“His gaze is constantly attentive, lucid, transparent, and he illuminates reality without varnishing it with his own emotions.”
Man of letters
Jean Vanier is known, first and foremost, as the founder of L’Arche. Is he, moreover, a man of letters? Yes, and in both senses of the term – as an author: he has published an imposing number of books – and as a letter-writer: he has written hundreds (doubtless thousands) of letters.
In his book Our Life Together: A Memoir in Letters, he has published a selection of letters, written between 1964 and 2007, in the course of his innumerable voyages to the countries in which L’Arche has slowly become established. Most of this correspondence was addressed to his life companions in Trosly, a way of uniting his friends to his own life abroad and reminding them that they remained connected to his life, through the sometimes deeply moving stories of the places he visited. For it must be said that Jean Vanier is a painter: he draws the characteristics unique to each country – their cultures, their conflicts, their politics, their climate, their food, in a clean, bold, and precise palette. His gaze is constantly attentive, lucid, transparent, and he illuminates reality without varnishing it with his own emotions.
A man of action and a contemplative
Jean Vanier is, at one and the same time, a man of action and a contemplative. His letters convey this double vocation; we find in them that rare connection between inner life and outer life that one sees in all the great founders of history. It may even be possible to establish a typology of their qualities and talents: Francis of Assisi, Theresa of Avila, Marie de l’Incarnation (the French Ursuline nun who came to Quebec in the seventeenth century and founded schools), Benedict, Mother Theresa. They all had an idealism completely rooted and worked out in reality, an interior force that responded to circumstances, encounters, and inspirations of the spirit. The metaphor of humus is perhaps best suited to describing this mysterious idealism whose roots are in the very soil of life. A life that is about sharing, always moving toward the other, caring for the other. This is why, of all the books Jean Vanier has published – many of which deserve to be highlighted – we find this biography in correspondence so fascinating.
Jean Vanier recounts, with the limpid simplicity that characterizes his writing, how he created L’Arche by making the decision to live with people affected by an intellectual disability. He had no idea that this form of involvement might be a plant whose roots would extend around the world. He was responding to an interior call that merged with an external call, the quiet urging of his friend, Father Thomas, whose presence – until his death and after – underlay and supported Jean Vanier’s activities.
Having occupied important posts in the Navy and in a number of universities, Jean Vanier then set out to live in a modest house in Trosly with two or three people with intellectual disabilities. As external witnesses, we shouldn’t think that this radical change of life was guaranteed to be fruitful. In the face of people with disabilities, we instinctively turn from a way of being and of communicating that seems foreign to us. We count our blessings that we received genes that have made us so-called “normal” people. The feeling precedes reflection on it; it’s a reflex that can drive us either to indifference toward their lot, or to a misplaced over-protectiveness (that results in isolation or segregation and a denial of their human needs) or, in the worst case, to a rejection that manifests itself in contempt, mockery, violence, or exclusion. To live with them is to learn “a mysterious wisdom” – such has been Jean Vanier’s experience over the years – for “people with intellectual disabilities grow in maturity.” To learn, to listen, to accept that they become teachers who speak to our hearts and push us to see our own deficiencies and to expose our most human feelings; it’s a painful journey.
In daily life with his new companions, Jean Vanier, highly educated and well-read, discovered a kind of humanity that went beyond reason and rationality. They inspired him to write Becoming Human, which is as much about his own “becoming human” as about that of the people with whom he now shared a life, as he recounts in Our Life Together: “It is an encounter that liberates new energies, that allow us to break the chains of egotism and open ourselves in love to others.” He makes the point in a variety of ways in all his writings: intelligence or reason is not the only way that people – who are still categorized as “deficient” in some countries – may express themselves. Deficient: The dictionary defines it as a moral or physical inadequacy. Curiously, in French, the opposite of the word deficient has a pejorative sense. The word is suffisant, and it carries the connotation of being self-satisfied and smug; it describes someone who is arrogant and feels completely self-sufficient. Such a sense is actually the sign of an inadequacy far deeper than that of someone who is disabled, because it robs the person, who is in love with the idea of his or her own self-sufficiency, of the human experience of relationships with others.
