Jean Vanier

I first met Jean Vanier in the mid 1990’s, only I didn’t know it yet. There was just this person, described by Henri Nouwen in The Return of the Prodigal Son:

91xRVY7jPjLI have a friend who is so deeply connected with God that he can see joy where I expect only sadness. He travels much and meets countless people. When he returns home, I always expect him to tell me about the difficult economic situation of the countries he visited, about the great injustices he heard about, and the pain he has seen. But even though he is very aware of the great upheaval of the world, he seldom speaks of it. When he shares his experiences, he tells about the hidden joys he has discovered. He tells about a man, a woman, or a child who brought him hope and peace. He tells about little groups of people who are faithful to each other in the midst of all the turmoil. He tells about the small wonders of God. At times I realize that I am disappointed because I want to hear “newspaper news,” exciting and exhilarating stories that can be talked about among friends. But he never responds to my need for sensationalism. He keeps saying: “I saw something very small and very beautiful, something that gave me much joy.”

 

At the time, I had no idea who Nouwen might be talking about. I could not imagine what kind of person would be able to travel the world and not inclined to talk about the ‘newspaper news’, as Nouwen puts it, but I admired his friend. My new, nameless hero took up residence in my soul, pointing the direction to hope and wholeness.

51mfeXxsRzL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_About twenty years later, I received Jean Vanier’s memoir, Our Life Together, a volume comprised of his letters to the growing network of L’Arche communities and the friends of L’Arche. As I read the unfolding story of L’Arche, the ‘little groups of people who are faithful to each other’ came into focus: L’Arche communities–especially those in regions torn apart by violence and the threat of war. From Tegucigalpa to Belfast to the West Bank, Vanier traveled, giving retreats and meeting people. He never makes the retreats central to the letters, though; rather he tells just the sorts of stories Nouwen reported. The letters are not about Jean. They are about Lita and Marcia, Rafaelito and Aravindo. He writes about spending time with people who are learning to love each other, to be family. Here is the man that Nouwen held up as an example of becoming like the Father.

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Not long after I read the memoir and connected the dots, I found myself in Trosly, at La Ferme.

A group of academics (myself among them) were wrapping up a three-day conference with a visit to the heart of L’Arche, where we would have the opportunity to meet Jean Vanier. I couldn’t resist asking him whether the passage in Nouwen’s book was about him. Of course he wouldn’t admit it, and I wondered whether maybe Nouwen had someone else in mind. But there he is, smiling, like he knows how gullible I am, and he’s made me doubt!

 

A few years later, on my second retreat at La Ferme, I was asked to give a word of thanks at our final meal together with Jean. But I didn’t just thank him for the retreat; I thanked him for being that nameless hero I’d found in Nouwen’s book all those years ago. I was certain it was he, and he couldn’t deny it. Everybody knew that Nouwen was writing about Jean. I will always be grateful for that chance: it was the last time I saw Jean.

There have been tributes and obituaries (in the New York Times and in The Tablet already), and there will be more: his story will be told, and I am glad. He finished the race well. His own courage and peace in the face of death should come as no surprise. He concluded Our Life Together with a reflection on death and life:

The poet Tagore said that “Death is not a lamp that is extinguished; it is the coming of dawn.” Weakness, crises and death are never an end but are new beginnings. L’Arche and Faith and Light were founded on weakness, they will continue to grow in their mission in and through their fragility, and God will continue to be present. God works through our communities, and I am happy to see it. Life continues to flow.

Indeed, ‘life continues to flow’–and our lives are so much richer for having been touched by Jean’s extraordinary vision, courage, and love. Thank you, Jean. Rest in peace.

Deo gratias.

 

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The chapel at La Ferme, Trosly

 

*The obituaries keep appearing. Even before I finished this post, there were many more than I was able to mention. Here are the celebrations of Jean’s life and work that I have encountered so far (please let me know about those I have surely missed):

L’Arche UK (and see the L’Arche website)

BBC (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-48186136)

The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/may/07/jean-vanier-obituary)

Catholic News Agency (https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/jean-vanier-friend-of-the-intellectually-disabled-and-founder-of-larche-dies-at-90-67007)

Christian Century (https://www.christiancentury.org/article/people/jean-vanier-and-gift-l-arche)

Religion News Service (https://religionnews.com/2019/05/07/jean-vanier-catholic-hero-to-developmentally-disabled-dies/)

Faith and Leadership (Stanley Hauerwas remembers Jean Vanier: https://www.faithandleadership.com/stanley-hauerwas-jean-vanier-was-dear-friend-me-and-many-others?fbclid=IwAR19KvQSiP7H-Lm1nBha_5f1eTifAZTZWA1neO-lLn5_w-DW30xEeAWPps8)

 

 

Notes on a death

I arrived late to the funeral. It was already the homily, which I didn’t really catch. But I stood at the back of church and looked out over the heads of all the parishioners who were present. Sitting in the back row was a friend, just in front of me–a friend who had survived breast cancer several years ago.

