My encounter with the truly charismatic founder of L’Arche

Jean Vanier, co-founder of L'Arche, pictured in 2002 (Photo: CNS)

There is a new blood test for women considered at risk of having a baby with Down’s syndrome, which analyses foetal DNA. It has been hailed as a “new, non-invasive test” that would avoid around 98 per cent of the invasive diagnostic procedures currently carried out, such as amniocentesis, and it would help women “make an informed decision regarding possible termination”.

Alongside news of this medical “breakthrough”, I happened to go to a talk yesterday, given by Jean Vanier at Blackfriars, Oxford. Vanier, for those who have not heard of him, is the co-founder of L’Arche, an organisation that welcomes people with a severe learning disability and helps them live alongside their assistants in small, family-style communities. He has spent the last 46 years, when not sharing in the life of his own L’Arche community in Trosly, France, travelling the world and writing books in order to spread the message of L’Arche: the disabled are our brothers and sisters and accepting them, rather than aborting them or hiding them away, is transformative for those who live with them and for society at large.

It is not a message that attracts large headlines – unlike a medical “breakthrough” to detect handicap “non-invasively” so that “an informed decision” can be made about a possible “termination”. Such terminations are themselves, of course, hugely invasive but this is never mentioned in the good news.

Vanier looks and sounds like an Old Testament prophet, crying in the wilderness of modern medical advances. A former naval officer who studied for a doctorate in philosophy, he said his own life had been transformed (“and although I am now 82, the journey is still going on”) when, in the early 1960s, he welcomed two severely handicapped men into his own home. “We are obliged to enter a mystery when encountering a severely disabled person,” he told his audience. This mystery can involve anguish and guilt on the part of families, and the question: “Where is God in all this?”

The answer, as Vanier indicated, is that God is here, alongside the lonely, the anguished, the rejected and the outcast. Life, he told us, is not about the “tyranny of the normal” or about climbing the ladder of success; it is about building relationships. Building relationships with the handicapped teaches us valuable lessons about our own weakness and vulnerability. He quoted the Jewish diarist, Etty Hillesum, who died in Auschwitz and who achieved an inner freedom because, as she wrote, “I have now integrated death into my life”.

Vanier spoke for an hour without notes, quietly and compellingly. He is a man for whom the word “charismatic”, often used so carelessly, is appropriate. His talk was entitled, “The Road to Freedom”. This is usually translated as meaning the freedom to vote or freedom from persecution. But the deepest freedom of all, as this tall, white-haired and soft-spoken man argued with conviction, is inner freedom: freedom from fear.

The coalition talks a lot about the Big Society. Is it big enough to welcome the words of Jean Vanier and allow them to transform our treatment of disabled babies in the womb and those who lose their faculties later in life?