e-mail us


Simple relationships are key

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Jean Vanier tells a group of almost 400 people who’ve gathered to hear him speak at a millennium festival for young adults that he is jet-lagged. But that doesn’t stop him from talking about love, community, forgiveness and Christian marriage with vibrancy and even humor.

Called “A Journey of Hope,” the festival was held in Hunstville, Ontario, during the last weekend in May. It was organized by local young adults, business people and clergy.

Vanier is Canadian, but he’s lived in France since 1950. In 1964, he bought a house and invited two adults with developmental disabilities to come and live with him. It turned out to be the first l’Arche community (the English translation of l’Arche is Ark, after Noah’s Ark, meaning a place of refuge).

There are now 117 l’Arche communities in over 30 countries, including 25 in Canada and 13 in the United States. The communities are rooted in the Roman Catholic tradition, but they’ve become a prophetic ecumenical and interfaith network of faith communities that welcomes people with a developmental disability.

After he’s finished talking to the festival gathering, I’m able to speak with Vanier privately. He says he’ll need 20 minutes to rest. But in a few minutes he’s up, sitting next to me, sipping tea and ready to talk.

In his most recent book, Becoming Human, Vanier writes about the “Path to Freedom.” He says some of us have more defense mechanisms and barriers to overcome to find this freedom. I ask him if the radical individualism and gotta-keep-up values of North American culture make this a more daunting task today. “I feel the freedom comes not through the values of society. But it can come from the values of community,” he says. “This means that we will have to make some heavy choices. Do we want to be human? Or do we want to make a lot of money? It means we will have to accept that we will never be promoted, because we are putting family and community and commitment to the weak above money and promotion.”

Vanier says Catholic parishes need to encourage people to make these “heavy choices.” But he thinks parishioners aren’t hearing this too much. He says people need to know that what is important isn’t apostolate. “What’s important is that you be fully a human being,” he explains. “That means family, community, openness to others and commitment to and respect for the poor. This does not necessarily mean doing big things. But in the parish, it means being present to that little old lady who is alone.”

For Vanier, the path to freedom is a whole inner movement of seeing each person as a person. “There can be a whole spirituality that is not human, and we can flip out into it,” he says. “So how do we help people to discover that the spirituality of Jesus is something quite simple? It’s about being human, loving people and accepting people that are different. It’s about building community and learning about forgiveness, and about creating these centers of radiance, which is the parish.”

Vanier says it’s unfortunate that many Catholic parishes are becoming very busy places. “In order to become human, we need to reach the still point,” he adds. “We need to be quietly at prayer together.”

Parishes should continually be asking themselves “what do we want?” says Vanier. Do we want promotion or do we want to be human? It’s a fundamental question, he explains. “It’s not just spiritual advancement and believing in the Holy Catholic church,” he says. “It’s about believing in humanity. The Catholic church and the Christian churches are there to help us become more human. And to be human is to make clear options about those things that help me be a good father, a good husband, a good wife, a good neighbor. To be welcoming and helping children grow and not controlling them. To have fun with kids, and to create celebrations within the parish and neighborhood that celebrate people.”

Vanier says making the world a more beautiful place is part of becoming human. But I ask him why there is sometimes resistance, or even outright anger, when principles of social justice are raised at the Catholic parish level. He says it’s connected to fear.

“We’re all frightened of change,” Vanier explains. “Once we have created our habits, once we have set a path of values that we consider are the essential ones, then we’re frightened to change our values and frightened to change our lives.”

We all want security, Vanier says. But he believes we find that security “from inside, in the gift of the Holy Spirit and the gift of Jesus, which is going to continually push us to change. Because that is what Jesus wants: that we’re all working toward growth and change and for more justice and peace.”

In addition to l’Arche, Vanier is cofounder, with Marie-Helene Mathieu, of “Faith and Light,” which brings together people with disabilities, their parents and friends, for regular meetings. There are now 1,300 “Faith and Light” communities in over 75 countries.

Vanier is also a prolific author. Some of his many books include: Tears of Silence, An Ark for the Poor, Community and Growth, Our Journey Home, The Scandal of Service, Be Not Afraid, and Becoming Human, which was a bestseller in Canada last year.

Raised Catholic, Vanier was once a naval officer, and briefly taught philosophy at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto, before he moved to France in 1964. His late father, Georges, was governor-general of Canada from 1959 to 1967.

Vanier says working and living with disabled adults was a way for him to put people first and enter into personal relationships. “I joined the navy when I was very young, just 13, a highly impressionable age,” he says. “All my training was geared to help me to be quick, competent and efficient, and so I became. As a naval officer, and even later, after I had left the navy.

I was a rather stiff person, geared to goals of efficiency, duty, prayer and doing good to others and to philosophical and theological studies. My energies were goal-oriented.” For Vanier, l’Arche continues to be a learning experience. “It has brought me into the world of simple relationships,” he explains. “It has brought me back into my body, because people with disabilities do not delight in intellectual or abstract conversation.”

In Becoming Human, he writes movingly about the “wisdom that comes from unexpected events” like the death of a loved one. Feelings of denial, anger, revolt and despair can “gradually help us to accept reality as it is and discover in the new situation new energies, a new freedom, and a new meaning of life and of the world,” Vanier observes.

I tell Vanier about the sudden death of my own father three years ago, and the terrible grief that followed. But I explain there was also an enlivening of my heart. “Our role as people who are aging, is to leave behind a vision, a spirit. Then to disappear,” he replies. “If we human beings have been able to just pass on a spirit, then we have accomplished our mission. If I love that person, then I have to continue to live, to be the person I am called to be. I must grow up. The danger with death is that we can hold on to the nostalgia of death. We didn’t want that person to die. So we remain closed up in grief and loss, instead of seeing what that person’s gift was and what has been given to us and to give thanks.”

Vanier says it’s important to see death as part of the movement of life. “This is not to say there aren’t tragic deaths,” he explains. “But death itself isn’t catastrophic.”

Many people wish to speak with Vanier during the festival. There is a television interview he must do in the afternoon. My time is running short. I ask him what his feelings are when he reflects on the 117 l’Arche communities that exist now, and the new ones expected to start in some Eastern European countries. “The first community lived a certain spirit, and other people have caught on to that spirit,” he says. “So it’s not as if I’ve founded a community. Different people were moved by the same spirit and felt called to live and work together. So what you see is God’s work, and it’s important to be really conscious that this is not a human endeavor.”

A modest person, Vanier leans forward in his chair to make a final point. “All we can do is announce a vision,” he says, “and one day someone will read what you’ve written and say ‘that’s what I’ve been looking for.’ ”

National Catholic Reporter, November 17, 2000