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‘Death will certainly be something really beautiful’: an interview with Jean Vanier

Jean Vanier (Getty Images)

From our archives: an encounter with the founder of L’Arche

This interview was first published in the February 1, 2002 edition of the Catholic Herald

In the early 1960s a young philosophy teacher from one of Canada’s most distinguished families gave up his job and moved to France. He had no idea what he was going to do there. Just an itching notion that he wanted to “follow Jesus and discover the message of the Gospel”.

He bought a ramshackle house in Trosly-Breuil, a windswept village 50 miles north of Paris. There was no electricity, no toilet and one tap. An old family friend, a Dominican called Fr Thomas Philippe, lived in the village. The priest asked the teacher to join him on a visit to a local institution for mentally handicapped men, where he worked as chaplain. The young man knew nothing about people with disabilities. He was shocked, incensed and inspired by what he saw in the home.

“I was very touched,” Jean Vanier recalls now, a wise old man of 73, famous all over the world for his work with the disabled. “I discovered a whole world of pain, of brokenness.”

What he did next, few people do. He decided to invite two handicapped men to share his crumbling home. He wanted to share everything with them – his time, his money, his rest, his leisure, his personality. Nothing was to go unshared. Two profoundly disabled men, Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux, moved in with him in August 1964.

“Then I began to discover the incredible pain of people with disabilities,” he recounts, “people who had been pushed aside and crushed. not seen as human, or as valuable. And then again I saw their incredible openness to Gospel values, their yearning to be loved. I got to see the Gospel more deeply.”

This unexpected insight turned everything upside down. Here were two mentally handicapped men showing a philosophy teacher the meaning of life; two weak and unlettered men were teaching the Gospel with awesome eloquence. Vanier found that people with disabilities were living the Beatitudes, purely and unconsciously.

“Other people were talking about them,” he says, with a dismissive wave of the hand. “When I say others, I mean me. I could talk about the Beatitudes, but people with disabilities were actually living them at a much deeper level.”

Vanier is still marvelling at this discovery almost 40 years later. The first fledging community – known as L’Arche (the ark) – has inspired more than 100 communities in more than 30 countries. A spin-off movement, known as Faith and Light, has more than 1,500 groups in 75 countries. Vanier is the internationally acclaimed author of a dozen books and a renowned speaker and retreat leader.

I caught up with him before Christmas at a conference at the Methodist North Bank Centre in London. Vanier was speaking to mental health care professionals, recording a talk for BBC Radio 4, leading an ecumenical service and giving interviews – all within a few the space of a few hours. Not bad for a septugenarian.

“I still feel quite young,” he told me after he had settled his long frame into the comfy chair beside me. “I’m happy to be just where l am. I’ m very fortunate in everything. I’m happy. I’m peaceful. I’ve got good health. People are kind. What more do you want?

“But we are in a world where we have to continue to struggle. And that’s a struggle for truth, for justice, a struggle against all forms of oppression, illusions and lies.”

This is probably the most striking thing about Jean Vanier: he is not a sandal-shod do-gooder. He is not, as he puts it, interested in “just doing nice little things for poor little people”. He wants to challenge lies and illusions head-on. His heroes – Thérèse of Lisieux, Mahatma Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero – are confrontational figures, spiritual warriors willing to pay for the truth with their lives. Jesus, Vanier says, doesn’t want lukewarm disciples. He wants people who are on fire with love.

“There’s something in the Gospel message so simple, so loving, so extraordinary, so excessive,” he explains, “because everything Jesus does is done to excess. At Canaan, he gives an excessive amount of wine. When he multiplies the bread, he does an excessive amount. To love our enemies is an excess of love. When you are hit on one cheek, turn the other. Everything is excessive, because love can not be otherwise than excessive.”

He pauses, raises his hawk-like eyebrows in astonishment.

“To be a Christian is not just to live a moral law; it’s not just to be a good person. It’s somewhere to become a bit crazy – but for Jesus and for peace, because the only road to peace will be the love of enemies. It’ll be by descending and discovering the poor, rather than going up to the top of the ladder, where there is more power, privilege and so on.

“There’s something incredibly beautiful in the Gospel message, but at the same time incredibly demanding. And yet, it’s not demanding. It’s the place of joy, because we know that we can’t do it ourselves. It’s when we think we have to do it by ourselves that everything becomes heavy.”

Just before Christmas, Vanier published a book called Made for Happiness (Dartman, Longman & Todd), a stimulating reflection on Aristotle’s ethics. It’s written in the simple but profound style of his other books, which have covered everything from sexuality to depression. I know many people who have found solace in his writings. But he assures me he doesn’t write to uplift people.

“I write because it’s what I’ve lived and what’s true,” he says passionately. “I can’t say I do it to influence people. I think the truth has to be announced. If I write about Aristotle it’s because he’s saying something that’s true, from his point of view, three or four centuries before Jesus. And I believe that human beings are yearning for truth, and justice and peace. But today we are in a world where maybe we are a little frightened of truth. We want tolerance, but not truth. It’s important to be tolerant. But it’s also important to seek for the truth and not to live in illusions, and to see that lies and all that is untrue is dangerous.”

Christians have nothing to fear from the truth, he says, even when it comes to facing the ultimate human fear – death. At 73, he knows he is closer to the end of his life than the beginning. But he is not afraid.

“I have to trust for today, so I’ll trust for tomorrow. I’m not frightened of death. Frightened of suffering, of anguish, maybe. But death will certainly be something really beautiful, really gentle. It’s a passage to life. Living is much more difficult than death.

“There are quite a lot of people living, but they are as sad as death.”

The key, Vanier says, is to live for today, “to live and to rejoice and give thanks for who we are”.

“You see,” he explains. “We’re living something so precious, but very few people know about it. What I mean by `so precious’ is that people know we should do good to the poor, but very few people know that the poor can do us a lot of good, can change us.”

He then turns, as he invariably does, to the Gospel, this time to the parable of the Good Samaritan. There Jesus tells us that our neighbour is the one who is most unlike us, the one who is least connected and least appealing to us. Now think of able-bodied people as Jews and mentally-handicapped people as Samaritans.

This, I think, is a fitting image of L’Arche. Jean Vanier has inspired able-bodied people to see the handicapped as their neighbour. He has opened their eyes to the apartheid system that strictly excludes the disabled from normal social life.

He is a radical figure, reaching down deeply into the message of Jesus Christ. What he finds there continues to amaze him. He’s 73, but he talks about the Gospel as if he’s only just heard it.

“It’s incredible,” he laughs, grabbing my arm tightly, as he prepares to move on to his next appointment.

“Jesus is incredible!”