Jean Vanier (1928-2019)
Our differences are not a threat but a treasure.
Jean Vanier, the Founder of L’Arche, who died in Paris on May 7th wrote those words, but their truth is far from self-evident. One might question whether those words are simply a 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 thing 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 Vanier gave witness to this in all aspects of his life, he was of course best known for how he appropriated that apposite among the differences that have, seemingly since forever, 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 him, we used to think of our service to the poor one-sidedly, we give to them. Now that we recognize our former arrogance and naiveté, the poor bring a great service to us.
One of the persons 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 healthily absorb very much from that immense amount of love that was being bestowed on him and remained deeply insecure within himself, unsure he was loved, until he went to live in one of Vanier’s communities. There, living with men and women who were completely unaware of his achievements and his fame and who offered him no adulation, he began for the first time in his life to finally sense his own worth and to feel himself as loved. That great grace came from living with those who were different. We have Jean Vanier to thank for teaching that to the rest of us as well.
I first heard Vanier speak when I was a twenty-two year-old seminarian. For many of my colleagues, he was a spiritual rock-star, but that idolization 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 that person’s human and moral integrity and without that seductiveness inviting anyone to what’s more-noble inside him or her. But Vanier’s person, message, and charisma, through all his years, 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 to all that’s one, good, true, and beautiful, which are the properties of God. Meeting him made you want, like the disciples in the Gospels, to leave your boats 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 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.” 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 Jean Vanier, however, these gifts were never something to be grasped at. He emptied himself by immersing himself into the lives of the poor, letting his gifts bless them, even as he received a rich blessing in return. He modeled a true discipleship of Jesus, namely, stepping downward into a second-baptism, immersion into the poor, where community and joy are found. And to this he invited us.