I wondered what on earth you’d think if you’d beaten cancer and then watched someone you’d known for twenty years succumb to it. ‘But for the grace of God, there go I’? No. As soon as the sentence occurred to me, I rejected it. Was the grace of God not present with S. ? Was God’s grace not attending her every step along the way? From the diagnosis through the treatment, during her reprieve and in hospice, there can be no doubt that the grace of God was constantly present with her.

Twice I went to the hospice: once to say the rosary with S. and the others from the rosary group (plus a few), and once to visit her, taking along a cake for her husband’s birthday. On both occasions, the peacefulness of the place, and of S.’s countenance, struck me. Even though she never woke during my second visit, I was very glad to have seen her. She seemed completely at peace. And I said goodbye.

I suspected it might be the last goodbye, and so it was. The next week, before I had a chance to get back to the hospice, she died. Her family were all around her. And I have no doubt about God’s presence, God’s peace and grace, being there with her.

Being nearby, but not very close, I am not at all certain what it is really like to accompany someone through their last weeks and days. The romantic part of me likes to think it is as CS Lewis describes the easternmost part of the voyage of the Dawn Treader, as they approach the end of the world. The seawater has become fresh and sweet–and so nourishing that food is no longer required. What’s more, the dazzling brightness of the sun increases day by day. Only the richness of the water strengthens the travelers enough to bear its overwhelming light. As they near the end, the world’s end, they are being fortified. The crew of the Dawn Treader are not going to the world’s end to stay, however. They are all accompanying Reepicheep, who is going to the end and not returning to Narnia. Reepicheep was bound for Aslan’s country. So only he was really going to the end (though, as it happened, Lucy, Edmund, and Eustace also departed back to England at the end of the world), yet all those accompanying them share in the water and the light that prepares them to meet the end when they reach it.

I do not know, but I hope and pray that S.’s family had some experience of that journey, which despite being deeply sad may also somehow be full of grace. From a little ways off, it seemed to me that the light shone brightly, despite being difficult to bear. The few times I saw S. and spoke to her in the final few months, I found her matter-of-fact attitude bracing. When I asked about how she was doing in the longer term, she discussed going back to work (her health had improved that much). But when I sounded too hopeful, she reminded me: ‘I still have terminal cancer’, as matter-of-factly as if she were talking about plans for the next summer holidays. Her concern was for the family.

Always, she bore it well. And she carried on doing things for the family and in the community for as long as she possibly could. How could anyone say anything other than that the grace of God remained with her through the illness and in the moment of her death? Death cannot separate us from God’s grace. Cancer cannot separate us from God’s grace.

If anything, I ought to have looked at her coffin on the day of her funeral and thought, one day, by the grace of God, there go I.

Deo gratias.

Canticle for Laetare Sunday

I will sprinkle clean water upon you,                                                                                                     and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses,                                                                          and from all your idols I will cleanse you.

A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you;                                             and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.

And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes                               and be careful to observe my ordinances.

Ezekiel 36. 25-27

Makes me wonder what all the fuss about free will is about. ‘I will put my Spirit within you,’ says the Lord, ‘and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.’ I will cause you to follow the law: this is how God consoles a wayward, hard-hearted people–not by relaxing the law or even by forgiving and forgetting. The Lord forgives, but does not forget: he remembers that we are but dust. He washes our sins away but remembers our fallen condition and provides for us accordingly. As St Paul observed, at the right time, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

In Christ we have more even than what Ezekiel promises: a paradigm. Christ is the one with the heart of flesh; he is the one in whom the Spirit dwells fully; he is the one who keeps God’s law perfectly; and he does this all freely. That is the work of the Spirit, to restore our freedom. God does not cause us to follow the law by thwarting our will and desires, but by healing them, transforming them. Under the Spirit’s guidance, we do not act as puppets. We act as we were created to act. We live according to our creation in the image of God. The Spirit does not cause us to follow an alien law, but the law that has been written on our hearts.

