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A Communion of Hearts- Jean Vanier

26 Nov

Less than two years after L’Arche, an international community for the intellectually disabled, was founded, its members were invited to Rome for a papal audience with His Holiness Pope Paul VI. The Pontiff began his greeting thus:

Seeing you all together makes us realize that you are a small group united by love and an active will to help one another. You are a community in whose midst Jesus is happy to live. (1)

By Wednesday, April 6, 1966, the date of that Holy Week audience with the Pope, L’Arche had joined with a larger house called Val-Fleuri in Trosly-Breuil, France. Despite its small size, it had already developed a tradition of organizing pilgrimages and shorter field trips for its members. (2) More than thirty years later, the group begun by the self-effacing Jean Vanier had spread to thirty-four countries on six continents. (3) While I was serving as president of the Newman Club at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, two core members of that city’s L’Arche house were accompanied to one of our weekly meetings by two caretakers who spoke about L’Arche’s presence in Edmonton and around the world.

Following a presentation on the history of L’Arche and on the organization’s contribution to the care of the disabled, the Newman Club members gathered were invited to ask questions about the talk, but this opportunity for interaction with the speakers was different than most. One of the L’Arche core members had a gift of telling other people’s ages, so the university students of the Newman Club deligtedly put the young man’s ability to the test.

Jean Vanier, who founded L’Arche along with Dominican Father Thomas Philippe, celebrated his eightieth birthday this past September. In an interview with Globe and Mail columnist Ian Brown, himself a father of a disabled son, Vanier reflected on aging and on his own life:

The reality of my life as a human is to accept myself as I am. At the age I have. So that at the age of 80, I live as 80, and not as if I’m 40. Live and enjoy life and don’t spend my time weeping, and saying, ‘I don’t have any more power, people are not coming to see me. Don’t spend your time regretting. Spend your time living. (4)

As he ages, Vanier, widely considered to be “the world’s most significant thinker on the subject of disability,” (5) increasingly applied this same attitude to himself and to the residents of the one hundred thirty houses that make up L’Arche. The intellectually and physically challenged have many of the same necessities as Jean Vanier, a PhD-level philosopher who is among the foremost contemporary Christian humanists. Like all human beings, the disabled members of L’Arche and the octogenarian Vanier share a fundamental need to be loved. People generally fear abandonment and loneliness. Particularly in technologically-advanced societies, competition and productivity are valued almost to the point of obsession. Those deemed unfit to contribute to the rapid material advances of the world are shunned. When L’Arche was founded forty-four years ago, the disabled were crowded into bleak institutions and forgotten. Currently, 80 to 90 percent of children in North American and European nations with disabilities such as Down Syndrome and Spina Bifida are aborted. (6) Arguably, little progress has therefore been made in Western societies’ treatment of the disabled; their inhumane approach has merely shifted from marginalization to elimination of those whom Jean Vanier counts as “among the most persecuted people on earth.” (7)

Jean Vanier’s experience with the mentally disabled and his own physical limitations have taught him about the essence of being human, with all our strengths and weaknesses. Each person, whether able-bodied or not, will eventually lose independence. Precisely at that point, Vanier contends, one reaches humanness on its deepest level, yet we fear relinquishing our autonomy. However, Vanier says pondering the Biblical story of the fall of humankind, we must realize that we are not in control in the first place:

There’s a really interesting text in Genesis… which is probably the oldest book about the beginnings of humanity. At one point, Adam and Eve separate from God. And then God runs after them and says, ‘Where are you?’ He doesn’t say, ‘You’re bad!’ He just says, ‘Where are you?’ And Adam responds, ‘I was frightened because I was naked. And so I hid.’

So fear [is] due to nakedness, which leads to hiding. And what is that nakedness we fear? It’s our mortality. It’s our incapacity. It’s the realization that I’m not in total control of my life. I can go out here and fall on my neck, and you would have to bring me to the hospital, and so on. We can have all the insurance we want, but we still move to death. Whether we like it or not, we are not in control. (8)

L’Arche is a community of people who have never been in control, but the disabled core members of that organization are, in Vanier’s view, the best teachers of how to accept one’s self, of how to lead a life of compassion, of gratitude, and of peace, and of how to pray. Prayer, Vanier emphasizes, does not necessarily involve deep thought or verbal conversation; those whom he has served for forty-four years are incapable of discussing theology or philosophy, but they offer an even greater gift. “Praying,” Vanier said to Ian Brown, “is not doing…Prayer is communion and gratefulness…a way of reminding ourselves to be who we are.” (9)

