Comment Opinion & Features

Jean Vanier (1928-2019)

Jean Vanier in 2008 (CATHERINE GUGELMANN/AFP/Getty Images)

Our differences are not a threat but a treasure. Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, who died in Paris on May 7, wrote those words; but their truth is far from self-evident. One might question whether those words are simply nice-sounding poetics or whether they contain an actual truth. Our differences, in fact, are often a threat.

Moreover, it’s one thing to mouth those words; it’s quite another to have the moral authority to speak them. Few have that authority. Jean Vanier did. His whole life and work testify to the fact that our differences can indeed be a treasure and can, in the end, be that precise element of community that serves up for us the particular grace we need.

Vanier saw differences – whether of faith, religion, culture, language, gender, ideology or genetic endowment – as graces to enrich a community rather than as threats to its unity. And while he gave witness to this in all aspects of his life, he was of course best known for how he appropriated the differences that have separated people with intellectual disabilities from the rest of the community, isolating them, assigning them second-class status and depriving the rest of us of the unique grace they bring. Someone once described Vanier as initiating a new Copernican revolution in that, prior to Vanier, we used to think of our service to the poor as being one-sided, ie that we give to them. Now we recognise our former arrogance and naiveté; the poor themselves do us a great service.

One who gave a powerful personal testimony to that was Henri Nouwen, the renowned spiritual writer. Tenured at both Yale and Harvard, an immensely respected speaker and a man loved and adulated by a large public, Nouwen – nursing his own disabilities – was for most of his life unable to absorb very much from the immense amount of love that was being bestowed on him. He remained deeply insecure within himself, unsure that he was loved, until he went to live in one of Vanier’s communities. There, side by side with men and women who were unaware of his achievements and his fame and who offered him no adulation, he finally began to sense his own worth and to feel himself loved. That grace came from living with those who were different.

We have Jean Vanier to thank for teaching that to the rest of us, too.

I first heard Vanier speak when I was a 22-year-old seminarian. For many of my colleagues, he was a spiritual rock star, but that idolisation was a negative for me. I went to hear him with a certain bias: nobody can be that good. But he was.

Admittedly that’s ambiguous. Talent and charisma can seduce us towards selfishness just as easily as invite us towards nobility of soul. Someone can be a powerful speaker without that charisma witnessing at all to the person’s human and moral integrity, and without that seductiveness inviting anyone to what is more noble inside him or her.

But Vanier’s person, message and charisma, throughout his life, suffered from no such ambiguity. The transparency, simplicity, depth, wisdom and faith that were contained in his person and his word beckoned us only in one direction, that is, towards all that’s one, good, true and beautiful, which are the properties of God. Meeting him made you want, like the Apostles in the Gospels, to leave your boat and nets behind and set off on a new, more radical road. Few persons have that power.

Perhaps the best criterion by which to judge Christian discipleship is look at who’s moving downwards, who best fits this description of Jesus: “Though he was in the form of God, he did not deem equality with God as something to be grasped at. Rather he emptied himself and took the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:6-7).

Jean Vanier was born into a world of privilege, blessed with exceptional parents, a gifted intelligence, a handsome body, enviable educational opportunities, financial security, and a famous name. Those are a lot of gifts for a person to carry and that kind of privilege has more often ruined a life than blessed it.

For Vanier, however, these gifts were never something to be grasped at. He emptied himself by becoming immersed into the lives of the poor, letting his gifts bless them, even as he received a rich blessing in return. He modelled a true discipleship of Jesus, namely, stepping downward into a second baptism, where community and joy are found. And to this he invited us.

In her poem, “The Leaf and the Cloud”, Mary Oliver wrote: “I will sing for the broken doors of the poor, and for the sorrow of the rich, who are mistaken and lonely.” Jean Vanier, through all the years of his life, stepped through the broken doors of the poor and found community and joy there. For him, our differences were not a threat but a treasure.