Jean Vanier tells us that when we allow ourselves to be open to vulnerable people, we discover just how deficient we are – how much we lack the qualities of the heart they have, their sensitivity, their joie de vivre when they feel they are understood. We have to become pupils in their school, “learning to unlearn,” as a friend who is seriously physically disabled put it. An apprenticeship that cannot be accomplished without a painful but essential review of our own shortcomings and deficiencies.
The faces of compassion
Jean Vanier’s books and letters have, over the years, woven a coherent fabric: whether you are reading a letter written in 1964 or in 2002, the framework beneath the threads of varying colours is the same. Still and always – it is the underlying, intimate connection between thought, the faith of the author, and his actions. The name of Jesus appears constantly: Jesus is the source of inspiration as he was for Jean Vanier’s friend, Mother Teresa. “At L’Arche, we are not just employees completing a task; we are also brothers and sisters who have heard the call of God inviting us to live in poverty with the poor, close to those whom God has sent to us.”
Through his Christian faith, Jean Vanier recognizes all of the faces of compassion, whatever their source: Buddhist, Jewish, Sufi, etc. No religion, no philosophy, no form of altruism is excluded. As if there were a secret, interior layer of compassion that lies beyond established religions. The Sermon on the Mount is addressed to all human beings, whoever they are, “to the humble, the poor, the weak, and to vulnerable people: the little ones, the insignificant beings of this world, those who are always shunted aside.” This is the eternal message, the path that leads towards a complete interior freedom which allows us to really love the other. “To be worthy of the only liberty that is worthwhile, God asks us for total renunciation. And when someone loses himself or herself completely, he finds himself in a new way in service to all the living. This new life becomes his joy and his rest.” (Gandhi, cited by Jean Vanier).
Jean Vanier knows that undertaking this commitment is not an easy road to travel, and he remains serene about the rootlets of L’Arche that have grown in a number of countries, always humbly, simply, without explosive or universal growth. Bossuet, on becoming a bishop, was reproached for wasting time responding to the letters of an unknown religious. His retort? A single soul is a large enough diocese for a bishop. Likewise for Jean Vanier – one L’Arche community that welcomes but a few vulnerable people, for example in a country like India, fulfills a priceless mission: that, in a loving community “the weakest, whoever they are, might find their place and demonstrate their gift,” as Jean Vanier writes, again and again and again.
Each person is precious
In 2000, Jean Vanier published Made for Happiness: Discovering the Meaning of Life with Aristotle, “a philosophical study built on work done in his youth in which he invites us to re-read, with new eyes, the decisively modern propositions of a great sage of Antiquity: Aristotle.” This philosopher did not separate the practice of good works from pleasure. Rather, he wrote that “every activity is completed by the attendant pleasure,” that pleasure completes activities. Jean Vanier compares this notion of the moral life “to the morality that is the outcome of Jansenism,” in which virtue is based on the rejection of sense and sensibility. In his chapter on temperance, Aristotle says that there is nothing human about being insensitive or hard. At L’Arche, this philosophy of balance governs all the manifestations of life, the parties and meals that are celebrated in convivial joy, nourished by good food, games, music, dance, and all manner of human and artistic expression.
The accent in our time is on autonomy. Jean Vanier’s response to this tendency is to underline the need for balance between belonging and freedom. “Too much freedom leads to anguish, isolation, and insecurity; too much belonging or security leads to suffocation and isolation, to closing in on oneself. [...] Today, the challenge for L’Arche is to create places of belonging founded on our need for one another, for places where people may grow in this type of freedom.” Another balance to maintain: harmony between competency and spirituality in order that “we do not lose sight of the spiritual element and the idea that each person is precious.”
These reflections summarize the inspiration that lies at the heart of and sustains the work of Jean Vanier.
Hélène Laberge collaborated with Jacques Dufresne on the creation and writing of the Encyclopédie de L’Agora. She studied social sciences and social work at the Université de Laval in Québec, as well as humanities and philosophy in France. After spending a number of years as a social worker in Montreal, she became the editor-in-chief of the journal Agora, published by Jacques Dufresne, and a member of the Philia group.