In 1964, Jean Vanier, a 36-year-old Canadian former naval officer moved in with two men with intellectual disabilities who had been living in an institution. Their home became the first L'Arche community. It was followed by an international federation of communities in more than 37 countries, welcoming people of all faiths, abilities, and traditions. Together with Marie-Hélène Mathieu, Vanier subsequently founded Faith and Light, which also works with and for people with disabilities around the world. He has received numerous awards, including the French Legion of Honor and the Templeton Prize.
Vanier was born in Geneva while his father, the 19th Governor General of Canada, was on diplomatic service in Switzerland. During his childhood, his family lived in Canada, England, and France, fleeing Paris right before occupation by the Nazis during World War II. In 1945, Vanier and his mother assisted victims of a concentration camp; their suffering moved the Vaniers profoundly.
After becoming aware of the plight of people with developmental disabilities who were institutionalized — marginalized, depressed, and alone — Vanier opened his home to them in what was to become his lifelong ministry. "People with disabilities have called forth the child in me," he observed. "They have taught us all in L'Arche how to rest in love and mutual caring, how to celebrate life and also celebrate death, to speak about death, to accompany people who are dying."
Jean Vanier's radical view of the spiritual practice of hospitality takes within its embrace strangers, outcasts, those who are different, the shadow sides of ourselves, and our enemies who have their own burden of pain. Loving, forgiving, and opening our hearts, he believes, is an alternative to the world's divisions and weapons.
To Name This Day . . .
Choose one of these quotes to contemplate in a quiet moment today:
"We are called to share our lives with people in pain,
to live a covenant with them.
We have all met people who have been wounded in life.
We have all been hurt at some point and at some place in our own lives.
We need to deepen our understanding of our reaction to pain
and reflect on that reaction.
How do we react when we are faced with our own pain and with the pain of others?"
— Jean Vanier in Befriending the Stranger
"In the midst of all the violence and corruption of the world
God invites us today to create new places of belonging,
places of sharing, of peace and of kindness,
places where no-one needs to defend himself or herself;
places where each one is loved and accepted with one's own fragility, abilities and disabilities.
This is my vision for our churches:
that they become places of belonging, places of sharing."
— Jean Vanier in Befriending the Stranger
"When an activity or a person fills our lives, inspires us or gives us a zest for life, their absence can plunge us into this feeling of total emptiness. We live a kind of inner death. Life no longer flows forth in us. We are filled with a sense of loss and of grief; a heaviness, which resembles depression, permeates our whole being. This pain and this heaviness are not a sickness but a normal, natural reaction to a loss that touches the very meaning of our lives.
"A person who has suffered this kind of grief needs time to rediscover gradually other reasons to live. ... In order to emerge from this state of loss and grief, and begin a new life, people need not so much a therapist as friends who are prepared to walk with them. These friends cannot nor should they try to take away the grief, but rather accept it with them. The grieving process has its own particular rhythm in each person. It needs time. We should not try and make it disappear quickly through artificial ways and distractions. Sometimes people need to cry, scream and shout their pain, anger and frustration in order to free themselves gradually from the pain and find new life."
— Jean Vanier in Seeing beyond Depression
In Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus, Vanier writes:
"Each one is different
and each one is needed
for the completion of humanity in God.
We are bonded together:
vulnerable, one to another,
open, one to another.
Together we reflect the infinite beauty of God,
the unity in God.
Together we cry out our thanks to God and to others.
"We cry out together our desire for God to be glorified
as the source and the end of all beings.
This unity, which comes from the inner life of each person,
is only possible when, stone by stone,
the walls around our vulnerable hearts come down.
"Then we no longer judge ourselves as unworthy
and we no longer judge others as unworthy.
We see in them and in ourselves the light and love of God.
There is no longer a void or anguish or terrible loneliness,
but a new life, the very life of God, surging up from within us."
Based on this passage, consider what you can do today to remove a stone or two from the wall around your vulnerable heart.