When we met my son Max in 2011, my wife and I knew nothing about Down’s syndrome.
We knew only that we had adopted a beautiful baby boy, just a few days old, and that he had wires coming from his chest and tubes coming from his nose. We knew that his lungs had trouble breathing, his heart had trouble pumping blood, and that it took him an hour, at least, to drink just an ounce of formula.
Almost a year later, we’d come to understand the mechanics of his disability. We were experts at nasal cannulas and juggling therapies. We knew about hypotonia and ventricular septal defects, speech apraxia and baby sign language.
And then we were asked to adopt our daughter Pia, a newborn little girl who also had Down’s syndrome.
Within a year, we went from hardly having spoken to an intellectually disabled person to living with two of them. And it was overwhelming.
It was Jean Vanier, who died today, who taught us that knowing about diagnoses, and therapies, and treatments, while important, is not nearly as important as knowing how to love.
It was Vanier who taught us that our two children, who seemed so very different from us, were really quite the same: that they, made in the image of God, needed most to love, and to be loved.
When Vanier invited two men with developmental disabilities to share his home, in 1964, he didn’t yet understand this. He expected they needed programmatic support, and that he would be the one to help them. Of course, he did help them. But he discovered that they also helped him. And that what they really needed, more than anything else, was friendship. They were looking for a brother. They wanted to be heard. To be understood.
They needed, Vanier discovered, to be seen.
And when Vanier learned that about people with disabilities, he also learned something about himself.
The disabilities of Vanier’s friends, the disabled, are usually manifestly visible. People with Down’s syndrome, for example, give witness to their weakness in their short stature, their almond eyes, their stubby fingers and stuttering speech. They can’t hide those disabilities.
But Vanier taught that the invisible disabilities are usually more profound. That fear and loneliness, bitterness and anger are the things that cripple us, or blind us. He taught that all of us have those disabilities. And he taught that trusting one another with our weaknesses leads to peace. That trusting God with our weaknesses leads to freedom.
“The sense of belonging that is necessary for the opening of our hearts is born when we walk together, needing each other, accompanying one another whether we are weak or strong, capable or not,” he wrote.
“This belonging becomes a song of gratitude for each one of us.”
In his most famous book, Becoming Human, Vanier wrote that to become fully human “means to become men and women with the wisdom of love.” Vanier had the wisdom of love. He was an accomplished academic philosopher, but his contributions were not mostly intellectual. They were mostly borne from his heart. And from his life of prayer.
Vanier was a committed Catholic. His faith was at the centre of his mission and ministry.
“Seeing our brokenness and beauty allows us to recognize, hidden under the brokenness and self-centeredness of others, their beauty, their value, their sacredness. This discovery is sometimes a leap in the dark, a blessed moment, a moment of grace…that comes in a meeting with the God of Love, who reveals to us that we are beloved and so is everyone else.”
That we are beloved by God, in our brokenness and beauty, our weakness and strength — our ability and disability — that is the lesson Jean Vanier taught my family.
In 1997, Pope St John Paul II greeted Vanier at the Vatican and expressed hope that “the work founded by him — as a whole and in every community — will always be accompanied by the light and strength of the Holy Spirit, to respond fittingly to the Lord’s plan, thus alleviating the suffering and needs of so many brothers and sisters.”
May Jean Vanier rest in peace. And may his work in continue by the grace of God.
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