Jean Vanier, a groundbreaking and profoundly influential Catholic activist, died in Paris, France, on May 7, at age 90.
Born to Canadian parents, Vanier told them, when he was 13, that his interest was in naval affairs. Accordingly, he proceeded to prepare for a naval career in England and had spent time with the British Royal Navy and the Royal Canadian Navy by the time World War II ended in 1945, the year he turned 17.
That year, Vanier spent part of a military leave at a train station in Paris as the Canadian Red Cross received survivors of concentration camps. In a 2014 interview with The Economist, he recalled: “I’ll never forget the men and women who arrived off the trains — like skeletons, still in the blue-and-white-striped uniforms,” and “their faces tortured with fear and anguish. That, and the dropping of the atom bombs, strengthened a feeling in me that the navy was no longer the place for me; that I wanted to devote myself to works of peace.”
From 1945 to 1963, Vanier was essentially searching, at one point living in a contemplative community and studying and teaching philosophy.
Then in 1963 in France, he visited an institution for men with intellectual disabilities. As his visit came to an end, the residents asked him whether he would visit again. “Behind these words,” he told The Economist, “I sensed a great cry: ‘Why have I been abandoned? Why am I not with my brothers and sisters, who are married and living in nice houses? Do you love me?’ A great thirst for friendship.”
Vanier perceived a need for community for these men, and he proceeded to create such a community, buying a home and inviting two men to live with him. Again, the Economist interview: “Before meeting them, my life had been governed largely from my head and my sense of duty. They brought out the child in me. I began to live from my heart.”
Upon receiving the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 2015, Vanier remarked: “When those ingrained in a culture of winning and of individual success really meet [people with intellectual disabilities], and enter into friendship with them, something amazing and wonderful happens.” The “successful” people “are changed at a very deep level. They are transformed and become more fundamentally human.”
We must note: The people who let themselves be absorbed by winning and success — the achievers, the philosophy professors — these are the ones who are the potential recipients of balance and richness. The wealth is emotional: an opening onto a deeper personhood.
Vanier founded two organizations: L’Arche (The Ark) and Faith and Light. L’Arche is a continuation of his initial experience of community in his own home. Faith and Light, according to Wikipedia, assists “those with learning disabilities, and their friends and family, by fostering friendship, prayer, celebration and sharing.”
Krista Tippett, host of the public-radio program On Being, interviewed Vanier and also took in the experience at a L’Arche community in Clinton, Iowa. This audio, and transcripts, can be found at onbeing.org (or Google on being l’arche).
All of us can reflect upon experiences which leave us juggling various feelings of pride, vulnerability, insecurity, uncertainty, frustration, limits, and the greatest limit, which is mortality. Might we explore such feelings more intentionally, in friendship with someone whom we would not be inclined to choose on first thought? At the very least, we can be glad that Jean Vanier has shown us new possibilities for friendship.