Jean Vanier and L’Arche have a simple but vital message for society

Jean Vanier, the founder of L'Arche (PA)

This year the Templeton Prize, an annual $1.5 million award given to someone who has made “exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension”, has been awarded to Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche. Previous recipients include Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the Dalai Lama, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Billy Graham and (for reasons I can’t quite understand) scientists such as the cosmologist and astrophysicist, Lord Rees.

Jean Vanier, now aged 86, started what turned out to be the first L’Arche community in France in 1964 when he welcomed two disabled men, Raphael and Philippe, into a small house he had bought for this purpose. As he said yesterday on the BBC Sunday morning news programme, he had visited a huge institution for those with learning disabilities and was shocked by what he saw: a place, he implied, where inmates were cared for, but impersonally; they were not loved as individuals.

What began as a leap in the dark, an impulse of charity, was to change Vanier profoundly. Today, as a result of that gesture, there are now 147 L’Arche communities in 35 countries, small family-type homes where people are welcomed for themselves and the intrinsic gifts they bring, not for their qualifications or abilities or for what they can “do”. However, Vanier’s “light bulb moment” came, not when he impulsively bought a house and welcomed two disabled men to live with him, but when he realised that they had as much if not more to offer him, as he had to offer them.

My brother, James, who has been part of the L’Arche movement for more than 30 years, explains to me that at first Vanier, who had been trained as a naval officer, thought he had to run the house according to a fairly formal timetable and organising everything on his own, if done for the benefit of his two companions. “Then he realised this model was quite wrong and that Raphael and Philippe, despite their obvious handicaps, had gifts of their own that were a vital contribution in helping to create a shared community of reciprocity and mutuality.” This was humbling for someone who had previously enjoyed a successful life both in the forces and in academe; it was also life-changing, for the embryonic L’Arche communities that developed as a result, and as a message for society.

James emphasises that the message of L’Arche is simple: “To be human is to have gifts to bring to others, however disabled you might appear in their eyes. At the time, in the 1960s, this was a revolutionary idea.” It also has significance for the Church, as James explains: “Jean came to realise that God speaks through human poverty, not just from the top down, through the Church’s institutions.” He adds that “such an idea has a wider importance, indeed to help transform society through the witness of the disabled. L’Arche communities show us that we are all meant to be relational. The western world is highly individualised. Vulnerable people of all kinds get pushed to the margins of society, when they should be seen as our brothers and sisters.” He believes that the graphic and startling image of Pope Francis, that the Church is a field hospital for the wounded, ties in with the revelation that Jean Vanier received over 50 years ago.

Yet it is a message that always needs to be repeated. James tells me that a recent survey in the UK showed that 90% people in society have never encountered disabled people. This is not helped, I suggest, by current UK abortion laws which allow disabled babies to be aborted up until birth, or by the constant pressure from lobby groups to allow euthanasia for the very elderly or sick. Such attitudes suggest helplessness, fear and pessimism in the face of seemingly intolerable burdens.

Yet Vanier, who thought he would be taking on a burden in committing himself to looking after two disabled men in 1964, came to be transformed himself by the experience. James says, “It was a revelation to him that he was actually enjoying life with his co-residents. He discovered how much easier it was to live the Gospel in his new situation. The need for humility and simplicity, becoming conscious of the human dignity of his new friends and how much he needed their trust and acceptance, was transformative. He discovered laughter alongside the different ways of coping and communicating that he had to learn.” What he relates makes me think of Christ’s words, ‘Unless you become as little children…’”

Vanier told his BBC interviewer yesterday that he would give the Templeton Prize money to L’Arche. James tells me that it will go to helping their communities in the Third World which are very poor in countries which lack the apparatus of a welfare state. It seems to me that Vanier has done much more than the vaguely worded “affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” By his life he has shown the glory of human beings created by God, however visibly broken they might appear.