Jean Vanier, the Canadian Catholic philosopher and humanitarian who died on Tuesday aged 90, was a giant of a man. Well over six feet tall, he towered over me when I visited him for an interview in Trosly-Breuil, France, in 2015. In Vanier, however, even his height and bearing were transfigured into a source of warmth and humility; I ended up describing him as a “gentle giant” in my write-up.
He was due to receive the $1.7 million Templeton Prize that year, in recognition of his “exceptional contributions to affirming life’s breadth of spiritual dimensions”. Yet he was painfully reluctant to talk about the prize. I remember how he lowered himself somehow (again, both physically and emotionally) when I brought up this great honour. “Don’t push me up, don’t push me forward,” he insisted, in a voice that was almost a whisper.
Vanier would have preferred that I write not about him but about his friends at Trosly-Breuil, the site of the first L’Arche community he established. L’Arche, or the Ark, is the movement of people with disabilities and their non-disabled peers (called “assistants”) who live together as friends and equals.
Today L’Arche is among the most luminous examples of what it means to live Catholic social teaching and Gospel values in the modern world. It’s also the most powerful counter-witness to the culture of death and the eugenic revival that has some countries boasting of having “eliminated” Down’s syndrome.
Vanier’s story, and that of L’Arche’s founding, are legendary, though these are true and well-attested legends. Jean Vanier was born in Geneva in 1928 to a distinguished Canadian family. His father was Canada’s envoy to France when the Germans crossed the Maginot line and advanced on Paris. The family made a narrow escape to Britain and then Canada. But at age 13, Vanier returned to Britain to train as a naval officer.
He was happy enough in the British Navy, though he felt acutely his outsider status as a Catholic in a Protestant environment. Eventually, he told me, the “little compass” inside him told him that his true vocation lay elsewhere, and he abandoned his military career. He began studying theology and philosophy with a Dominican priest, Fr Thomas Philippe, and earned a doctorate in Aristotelian ethics from the Catholic Institute in Paris in 1962.
Soon Vanier emerged as a highly sought-after lecturer on both sides of the Atlantic. But the little compass wasn’t done redirecting Vanier’s path. Fr Thomas, who had taken up work as a chaplain at a mental institution in Trosly-Breuil, urged him to witness the horrors of the place: teenagers chained to walls, dozens of men locked up and neglected in filthy, overcapacity rooms, human beings treated like animals. As he was leaving, one of the patients, Raphael Simi, asked him: “Will you be my friend?”
Catholic theology after Vatican II talks a lot about the “spirit of encounter” and “embracing encounter.” The idea is to discover our Lord’s face and his wounds in the poor. But encounter itself is easy. The question is what you do with it. For Vanier, the answer was to ask Simi and one other man, Philippe Seux, to live with him as friends (a third man, often written out of accounts of this story, could never adjust to independent life and had to return to the institution).
Out of that spontaneous gesture, L’Arche has grown to some 150 communities on five continents. Part of the point is of course to help people with disabilities live lives of laughter, dignity and happiness. But the non-disabled who come to L’Arche soon learn that they need as much help and healing as the disabled do. The non-disabled helpers are also counted among the poor at L’Arche.
“What people with disabilities want is to relate,” Vanier told me in that 2015 interview. “This is something unique. It makes people who are closed up in the head become human. The wonderful thing about people with disabilities is that when someone important comes, they don’t care. They care about the relationship. So they have a healing power, a healing power of love.”
I got a light touch of that healing power during my own visit to Trosly-Breuil. After interviewing Vanier, I was invited to lunch at the Ferns, the group home that serves some of the most severely disabled residents. I’ll be honest: all the spitting and gurgling of food at first discomfited me. As an only child, my heightened sense of personal space was also at risk. But then we held hands and thanked Almighty God in song, and I opened up. By the time the meal was over, I didn’t want to leave the Ferns.
Afterward, I asked Vanier what people like me, who can’t give up married and professional lives to live in community, can do to help. Here’s what he told me:
“Try and find somebody who is lonely. And when you go to see them, they will see you as the messiah. Go and visit a little old lady who has no friends or family. Bring her flowers. People say, ‘but that’s nothing’. It is nothing – but it’s also everything. It always begins with small little things. It all began in Bethlehem. That was pretty small.”
Jean Vanier was a saint.
Sohrab Ahmari is the op-ed editor of the New York Post, a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald and author of the memoir From Fire, by Water (Ignatius Press)