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.

fullsizeoutput_26ad

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.

 

horaires-office-ferme_0

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)

 

 

Advertisements

Good Friday

The Easter triduum has begun: last night we went (as a family!) to the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. Although the liturgy is not ideally suited for toddlers, the foot washing was fascinating. What on earth was fr Ben doing? The children were intrigued. Even the little one–restless as she often was–managed to be quieter than usual. But the most astonishing performance among the children was Thomas’s. Serving on the altar during Holy Week for the first time, he was more still and attentive than ever before. The book, resting against his head, barely moved–even during the intercessions. His eyes were frequently fixed, wide with wonder, on what was going on in front of him. Maybe it was in part because he was the only kid up there, serving with two liturgically-minded adults, and with lots to do.

Today’s liturgical event will be of a very different character: our Faith and Light group organise the Stations of the Cross. Now it will be Anna’s turn to take part in the action as we move around the church this morning. The liturgy is abbreviated, and simplified; there is that tinge of joy even in the midst of a solemn occasion, which is one of the hallmarks of Faith and Light as it is of L’Arche. We will remember the cross of Christ and be aware of our own brokenness, and in the midst of it will be aware that sorrow does not have the final word. My reflection on the Good Friday readings centres on the cry of Jesus from the cross, as Mark’s gospel has it–a more traditional, I suppose, Good Friday meditation.

But now my toddler calls, and it is time to go.

slowly and gently

I can account for the hiatus in posts: last week I was in London for a day exploring the theology and practice of accompanying people with intellectual disabilities through experiences of loss, especially the death of loved ones. Although this isn’t one of my areas of experience or study, I was interested in the journey of accompaniment. What I found was that, like any other interpersonal adventure, the way forward requires less map-and-compass skills, and more listening and patience. Good navigational skills are necessary, but not sufficient, for walking with someone through the valley of the shadow of death–whether the death in question is their own or another’s.

In doing things with my young children, I frequently find myself repeating “slowly and gently”–it started with stirring cake batter. “Slowly and gently.” Then, as my youngest started trying to descend the stairs: “Slowly and gently.” This has never been my strong suit. Doing things slowly and gently and attending to the details requires time (of which I seem always to be in want) and patience (ditto). As I listened to the speakers throughout the day, this phrase came back to me. The journey of accompaniment, at any stage of life, is about going slowly and gently.

Slowly and gently becomes not only advice for toddlers learning to stir; it changes the way I approach theological questions. Attending to the person with me, the person with an intellectual disability, impresses on me the reality of each person’s creation in the image of God. What is it to be human? It is to be in relationship with God, and that relationship originates with God and not with us. Ours is the capacity to receive the relationship God offers us continuously. The question for theological anthropology then becomes, ‘What does the disabled body (including the disabled mind) reveal to us about God?’ If what obscures the image of God in the first place is sin, then intellectual disability is not necessarily something that obscures the image of God. In and through that disability, God is revealing himself, revealing transcendence, divinity.

Because this is so, there are two important features of spiritual friendship with a person with an intellectual disability. First, the relationship that person has with God is no more or less than ours, though it will be expressed differently and experienced differently by us. The obstacles we encounter in relationship with people with intellectual disabilities are not obstacles for God. Relationship with God is not impaired by cognitive impairment. (Sin does that.) The second feature of that friendship is that the revelation of the divine through the divine image is not a one-way street, from those of us who are aware of being made in the image of God to those who are not. We ought to be looking for God’s image in the faces of those with intellectual disabilities, and expecting to find God’s self-revelation there.

But we will only see it if we go slowly–slowly and gently.

More grace

I picked up Frances Young’s book, Face to Face, recently. For the past few years now I have been working in the area of theology and intellectual disability. Now I have come to see that in a very real sense, my way forward has been trodden already. She writes:

…the other trouble is that most of us do not have our eyes open to see he miracles of grace. They are to be found in such ordinary, unremarkable, simple things that we do not even notice. We think our worship is dull, and miss the movement of the Spirit in the secret places, the everyday saints, who are there among us by we dismiss them as ‘old so-and-so’. In my experience the church is capable of transcending the divisions in our society, it is capable of integrating the odd and unacceptable, it is more sensitive to basic human values than wider society. It can act as leaven, and we should not disparage this. Maybe we all need to go on a voyage of exploration into unlikely places to meet unlikely people — not the great ones of the world but the marginalised and afflicted who will teach us what true human values are. Certainly it is Jean Vanier, the founder of the l’Arche communities where Christians live with handicapped people, who writes with the greatest depth these days about community life. But the purpose of such a journey would be to open our eyes, so that we can return to the places where we belong and begin to discern those values where we are (1985, pp. 84-85).

My next book project focuses on the church, specifically the life of the church as Christ’s body. John Swinton asked me in April whether this ecclesiology I hoped to develop would touch on the issues in intellectual disability we’d been discussing. Then, I said yes, but was conscious in my explanation of stretching the project I had envisioned to include these concerns. Now–thanks to Frances Young’s book–I am beginning to see where to start: with the things I struggled to include, the people we as a church struggle to include. I wanted to think about Christ’s body active in the world, reaching out in love. But before I can do that, I have to reckon with Christ’s body broken and rejected, for that is the source of the church’s life.

I am going to need a lot (and I mean a lot) of grace.

the ordinary

I’ll tell you what my novitiate in the blogosphere has taught me: I’m ordinary. My experience is just human, and my reflection on that experience is just as human. I knew that, or at least I sort of knew that. And I don’t even really have anything peculiar to say about it. As Matt Jones put it so eloquently today, ‘being human is crazy.’ And it’s not easy. My favorite David Foster Wallace sentence (from the commencement address I blogged about a couple of weeks ago) is:

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people, and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad, petty little unsexy ways every day.

Yep. And he didn’t even have children. The daily routine he describes in that commencement address doesn’t involve a 9-year-old shouting that it’s all your fault, or a 2-year-old clamoring ‘up! uppppyyyy!’ while you’re trying to peel carrots or help the 6-year-old with his reading. I listened to his address again while my girls were in the tub, and heard this sentence in the middle of the dreaded hair-washing, I think. Definitely having an unsexy moment, there.

My real hero, though, isn’t David Foster Wallace, as insightful as he was, God rest his soul. More than just about anyone, I admire Jean Vanier. Although he’s a renowned person now, having been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, among other things, he didn’t set out to create an international network. L’Arche was his home, and he shared it–at the beginning–with two young men who required unsexy sacrifices every day. I don’t admire him because he was successful, or because he’s a wise and caring person. I admire him because it has always been about being faithful to the teachings of Jesus.

Jean Vanier makes the ordinary radiant with the love of God. Would that I had an ounce of his spirit of tenderness and faithfulness. I want to escape the ordinary, the ‘crazy’ that is being human every day. But freedom and faithfulness are not in the heroic acts–or the brilliant and widely-read books-that make me say, ‘wow’. Nope. Freedom–the ‘most precious’ freedom–and faithfulness are in the power to stay, to stay calm…not to shout back at the 9-year-old or lose patience with the 2-year-old, but to persevere in tenderness.

That’s the hard, hard work of being ordinary. I’m glad I am not alone in doing it.