St. Augustine of Hippo wrote in his Confessions of the time prior to his conversion: “I loved not as yet I loved to love… I searched about for something to love, in love with loving, and hating security, and a way not beset with snares.” (10) Later in the same work, he prayed, “Oh, let Truth, the light of my heart, not my own darkness, speak unto me! I have descended to that, and am darkened. But thence, even thence, did I love Thee.” (11) Similarly, Jean Vanier spent many years discerning the Lord’s will for him. He had a promising career in the Navy, thought about becoming a priest, then began to lecture in philosophy after earning a doctorate. Vanier, though, came to a small house in Trosly-Breuil that had fallen into disrepair. There, the thirty-six-year-old Vanier started L’Arche, where the intellectually disabled have taught him more about human nature and basic necessities than Vanier could have taught in a philosophy course. In words reminiscent of those of St. Augustine, Jean Vanier spoke of his life before L’Arche was created:

I was searching without knowing what I was searching for… I didn’t have a centre, but I found myself when I founded L’Arche. I didn’t have an answer to all the technical questions about the future of this small community. But not knowing has allowed me to take the risks to continue. (12)

While Jean Vanier searched and prayed over his vocation, his parents, who were also known to take risks for the betterment of the world, steadfastly supported their son. Georges Phileas Vanier, a native of Montréal in 1888 whose father had emigrated from Normandy, France, and whose mother was Irish, married Pauline Archer, twenty-three years old and also from Montréal, in 1921. (13) Pauline Vanier’s parents were “Charles Archer, a Québec Superior Court judge,” and Thérèse de Salaberry, descended from early eighteenth-century settlers on Québec’s seigneuries. (14) Pauline was educated at the Sacred Heart Convent in Montréal, with supplementary tutoring in English and French literature that gave her a “lively mind and insatiable curiosity.” (15) She also hoped to become a religious sister, but her plans were altered with the outbreak of World War I. Pauline was refused admission as a foot soldier, and instead accepted work as a nurse “at a military convalescent hospital, where she laboured long hours until war’s end.” (16) Her wartime activity met the disapproval of her parents.

After the war, Pauline met Georges Vanier, who had twice been awarded medals of bravery during the conflict. He had once written home from the trenches, “I sleep as ever on the fresh earth… one day we shall go back to her.” (17) Georges Vanier’s right leg was severed by a German shell, but he refused to return to Canada: “I simply cannot go back to Canada while my comrades are still in the trenches in France.” (18) Shortly after the marriage of Georges and of Pauline Vanier, Canadian Governor General Lord Julian Byng, First Viscount of Vimy, appointed the couple to Government House in Ottawa.  (19) Georges was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel and sent to Geneva, Switzerland, in 1927. There, Jean Vanier, one of five children- four sons and one daughter- of Georges and Pauline Vanier, was born on September 10, 1928. (20)

Georges Vanier joined the Canadian High Commission in London in 1931, and in 1939 the Vanier family moved to Paris, where Georges had been “named minister of the Canadian Embassy.” (21) While Georges Vanier gained a reputation as an intelligent and skilled diplomat, Pauline ably ran the family home and was devoted to several social causes. Georges’ warnings of impending war, even before Adolf Hitler had ascended to power and while Germany’s economy was crippled by punitive war reparations against that country, were prophetic. As an adviser on disarmament at the League of Nations, Georges Vanier pleaded, “I ask you to open your eyes to human suffering, to direct your hearts to those who have not the strength to ask for help. Let us go to them. They have already been waiting too long.” (22) However, the world’s leaders did not listen; World War II began in August, 1939. France fell to Nazi Germany less than a year later, and the Vanier family fled Paris for Bordeaux before being shipped to England. (23) In London, the Vaniers waited out the horrific bombing of the Battle of Britain. Deborah Cowley wrote about Pauline Vanier and her family’s flight from France:

It was her escape in 1940 from wartime Paris to London with their four children…that gave Pauline a chance to show her courage and her complete trust in God. With the Germans rapidly overrunning France, Georges insisted that she and the children leave Paris in the Vanier automobile. Every road south was jammed with refugees, who were being repeatedly machine-gunned by German fighter aircraft. Suddenly, an enemy airplane crashed beside the road  just ahead of Pauline’s car. She leapt from her car and ran to the smoking wreck hoping to drag the pilot to safety. Alas, he had died in the wreck. (24)

