walls, where men walked aimlessly in circles. And there he met Raphaël Simi et Philippe Seux, whose suffering moved him profoundly.
His need to help inspired him to buy small, rundown house near the Val Fleuri and to invite Raphaël and Philippe to be his living companions. Jean explained: “Essentially, they (Raphael and Philippe) wanted a friend. They were not very interested in my knowledge or my ability to do things, but rather they needed my heart and my being.”
During months of trial and error, predictable conflicts and unimaginable frustrations arose. But these three men persevered and created an extraordinary bond as they tenaciously formed a family and made a home with one another … and for one another.
Their struggles to form a shared family evolved into the model of caring community life which became -- and still is -- L’Arche (rhymes with “marsh”), the Ark, a Godly place of safety and refuge for the intellectually disabled who are further wounded by life’s overwhelming challenges.
L’Arche grew slowly but steadily in France. Then, in 1968, Jean gave a retreat in Canada. The result was a new residence in Toronto -- L’Arche Daybreak, which opened in October 1969.
In 1970, L’Arche was born in India. Jean continued to offer retreats, and his example inspired new communities in North America. In 1972, L’Arche began in Erie, Pennsylvania, the first community in the United States. Two years later, L’Arche Mobile, Alabama and L’Arche Clinton, Iowa opened. L’Arche came to Cleveland in 1975.
Today, L’Arche has 154 communities (18 in the United States) spread over 5 continents, with 10,000 members, mentally disabled members and their “assistants.”
The cost and accomplishments of L’Arche are obvious, the struggles constant, but the outcomes are life-changing. And, as Vanier said in his always gentle, unassuming way, “…L’Arche is not a utopia … it is a hope...”
Hope and Family and Home
For the intellectually disabled, L’Arche is a place to live independently, a family household shared with others, or a source of daytime work programs. But it always rests upon a system of human support which is responsive to the needs of each individual.
For employees and volunteers, the “assistants” (many of whom reside full-time with the disabled) are fully focused on supporting the intellectually disabled as friends and family.
While L’Arche arose within the auspices of the Catholic Church, it is now an ecumenical organization. It welcomes disabled men and women of different religions and none. But, emphatically, it is the spiritual dimension, the collective striving for growth in faith and holiness, which makes L’Arche unique.
Were it not for its emphasis on the spirituality of each person, L’Arche would be merely another group home. All members, regardless of religious status, are encouraged to follow their spiritual journeys. Persons with no religious tradition are welcomed; freedom of conscience is respected.
To watch Jean Vanier explain his ideals about becoming human, see this link:
What Can We Learn ?
As we study the principles which motivated this extraordinary man and which still inspire his dedicated followers, two themes consistently emerge.
The first theme is our universal human vulnerability. The fact is that the mentally, intellectually and psychologically disabled reflect our universal human disabilities, our fallibility, our human weaknesses. The fact is that every human being is vulnerable, i.e., able to be wounded physically, mentally, morally, intellectually, psychologically.
We resist admitting that, in some ways, we, too, are weak, disabled and fearful about our hidden sensitivities. We all create defensive strategies and erect protective barriers against an impersonal, uncaring, often hostile world which we perceive as a threat … or as simply indifferent to our well-being, even unconcerned about our very existence.
What first binds us to one another from birth is our innocence, our essentially fallible nature, our catalog of obvious imperfections which we eventually reveal … even when we do not know it.
It is not merely our strengths which define us but, contrarily, how we befriend our weaknesses, how we manage our urges, how we monitor our broken selves, how we invest our lives with dignity and control our behavior with honor, how we revere the gift of life itself.
The second theme is the human need to connect with other people, to be included and revered, to be regarded with affection and respect, which is, of course, the primary role of the family.
Even people who convey aloof disdain, who covet haughty influence, who indulge the perks of wealth and revel in the tics of power are not immune to their heart’s need for attentive kindness, for the sincerity and acceptance of a truly loving Other … and for the clarity of soul and the cleansing effects of truth which only humility affords.
No lonely soul is immune from the need for assurance; for consoling intimacy and unpretentious regard which only authentic love provides. Even those who reject affection still long for the heartfelt embrace of the Beloved.
Fundamentals Of Living
Jean Vanier’s fundamental message -- indeed, the first and final message of Life Itself -- is to accept our imperfections as intrinsic to our nature and our existence. We do not stop there, but we do begin there.
As one studies Vanier’s interactions with others, especially the intellectually disabled, one cannot but recognize the transforming qualities of simple love, visibly expressed. One becomes witness to the transformative effects of shared vulnerability and understanding. One sees the power of mutual support in relationships which are “therapeutic” in the deepest sense of that word, i.e., “caring for the soul.”
Only love sustains this kind of generosity. Such altruism is the font of true liberty, true freedom. It liberates us from the enslaving confines of culture’s narcissistic, misguided notions of what constitutes human dignity and worth. It reveals that liberty is not having or doing or accumulating or possessing, but giving of one’s heart freely to others and being present freely for others -- and not counting the cost to self.
Accepting our human imperfections is not -- not -- moral capitulation nor an excuse to cease one’s efforts to grow in virtue and deepen one’s spirituality. Accepting our mutual human foibles is a beginning, not an end.
Our imperfections present us with the opportunity and with the choice to live beyond our ego’s safety zone and our culture’s restrictive limits of haughtiness, aggression and selfish, dismissive arrogance.
Our weaknesses are opportunities to pursue humility and simplicity and to nurture an empathic heart; opportunities to move beyond the point at which human “weakness” is exploited, and disdain is the norm; opportunities to pursue the challenge of becoming truly human.
A Closing Thought, A Lasting Vision
We learn early in life to seek privilege, to covet comfort and safety, to satisfy personal ego, to be valued and applauded, to follow the dictates of “Me First.”
We learn early in life to erect protective barriers between ourselves and those whom we perceive as different from us, especially if their difference is devalued or stigmatized.
We learn early in life to avoid, and even degrade, the unpopular, the strange, the outsider, the unattractive, the odd, the nerds, the uncool. We become facile at avoiding the “desirables” in our midst.
Critics of Vanier’s principles deny our common humanity. They deny that the healthiest vision we can possess is to see others as our brothers and sisters in our shared humanity.
Cynics deny that we are most human when we accept others as they are, with their different gifts and capacities for loving and being loved in ways we do not comprehend.
But we also learn to deny that these traits apply to us, for we are not weak, nor are we disabled nor sullied by nature’s vagaries … nor are we likely ever to be wrong! You? Maybe … but me? No way!
The truth is that each human person possesses a vulnerable heart and a list of hopes and needs which we all share. Vanier’s experience of living with - and for - people with profound impairment dispels pretense and reveals the fraudulent, yet, common ideas that 1) our vulnerabilities must be denied, and 2) that love cannot be expressed in a million different ways.
And Now ??
When all is said and done, two simple points remain:
1) the power of humility when we admit that we are all somehow disadvantaged, weak and vulnerable to error, subject to the ambiguities and vagaries of Creation;
2) the incalculable value of our caring presence to others, the value of giving our attention to the dignity and beauty to be found in the ordinariness of humanity, and the value of showing our loving attention and affection to others -- especially to our family.
Finally, then, let us well remember Jean Vanier and all we may learn from him. As the Catholic prayer says:
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.