Childhood and Spiritual Search
Jean Vanier was born a Canadian citizen in 1928, the fourth of five children. His father, Georges Vanier, Governor General of Canada from 1959 to 1967, had a diplomatic career that took the family to France and England where Jean spent his childhood.
Jean entered the Royal Navy College in Dartmouth in 1942 at the age of 13. In the middle of the Second World War, the young man embarked on an 8-year career in both the British navy and later the Canadian navy – an experience that shaped him. However, he felt called to a different life and began a spiritual quest. In 1950 he chose to leave the Canadian navy where a promising career awaited him. The following years were, for Jean, a time of searching for meaning and of deepening his faith. He reflected during those years on how he could live the gospels more fully in his daily life.
He joined Eau Vive, a centre for theological and spiritual formation for lay people. This center, headed by Dominican Father Thomas Philippe, had members from many different countries. Jean Vanier began his doctorate on the ethics of Aristotle, which he defended in 1962. It would become his first published work in 1966, titled “Happiness as Principle and End of Aristotelian Ethics”. In 2000, he published “A Taste of Happiness” to make the wisdom of Aristotle widely accessible in clear, straightforward language.
L’Arche: A Story of Encounter
At the end of 1963, Vanier lent a hand to Father Thomas, who had just been made chaplain of the Val Fleuri in Trosly-Breuil, a little village situated on the edge of the forest of Compiègne, in the Oise. The Val Fleuri was a small institution that welcomed about 30 men with intellectual disabilities. Later Jean returned to Canada where he taught a term at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto, his classes in ethics quickly becoming popular with students. When the term ended, Jean returned to Trosly and began to learn about people with intellectual disabilities.
He visited the psychiatric hospital at Saint-Jean-les-Deux-Jumeaux in a southern suburb of Paris. Living conditions there were very difficult. There he met Raphaël Simi et Philippe Seux, and was deeply affected by their suffering. He decided to buy a little house near the Val Fleuri to welcome and live with his new companions. It was not “a couple of retards” whom Jean welcomed, but Raphaël and Philippe; it was not an institution which he created, but a commitment he made to those two men whose cry for friendship had so moved him. This personal relationship would prove to be extremely rewarding.
For all three men it was the beginning of a new life, radically different than anything they had known before. It was, after some months of trial and error, the beginning of an extraordinary human adventure. Jean recalled: “Essentially, they 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.” Within a short time, other homes were founded, and Jean Vanier sent out a call for help with this work. Young people from France, Canada, England and Germany answered the call to become “assistants” living with people with intellectual disabilities.
Assistants in these homes experience the same encounter that Jean did. What makes sense to young people – what anchors them in the daily life of L’Arche – is an experience of community which deeply impacts their understanding of disability and of being. Life shared in community by people with and without intellectual disabilities creates a whole new sense of solidarity. The organization spread quickly to other regions, other countries, and other continents.
During this time, Jean Vanier also cofounded Faith and Light with Marie-Helene Mathieu. This organization creates “communities of encounter” which are woven around individuals – adult or children – with intellectual disabilities. These people, along with their families and friends, are invited to participate in monthly meetings to share friendship, prayer and celebration. Faith and Light has nearly 1,500 such communities in 81 countries on 5 continents.
Today, L’Arche is made up of 151 communities spread over 5 continents, with more than 5000 members. There are always new projects being developed in response to the needs of people with intellectual disabilities, who are so often vulnerable and still too often rejected, despite the valuable lessons on friendship and being that they have to offer.