Having mentioned Thérèse Vanier in an earlier blog post I decided to interview Jim Cargin, who knew her well for many years. This is because she deserves highlighting as someone who fully exemplified St John Paul II’s phrase, the “feminine genius”. This phrase can be misinterpreted by the Church’s critics as patronising women; in fact it honours them for their unique gifts as women within the Church. In Anglicanism, women’s roles have become blurred as they have joined the Anglican hierarchy. Thérèse’s life shows how Christian fulfilment does not require joining the ministerial priesthood.
Reading about Thérèse’s contribution towards the founding of L’Arche communities in the UK in Ann Shearer’s book, Therese Vanier: pioneer of L’Arche, palliative care and spiritual unity, I asked Jim, a founder member of L’Arche in Brecon, what had led her to resign her professional position as a consultant in haematology at St Thomas’s hospital to become involved in the L’Arche project?
Reminding me that her brother, Jean Vanier, had co-founded L’Arche in France in 1964 when he took two men with severe learning disabilities to live with him, he tells me that Thérèse had hoped someone else would take up the baton in this country – where people with learning disabilities in those days were cared for at home or in large institutions. “She waited several years, then realised she would have to be that person.”
Was this a sacrifice for her? Jim describes Thérèse as being a very practical person – in contrast to her brother who was more of a visionary – and also a person with “an instinct for order, tidiness and clarity.” Thus community life, with its tendency towards muddle, lack of structure and endless inconclusive discussions, was not “a natural choice”. But she still willingly undertook the arduous task of starting the first community in Kent.
What was her special contribution? Jim is clear: “She had an outstanding capacity to listen, to look reality unflinchingly in the eye and to have the deepest respect for those who suffered pain.” He adds that Thérèse had great generosity of spirit, a willingness to share her gifts and the courage “to do her utmost so that fragile people could live full and dignified lives.” Her characteristic comment when community life was becoming too difficult was “Hang on in there.”
He concludes: “She was an inspirational example to us all.”
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