I first met Jean Vanier in early 1970, when I went to a talk at the Catholic chaplaincy in Gower St London organised by Bruce Kent, who was chaplain there at the time. A few of us – students for the priesthood at the time – wanted to go to France for the summer and do something a bit more interesting – and possibly easier – than picking grapes.
That summer, four of us went to the village of Trosly, near Compiègne, and spent two happy months immersed in the community of L’Arche that Jean had created during the previous five years. People came from all over the world to get behind his vision of a community that invites the most vulnerable in to its centre.
The moment I walked in the door of the house I was to stay in I felt the Gospels coming alive. Here was what Jesus meant in the Beatitudes; here were the poor in spirit and the pure in heart; here were the words of St Paul about weakness, strength, the centrality of the cross and the experience of resurrection all happening in front of me; here was the feast of the Kingdom of Heaven happening before my eyes; here was the possibility of living as a child of God, even while taking responsibility for others; here was a place where rejection was identified for what it is and reversed by bringing a place of tangible love where all could be welcomed to the feast. Here was what was missing from the Church and life generally.
And Jean’s discovery was that people with learning disabilities had the gift to make such a world possible. All he had to do was remain faithful to them and their gift for creating a community rooted in the Gospel message. Simple. Jean locked on to this discovery and the insights that came from it.
He could have made a very much bigger noise in the world. He was charismatic in his presence and in his words. He chose to remain hidden within the heart of L’Arche and its people. He chose to remain vulnerable to the vagaries of relationships and enabling others rather than being more well-known and powerful in the eyes of those who he might have influenced more. His public voice was comparatively muted. L’Arche communities were his real voice and message.
Of course, in creating L’Arche particularly, there are problems and struggles. Of course there is pain and fatigue. But if the world of war – and “mutually assured destruction” – was to be reversed a price has to be paid and many have followed Jean in creating L’Arche communities against many odds all over the world, a blend of care for the vulnerable, a peace movement, a world where people can learn to be open to receive as well as give. Jean took the gospel message seriously, living it in a way that made it possible for others. He was prepared to live on the edge of the Church rather than at its centre, in order to offer a welcoming hand to all he engaged with. He had the strength, the insight and the gift to stand alone with the New Testament and offer it pure and simple.
L’Arche in the UK was started in 1974 near Canterbury by Jean’s sister, Thérèse, a devoted doctor who left an important post as a consultant at St Thomas’s in London to found L’Arche, at first near Canterbury – thus sharing Jean’s vocation of “climbing down the ladder of success” – to share with people who were vulnerable to rejection, whether through disability or not.
Thérèse, who died in 2014, continued to work in palliative care as a doctor. One of their brothers was a Cistercian monk in Montreal. Thus there were three differing, but connected, vocations within the Church all from the same family.
Now in the UK, there are 10 communities with several houses each, and two others being formed. Ipswich is one of the most recent, having opened in 2006, with four properties, one of which is the former convent of Jesus and Mary adjacent to St Mary’s parish church.
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Pictured above is Jean Vanier. Picture courtesy of Templeton Prize, Paul Hackett.