After a lifetime of honours and fame, he could still approach the last phase of his life with openness and tranquillity
Plough Publishing House, directed by the Bruderhof Community from Robertsbridge, East Sussex, is ecumenical in its published list, consistently highlighting authors from different Christian traditions who are united in the service of Gospel values. So it is no surprise to see that it has now republished Jean Vanier: Portrait of a Free Man by Anne-Sophie Constant. First issued in 2014 the book includes a short epilogue about Vanier’s later years at Trosly, headquarters of the L’Arche movement he set up in 1964, including his diagnosis of thyroid cancer in autumn 2018. He died on 7 May 2019.
The author, a lecturer in Paris until 2012, was a close friend of L’Arche and Jean Vanier for many years. Her book is an excellent brief introduction to the man and the organisation he founded. Two things stand out from it: how one sees in retrospect the way that God guided this particular life through seeming failures and byways to the moment when Jean’s gifts came to fruition with his discovery of the task – vocation is a better word – God wanted him to undertake; and how a Christian should approach the inevitable weaknesses of old age.
It is clear from Constant’s account that Jean had an obscure longing both for community and an authentic way of expressing a living faith from a young age. Serving in the British navy as a young man he preferred to find local Catholic churches in port than seek out more conventional pleasures. Reflecting on his life in old age he could see he had travelled to many more countries on behalf of L’Arche than he would have done if he had stayed in a conventional naval career; he was also to give many more lectures worldwide than he would have had he remained a philosophy teacher in Canada; and an as a renowned spiritual guide for countless people, he was to exercise more influence than he would have had as a priest ( a vocation he had at first considered.)
Thus all the ways in which his life might have flourished were brought together in a marvellous new synthesis when he came to recognise that living alongside people with learning disabilities was his own unique way of witnessing to Christian love.
Talking to the author in old age (he was born in 1928), when he had to accept that his activities would now be confined to his home in Trosly, north of Paris, Jean told he: “Today I realise that I no longer have a future…It’s about living in the present moment and making that moment a place where the important thing is to be open to whatever the other brings me…”
In his 90th year he wrote, “I know that new weaknesses, new forms of poverty and new losses are waiting for me. It will be the descent into what is essential, that which is most hidden in me, deeper than all the parts of success and shadow inside me. That will be what is left when all the rest is gone. My naked person…which is waiting its encounter with God.”
Vanier’s humble acceptance of his own increasing disability seems to me as important as all his books on the dignity and value of each human being however disabled they may be in the sight of the world. In our cult of health, our loss of respect for the elderly and our fear of losing our independence, we have much to learn from the example of this giant among men who, after a lifetime of honours and fame, could approach the last phase of his life with openness and tranquillity.