Jean Vanier (1928 – 2019)

A Reflection compiled by Frank Nelson

We DO saints quite well in St Peter’s Cathedral. Not only do the stained glass windows and the beautifully carved reredos depict a wide variety of saints down the ages, but week by week we remember in our prayers those whose anniversary of death occurs on each particular day. Most of these people, though not all, have had some or other association with the Cathedral over the past one hundred and fifty years. They worshipped here, served as Wardens, were benefactors, sang in the choir, rang the bells; others were clergy in the Diocese of Adelaide or prominent lay people serving on Synod; still others have no direct association with the Cathedral but are remembered as examples of godly living, people whose love for, and commitment to, Jesus Christ, made a difference in the world.

Tonight I want to take a moment to reflect on, and give thanks for, the life of Jean Vanier. Born in 1928 Vanier died a few weeks ago – his funeral was held last Thursday. In his early life Vanier served in the navy, studied and taught philosophy, and constantly grappled with what God wanted to do with his life. He found what was to become his life-long vocation in France in 1964 when he bought a simple house and opened it to two men with intellectual disabilities. For some time Vanier had been visiting the nearby mental asylum and was appalled at the way the men there were treated – locked away for life with little or nothing to do, no friendship and no family. With his two new friends Raphael and Philipe, the first community of L’Arche – the Ark – was born.

An obituary in the Economist has this to say of those early days

“He also paid visits, in those years when he was trying to discern what Jesus was wanting of him, to other places where people dismissed as “stupid” or “idiots” were locked away. In one, built of cement blocks, the inmates spent their day walking round in circles. In another, he found a boy chained up in a garage. Their families and the world had abandoned them. They cried out to be looked on with kindness, called by their name, not despised, but loved. He already knew they would return that love, for he felt it whenever he was among them. And to love was to be with God.”

Writing for The Christian Century on the day he died, Melissa Florer-Bixler quotes from Vanier’s own diary as he outlines his vision for the fledgling community: “On the edge of the forest of Compiègne, L’Arche has opened its first home for the mentally and physically handicapped. These family-like homes, each welcoming from four to nine boys, at least twenty years old, are lifelong homes. They are the first of a group of homes which will be linked to­gether with workshops, a cultural centre, a chapel and the necessary medical help.”

L’Arche sparked hope not only for people with intellectual disabilities but for a new way of ordering life for everyone. L’Arche communities arose around the world—in Uganda and the West Bank, in France and Washington, D.C., in Japan and Egypt.

The Gospel of John, and particularly the foot-washing incident at the Last Supper, continued to guide and inform the L’Arche communities as they spread through the world, including into Australia. The Church Times Obituary carries this report of Jean Vanier’s simple, yet profound, act of service. “At the fractious Lambeth Conference of 1998, he stilled the hall when he knelt in front of Archbishop George Carey to wash his feet in a basin. The Archbishop embraced him in prayer before washing the feet of his wife, Eileen. The ceremony continued, mirrored at multiple stations and with hundreds of bishops, spouses, staff, and guests. It was an act of humility which Vanier encouraged, most recently in 2017, when he was invited by Archbishop Welby to mediate at the Primates’ Meeting. He instructed the bishops to wash each other’s feet — the healing impact of which was enormous, the Archbishop said, declaring himself “quite unravelled by it”.

There is a wildness and passion about photographs of Vanier as a younger man — an energy, humour, and clear gaze that never weakened. He declared that it was not easy to be a good shepherd, acknowledged his own sometimes hasty impatience, and was always honest about the strains as well as the joys of living at L’Arche, a place that brought out his inner child.

Vanier constantly reiterated that the secret of L’Arche was that it transformed the lives of those without disabilities as much as those with them. Assistants who sought out L’Arche, he observed, had been formed by their cultures to be strong, knowledgeable, and successful, and to climb the ladder of promotion. When they came to L’Arche, they discovered that they were being invited to learn not to be a success, but to create relationships of love and friendship with those at the bottom of the ladder of society, the most vulnerable and weak.

In 2003 Vanier was awarded the Peace and Freedom Award of the Pacem in Terris Coalition. In his speech he remarked that some in the world have witnessed to peace through heroic acts of deprivation or martyrdom. “How is it you turn to us?” he wondered.

You see, we are not very austere or stressed, struggling to be heroes. We eat wonderfully, we drink merrily—of course Coca-Cola, orange juice and, now again, wine and beer, moderately—we sing loudly and frequently out of tune, and we dance wildly and we play as much as possible. Feast days, birthdays are all occasions for parties and for fun. . . . The heart of L’Arche is to rejoice and to celebrate unity. We would like to be little signs of the kingdom of God, the kingdom of love.

Vanier came looking for Jesus in the neglected. He found fullness of life in communities based on mutuality, re­spect, and care. As a doctor of philosophy, a member of the Royal Navy, a published author and professor, Vanier knew the patterns of success and advancement. But he discovered true life in relationships that offered to undo our desires for power.