Asha Niketan (Bangalore), has been one of the most fruitful experiences of my life. I started visiting Asha Niketan, a L’Arche community, some time in 1973 with a friend, to visit her sister who had joined the community to live and work there. I remember thinking the life there a little strange. Although curious, I did not quite understand what was happening there. After my graduation in 1975, I was searching for something useful to do with my life. Then, in December, I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche Interntional. I was deeply touched by the amazing gentleness and humility of such a large and famous man. He spoke words of wisdom with the heart of a child. Listening to him that day, I knew that my search had ended. Here was my calling in life. The following April 1976, I joined the community of L’Arche – Bangalore and have never regretted it. Now, I am no longer with Asha Niketan, but the spirit of L’Arche and Jean Vanier continues to live in me. I thank you Jean, from the bottom of my heart.
I once had the pleasure of welcoming Jean into the home where I was an assistant. We did not want to crowd him with everyone all at once as many of us were eager to spend time with him. Thus, we set up a few chairs in a room where people could cycle through and spend a few minutes with him. This ritual unfolded rather smoothly, and then it was time for Debora, me, and two others to enter the room. Debora wandered in, looked around, stared at Jean, and inquired of me "who is that guy?!" I responded, "Deb, that is Jean Vanier." As soon as I answered her question, she turned around and promptly began to walk out of the room. I continued, "do you know who Jean is? He is the one who founded L'Arche with two other men." Without ing her gait, Debora carried on walking out of the room and blurted out rather bluntly and playfully "I DON'T CARE!" before cackling all the way down the hall. Jean and I made eye contact before both doubling over and chuckling together. Our friendship began not in the reverence of prayer or even with the formality of a handshake, but in a holy moment in which Debora gifted us with laughter.
My first invitation (30 years ago) into Jean's vision of the world, of his unique perspective on humanity, was through his writing -especially his book Community and Growth. I was profoundly impacted by his message - by the simplicity of which he calls us all to live. Jean's message continues to linger throughout my day-to-day life and I am blessed having read, talked and walked alongside his presence. Jean has been my companion, he remains my inspiration and I will always be grateful for his simple offering of how to be fully human in our shared world - this is especially true when the complexities of life challenge my heart and soul.
The first time I heard Jean Vanier was in 1975 at the first national conference of the AAMD (now American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities) in Portland, Oregon. It was a conference where I was giving my first presentation as a young chaplain who had gotten unexpectedly hooked/called into this area of ministry two years before through an assignment to evaluation center connected to North Carolina Memorial Hospital in Chapel Hill. It was also the first time I had flown west of the Mississippi. Burton Blatt, the legendary educator at the University of Syracuse, invited Jean to do one of the keynotes. I will never forget it. He was introduced, came on stage without a note, and talked for an hour about the L'Arche communities which were, at that point, much fewer in number. The theme of the talk was about their vision of "creating communities of celebration that re-awaken desire," using a number of his stories about the ways individuals who had been so wounded had been transformed. He also talked about the ways L'Arche utilized other professionals such as psychiatrists to help them understand those wounds. Part of the impact was helping me to realize in my next job, as a Protestant chaplain of a large, old, hell-hole of an institution in upstate New York, that the two key building blocks of minstry there, and elsewhere, were celebration and belonging. But the moment I will not forget was right after his talk, and two behavioral management specialists, sitting behind me, said, "He did not leave any room for us." Despite what he had said, their methodology for knowing and helping depended so much on "objective," "scientific" methodologies that they could not hear or understand someone talking out the depths of the human soul. So there was born another challenge in my own work, to help articulate the power of spirituality and true community to a world of professional disciplines where spirituality and faith supposedly did not fit in.
Being joint leader with Jean Vanier for a large home of 16 core-members and 14 assistants(including live-in and live-out) called Le Val Fleuri in Trosly, France in the early 80’s was indeed a great privilege and source of learning for me. Jean taught me many things, but the thing I remember most clearly are to do with his way of relating to the people with disabilities and assistants in our home .He did so with unfailing respect . He had a great gift of being present to people. Despite being an incredibly busy person, constantly travelling the globe, with a demanding schedule he had that great ability to look you in the eye and to be present to you. It was as if he existed only for you, and with you, at that moment. He had that uncanny ability to call forth the best in you, and to make you feel as if you were the great one and that he was the little one. He made you feel trusted and respected as a person. Not only did he talk about the importance of ‘being with’ rather than ‘doing for’, but he embodied it in his life and actions. He taught me that presence is not just about quantity but about quality, and that time spent in presence to another person is not just about length but about depth. Above all ,he enjoyed life, was fun to be with , and was always up for a laugh. Despite his great intellectual and academic ability, he reflected, for me, the truth of Mahatma Gandi’s famous words: ‘A person’s greatness lies not in their head but in their heart’.
I met Jean when I was a student. It was 1985, Poland was a communist country. At the meeting with Jean somebody asked about Polish L’Arche community. “Where is it? Jean said that Herod also may be interested in finding out where it is. But the Three Kings when asked said nothing and went on another route to protect the Child. Sometimes we must be like those Three Kings.” (Polish L’Arche community was d in 1981 and remained hidden for many years.)And there was another question: “What advice would you give to a couple who is blind? Is it all right for them to have a child, who will certainly be blind? Jean has said that there are many people who are not physically blind, but still can not see. Who has bigger disability?” Hearing this I decided to follow him wherever he is in Poland. I listened to his lectures and inhaled vision of God who comes to us as somebody in need, as to Samaritan woman. Understanding that I should not be afraid of my own weaknesses, mistakes, emptiness gave me deep peace. Finally I spend almost 4 years in L’Arche Liverpool and try to support L’Arche since.