I suppose this is the natural law, in the view of philosophers who study such things. It is the law, that is, of our nature. In our fallen state, however, being true to our nature as creatures of the living God requires grace. Fortunately, it seems pretty clear, from Genesis all the way through, that grace is exactly what God wants to give us.

Deo gratias.

Saturday of the second week in Eastertide

Now when evening came, His disciples went down to the sea, and after getting into a boat, they started to cross the sea to Capernaum. It had already become dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The sea began to be stirred up because a strong wind was blowing. Then, when they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and drawing near to the boat; and they were frightened. But He said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” So they were willing to receive Him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going. (John 6:16-21 NASB)

                                                         * * *

We are so used to Jesus walking on the water; it’s just one of those things that Jesus does. The disciples, though, must have been terrified. If I were out at sea, at night, in a strong wind, and I saw someone walking across the water–well, my first thought would be that I only thought I saw someone. People don’t walk on water.  
Reading this passage this morning, I am struck by the implausibility of the event. No, not that I don’t believe what it says; rather, I can well understand the disciples’ fright. Not only that, but I think I would probably have ignored Jesus, telling myself that the figure walking towards the boat was just my imagination. And what I would miss! A miracle would pass me by unnoticed.

That makes me wonder how many miracles do pass me by these days. For God shows up implausibly, speaks almost imperceptibly, and works in unexpected places in not-the-usual way. I came across an email yesterday–an invitation to write, actually, dispelling a myth about Catholicism in 100 words, which is a pretty tall order. I hadn’t read it carefully at the time. Now I wonder whether I missed something. Am I paying attention? Am I open to the possibility that God might be up to something new? Too often, I think, I look for God in the obvious places and forget that God is everywhere, always doing a new thing. 

I suppose there is a very good reason that the invitatory psalm (said at the beginning of the first office of the day) reminds us, ‘if today, you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.’ Not that we intend to ignore God; it just happens in the course of our daily life. God doesn’t hit us over the head or wave a big yellow flag. We have to pay attention. Fortunately, even our attention to God is a gift of the Holy Spirit. If we want to hear God’s voice, all we have to do is ask. 

Deo gratias.

Monday of the third week in Lent

Are not Abanah and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” So he turned and went away in a rage. Then his servants came near and spoke to him and said, “My father, had the prophet told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more then, when he says to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?”
2 Kings 5:12, 13
 
. . .

Exactly. Naaman expected something dramatic. If a miraculous cure is sought, the healing ought to amaze. But there isn’t anything too exciting about taking a dip in the river.

This is a great story for me, for Lent–or anytime, really. A suitably astounding miracle (I’m thinking Elijah and the prophets of Ba’al) would go down well, especially if some intense engagement were required on my part. Extreme Christianity: ascetic achievement; big, bold miracles.

Nope. I think it is Abba Sisoes who, when asked for a word, says, ‘go into your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.’ Say your prayers, do the things you are supposed to do, and you will do well. It isn’t the grand gesture, once-in-a-lifetime, but the little things done every day, that mark the path to holiness.

So says St Therese of Lisieux; so also said Mother Teresa. It’s the little things. Being drawn to Benedictine spirituality, I tend to think in terms of the daily office: praying the appointed psalms at the appointed times. Work and pray, rest, repeat.

Simple. Not easy, but simple. And miraculous: this simple rhythm of work and prayer is possible only by grace.

Deo gratias.

Saturday of the second week in Lent

Who is a god like you, who pardons iniquity
And passes over the rebellious act
of the remnant of his possession?
He does not retain his anger forever,
Because he delights in unchanging love.
He will again have compassion on us;
He will tread our iniquities underfoot.
Micah 7: 18-19
 
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him
and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him
and kissed him.
Luke 15: 20
 
. . .
 
Here we are in Lent, ‘still a long way off’; Easter is weeks away, and the penitential season stretches further ahead of us than behind. Lent has only just begun, it seems, and I have not been wholly faithful to the discipline I set for myself.
 
Yet even while we are yet a long way off, the Father sets out to meet us on the road. If the transfiguration shines some resurrection light in the midst of Lent, the parable of the prodigal son is an eruption of mercy in the midst of our examination of conscience. Before I have even recognized my sins fully, God is on the way to meet me in my contrition, to ‘tread [my] iniquities underfoot.’
 
More could certainly be said about these texts, and about the prevenient grace of God (Calvin was right about that, but he certainly didn’t discover it!); but the only thing that really needs to be said is: Deo gratias.