While in London, Pauline Vanier continued her many humanitarian efforts, and Georges began to support General Charles de Gaulle’s plan to assemble a free French army to take France back from Nazi Germany. Georges Vanier’s position was panned by Canada and other Allied nations, who as yet failed to view Vichy France as merely a Nazi puppet state. Thus, the Vaniers were recalled to Canada, but were returned to Europe as the urgency of the Nazi threat and the leadership of Charles de Gaulle in the Allied resistance began to be appreciated. (25) In late 1944, Georges Vanier arrived in Paris as Canadian Ambassador to France. Pauline eventually followed him; she petitioned the Canadian Red Cross to allow her to work for them as a spokesperson, and was successful despite reluctance to open the French capital to civilians at that time, especially to women. After the war’s end, Pauline Vanier helped to resettle refugees who were returning to France. (26)

Georges and Pauline Vanier’s service to their country and to humanity ignited a similar concern in their son Jean. While World War II was still raging, Jean Vanier, at thirteen years old, asked his father’s permission to enroll as a Royal Navy Cadet in Portsmouth, England. (27) Georges gave his assent, simply but profoundly, “I trust you.” (28) His son would cite this moment later as “probably one of the two most important things that happened, because if he trusted me, then I could trust myself.” (29) Jean Vanier went on to join the Canadian Navy as an aircraft carrier officer (30), but he was still searching for a deeper purpose to his life.

He left the Navy in 1950, and subsequently befriended a Dominican priest, Fr. Thomas Philippe, who was the director of L’Eau Vive, a mostly lay academic community in Saulchoir, France, whose focus was on Christian prayer and  on the study of metaphysics. (31) Meanwhile, like his father before him, Jean Vanier contemplated whether he had a vocation to the priesthood. Fr. Thomas’ failing health forced him to appoint Jean Vanier to direct L’Eau Vive, which he would do for the next six years. During this period, Vanier was unable to advance in his studies in philosophy as long as he stayed in Saulchoir. Therefore, with the hope of becoming a priest, he entered the seminary in the Archdiocese of Québec. (32) Tension mounted between the Dominicans and Vanier, and the latter was asked by the Holy See to leave L’Eau Vive if he wanted to devote the requisite time to his seminary studies. (33) During the same period, Vanier had started his doctoral thesis at l’Institut Catholique de Paris on happiness and Aristotelian ethics, entitled “Le Bonheur: Principe et fin de la morale aristotélicienne,” which he published in 1962. (34)

Fr. Thomas Philippe’s teachings created divisions among his fellow Dominicans and also stirred controversy in Rome, thus Jean Vanier’s mentor at L’Eau Vive retreated into a Trappist monastery.  (35) Vanier and Fr. Thomas met again in Trosly-Breuil in 1962. There, Fr. Thomas had become the chaplain of a home for the mentally disabled called Val-Fleuri. The home had been founded by a physician, Dr. Préault, and Mr. Prat, whose son was intellectually challenged. (36) A second visit to Trosly-Breuil deepened Jean Vanier’s awareness of the cruelty of the dark and bleak mental institutions in France like the one he saw that housed eighty men in cramped conditions. (37)

Jean Vanier had long been gifted with a strong sense of ethics and of social justice. He had become a  well-respected instructor of moral philosophy at St. Michael’s College in Toronto, Canada, where he was hired in 1964, after completing his PhD. (38) Vanier knew by then that he was not called to be a priest, He did not see that as an obstacle, but accepted that he was being led closer to Christ. “I was forced to continue to search and to believe that life would always be stronger than death,” Vanier said in retrospect. (39) He refused to give up, and God led him decisively to Trosly-Breuil.

The modest house in that town, which in the early 1960s had neither flush toilets nor electricity, became the starting point of a revolution in the care of the disabled. (40) Two years after his first visit to Val-Fleuri, on August 5, 1964, Jean Vanier chose three men from an institution in Paris to live with him. They were Raphaël Simi, who could neither walk nor speak after a bout of meningitis, Philippe Seux, partially paralyzed by encephalitis, and a man named Dany, whose needs could not be met by Vanier and who was returned to the institution. (41) Vanier’s house, next to Val-Fleuri, was named L’Arche, after Noah’s Ark. The original wooden sign still marks the home’s entrance today. Vanier cooked, cleaned, and cared for Raphaël and for Philippe on his own at the beginning of L’Arche. (42) The home began with a sense of mission and of prayer. Vanier wrote that he and “Père Thomas…had the deep conviction that [they] had been called together by Jesus to accomplish something.” (43) Seux, Simi, and Vanier quickly established a friendship and a community. In Vanier’s words, “Our prayer was magnificent.” (44)

