Jean Vanier – a modern-day saint?

Peter Seal, 5 November 2017

On this All Saints’ Day I want to share with you something about an elderly man who many think of as a modern-day saint [with acknowledgements to]. You may perhaps have heard of Jean Vanier? Now in his mid-80s, he founded what are known as L’Arche communities. L’Arche means ‘the Ark’, as in the story of Noah – in other words, a safe place where everyone is together.

Jean Vanier is a philosopher, the son of a former governor general of Canada. He served during World War II with the Royal Navy and then with the Royal Canadian Navy. In 1950 he began to study philosophy and theology. He went on to teach.

In 1964, he became aware of the plight of thousands of people institutionalised with learning disabilities. Encouraged by his friend Père Thomas Philippe, a Dominican priest, Vanier made a big decision. He took the radical step of inviting two people – Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux – to leave the institution where they lived to share their lives with him. Together they began what they called L’Arche, a small house in Trosly-Breuil, in France.

Jean was, and is still, an inspiring teacher. In those early community days, many of his friends and students came to visit him. They experienced this radical, different way of living. The community grew rapidly. In 1968 a new community opened in Canada. Gradually more and more communities began, around the world, founded by people inspired by Jean’s work.

Jean remained the leader of the Trosly-Breuil community until 1981. He still lives there today. He also travels widely, visiting other L’Arche communities, encouraging new projects and hosting lectures and leading retreats.

His awards include the French Legion of Honour, the Companion of the Order of Canada, the Rabbi Gunther Plaut Humanitarian Award 2001 and the International Paul VI Award. In November 2004, a CBC poll placed him number 12 in a list of ‘greatest Canadians’, and in 2015 he was awarded the Templeton Prize.

Jean is widely recognised for his advocacy of belonging and social justice. His leadership, across the globe, has nurtured dialogue and unity among Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and other faiths. He’s a considerable scholar, having written more than 30 books which have been translated into 29 languages.

Jean, and those who came to share his vision, learned two important truths in those early years, which remain at the heart of L’Arche today. First, people with learning disabilities have a great deal to contribute to society. Secondly, when people with, and without, learning disabilities commit themselves to living in community together, they open themselves up to discovering who they are, not just what they can do. This is invaluable in a world that places a high value on winning, and coming first. Living together with diversity and difference leads to personal growth for everyone in the community.

Living together with diversity and difference leads to personal growth for everyone in the community.

There are ten L’Arche communities in the UK. The first was in Kent and opened in 1974. There are now communities in Bognor, Brecon, Edinburgh, Inverness, Ipswich, Liverpool, London, Manchester and Preston. Together they provide person-centred, individual support and care to just over 200 adults with learning disabilities of varying complexity.

The communities vary. They can be made up of a mix of small family-sized homes, flats, shops and day-resource facilities. Activities include arts and drama workshops, crafts and candle-making, bookbinding, gardening and woodwork. In addition to running these communities, L’Arche provide some people with support in their own homes for a few hours per week.

In a divided world, L’Arche communities aim to be a sign of hope and unity. Grounded in the Christian tradition, they welcome people of all faiths and none. Their members come from many different cultures, countries, religious groups and faiths.

People with learning disabilities are often deprived of the opportunity to nurture a spiritual life. L’Arche believe it is a basic right for everyone to make their own religious choices. They help each of their community members to develop their own faith, if they want to.

L’Arche’s spirituality is vibrant. It encompasses prayer and pilgrimages, singing, shared meals, celebration and time for reflection.

Some members belong to faith organisations in the local community and, in return, their ministers and priests often get involved with L’Arche’s spiritual celebrations. Members with learning disabilities sometimes have special needs when it comes to worship. Many imaginative ways have been developed to make them feel involved, including music, gesture and mime.

While many organisations exist to offer support to people with learning disabilities, few do so with the L’Arche philosophy. Philippe Seux, one of those first two men with learning disabilities who were able to leave the institution in which they were living and help Jean Vanier found L’Arche, said: ‘Before, I had no life. It was just sitting all day in a chair in one room. We weren’t allowed to go out or do anything. I was bored. When I came to L’Arche I was just so pleased to be there!’

One of the really important characteristics of L’Arche communities, which makes them distinctive and different, is the attention they pay to building relationships and a sense of belonging.

They consciously celebrate and delight in people with learning disabilities. They build circles of support around them. L’Arche is able to go beyond meting basic needs, to attend to people’s emotional and spiritual lives.

Jane, who recently joined L’Arche in Liverpool, says, ‘My mum gave me confidence to go out and meet people that she knew, but living in L’Arche I have met new people and have new friendships, I have become more independent. The thing I like most about living here is the love and friendship – from the whole community.’

L’Arche communities around the world share this common philosophy and approach while reflecting the ethnic, cultural and religious composition of the areas in which they exist.

I was talking earlier this week with our daughter Katie, who is working part-time in the L’Arche community in Lyon. She described how she had helped prepare lunch. At the meal she tried to make conversation with the woman sitting next to her, who has learning difficulties. Despite Katie’s best efforts she received no response at all from her table companion. Katie realised that that was just the way it was.

A few days later at the Eucharist Katie realised that the same woman was sitting behind her. As the worship ended, the woman took Katie by the hand, indicating that she wanted to lead her somewhere. They left the church, still hand-in-hand, they went across a garden, down a flight of steps, into another building. Katie was wondering where they were going! They entered another building, down a long corridor, out again into another open space, into another building, up a flight of stairs and into a large room all beautifully prepared for a party. The woman really wanted Katie to see this lovely sight – it was as simple as that.

Katie found herself feeling richly blessed through the unexpected human engagement with this woman, with whom she now felt she had a relationship.

Jean Vanier has written a profound spiritual commentary on St John’s gospel, which he describes as ‘the gospel of relationship’.