Back in Canada, Georges and Pauline Vanier were less convinced of their son’s latest efforts. Tony Walsh, founder of Benedict Labré House for homeless men in Montréal, urged them to fully support Jean Vanier and L’Arche. (45) Since 1959, Georges Vanier had been the Governor General of Canada, only the second Canadian-born holder of that office, succeeding Vincent Massey. (46) He and Pauline were “a perfect partnership in the service of Canada,” declared then-Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson. (47) However, Georges Vanier’s health, a concern at his appointment as Governor General, continued to decline. He was confined to a wheelchair by heart problems in his last years, but he was still an inspiring presence. The last speech by Georges Vanier was to students at the University of Montréal in 1967. By then, the separation of Québec from the rest of Canada was being more openly promoted in that province, which sometimes resulted in isolated acts of violence and of terrorism. Georges Vanier’s words were powerful:

The measure of Canadian unity has been the measure of our success… If we imagine we can go our separate ways within our country, if we exaggerate our differences or revel in contentions… we will promote our own destruction. Canada owes it to the world to remain united, for no lesson is more badly needed than the one our unity can supply: the lesson that diversity need not be the cause for conflict but, on the contrary, may need to richer and nobler living. I pray to God that we may go forward hand in hand. (48)

Within months of that address, on March 4, 1967, “George Vanier’s gallant heart, pressed to its limits for so long, quietly surrendered.” (49) After Georges’ death, Pauline lived for five years in Montréal while serving briefly as Chancellor of the University of Ottawa. She made a two-week retreat with Carmelite nuns, then decided, at seventy-three years old, to join her son Jean in Trosly-Breuil. Pauline Vanier spent the last nineteen years of her life at L’Arche. She ensured that the core members were able to worship in their own language, and ran prayer meetings in a chapel she had made in her former sitting room at the house in Trosly-Breuil. Pauline Vanier passed away in 1991, just days from her ninety-third birthday. (50)

Over the last forty-four years, Jean Vanier has overseen the rapid expansion of L’Arche around the world, encouraged and blessed by the Holy See. Until his age recently dictated otherwise, he also maintained a busy schedule including travel, interviews, speeches, and workshops. Spin-off groups have emerged from L’Arche, such as Faith and Light, founded in 1971 in Toronto by Jean Vanier and by Marie-Hélène Mathieu.  (51) Jean Vanier has authored several books and has received many awards internationally, for example the French Légion d’honneur, the Community of Christ International Peace Award, the Rabbi Gunther Plaut Humanitarian Award, the Beacon Fellowship Prize, and the Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope) Award from the Vatican. He is a Companion of the Order of Canada. (52) More importantly, L’Arche has taught Jean Vanier about the dignity of each human being, especially of those too often discarded by societies that value material productivity and competition over humanity. Jesus Christ spoke the same message two millenia ago:

The King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by My Father. Inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’… Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers and sisters of Mine, you did for Me. (53)

The words and actions of Jean Vanier echo those of the One who freely assumed our frail human nature to meet us in and to redeem us from our weakness. Jean Vanier wrote about the purpose of L’Arche:

Our community life is beautiful and intense, a source of life for everyone. People with a handicap experience a real transformation and discover confidence in themselves; they discover their capacity to make choices, and also find a certain liberty and above all their dignity as human beings… They discover a place that gives meaning to their lives and their capacity to love and live out compassion and give life to others. The essence of our communities is this ‘living with.’ We are called, certainly to serve with all our ability and to help those who are weaker to develop, but the foundation of this helping is found in friendship and the communion of hearts, which allows us all to grow. (54)

Christ’s humanity dignifies and transforms ours to be more like His. Thus, Pope Paul VI concluded his meeting with the L’Arche pilgrims during Holy Week, 1966: “God calls all of you, in spite of your difficuties, to be saints, and He reserves a special role for you in His Church… We count on you, dear sons, and we bless you.” (55)

Lord Jesus, You are happy to live among us. May we be instruments of friendship,  of compassion, of justice, and of peace, especially to those considered lowly in our world. May we serve as You served, with Jean Vanier as a living model of Your humanity. Unite us to Yourself in a true communion of hearts. We ask this in Your Name. Amen.