Review: Jean Vanier

jean vanier

Jean Vanier: Portrait of a Free Man Anne-Sophie Constant. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2019.

Summary: A biography of Jean Vanier, the founder and guide of the L’Arche homes where assistants and cognitively disabled live together in community. 

On May 7, 2019, one of the most remarkable saints of our era went to his eternal rest and reward. Anne-Sophie Constant, who enjoyed extraordinary access to this man, completed earlier in the year her biography of Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche houses for the disabled. She describes a man who lived at peace, and as a truly free man during his life. She writes in introduction:

The story of Jean Vanier is the story of a free man – a man who knew how to become himself, who knew how to free himself from restraints and prejudices; from intellectual, religious, or moral habits; from his epoch; from popular opinion (p. x).

The biography traces his life from childhood. Raised in a devout Catholic home, he learned a life of service from a distinguished father, an amputee survivor of World War I who eventually became the Secretary General of Canada. Vanier enlisted in the Navy after World War II was declared, serving on the H.M.S Vanguard on a royal trip to South Africa, meeting the future Queen Elizabeth. A rising officer, he later experiences a near death experience falling overboard, and loses his fear of death. After the war, he leaves the service, and while living with his parents, when his father was ambassador to France, he meets the future Pope John XXIII and the philosopher Jacques Maritain.

His travels take him to the hospitality houses of Dorothy Day and Friendship House in Harlem, places practicing radical hospitality toward those on society’s margins. Studying philosophy and theology preparing for the priesthood, he joins the Eau Vive (Living Water) community for meditation and prayer, only to find himself in leadership of the community during a conflict-fraught period, then later to a Cistercian abbey. Father Thomas, a professor and friend accepted the chaplaincy of Val Fleuri in Trosley, a facility for cognitively disabled men.

Vanier joined him in Trosley, first helping in the work at Val Fleuri, and then in July of 1964, when he decides to buy a home and invite some intellectually disabled men to live with him. The home was named L’Arche, (The Ark). Knowing little what should be done, he discovers that the greatest need of these men is to know they are loved. Constant writes:

   Jean has a profound intuition of human beings and of their beauty. “They don’t realize that they are so beautiful!” he says. “They are so crushed with guilt and feel very dirty. They don’t have any self-confidence. They do not realize that they are loved. They don’t know how valuable and how precious they are” (p. 75).

They live as a spiritual community and Vanier and his assistants discover that these men minister to them as they form a spiritual community. And so a movement begins.

Constant describes the spread of this movement from one house to an international movement of 150 houses in 80 countries. She also describes a process where Vanier moves from a leader to a guide to a messenger of the gospel for the disabled. As he ages, Constant chronicles Vanier’s ability to let go, to relinquish leadership, even as he represents this movement in the highest circles of the Catholic church.

The biography captures the genius of Vanier’s work:

Jean Vanier does not “take care of” people with intellectual disabilities. He lives with them. He lives with L’Arch members Eric, Doudou, Pauline, and Rene. (p. 111).

Vanier’s freedom is of the man who listens to the voice of Jesus, the voice speaking within him rather than hewing to the pressures and expectations of society. He does not fear making mistakes, and he does make them. He does not fear being with those of seeming low status on the margins. He is one who has died “to the ‘false me’ of our social constructs and fears” (p. 117).

The biography describes the life of someone who first came away to listen to God, and thus was able to hear the call of God to community of the intellectually disabled who were precious to God, and fellow members of Christ’s body, people to be lived with. While not all will be called to the kind of work Vanier did, Constant’s biography offers the hope of the radical freedom that comes as we yield ourselves to the God who bids us to listen to his voice, to walk in his ways, and to extend his love in the world.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Living Gently in a Violent World

Living Gently

Living Gently in a Violent WorldStanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: Essays by the two authors reflecting on the practice of gentleness in the L’Arche communities where assistants and the disabled live in community, and the theological and political significance of this witness in a violent world.

Stanley Hauerwas has been named “America’s best theologian” by Time magazine, known for his advocacy that the church embody its social ethic, that it be itself, in its communal life, and for his critique of liberal democracy, capitalism, and militarism, and the church’s often unthinking endorsement and adoption of these ideologies. Jean Vanier, deceased in 2019, was the founder of L’Arche, a network of communities where helpers and the disabled live and share life together in “houses” or communities. Until 2006, they had never met, although Hauerwas had commended the work of L’Arche. They were invited to a conference by the Center for Spirituality, Health, and Disability at the University of Aberdeen, where they spent two days conversing and speaking. This book, recently reissued in an expanded edition with study guide, reflects those conversations.

Other than introductory and concluding essays by John Swinton, this book consists of  four alternating essays by Vanier and Hauerwas. The first, by Vanier is a narrative of the beginnings and development of L’Arche. Drawn by the work of Father Thomas Philippe with the disabled in France, he moved there, began to live with two disabled men who had been institutionalized, and soon found himself leading the community. He describes L’Arche as fragile, subject to government regulations and the question of whether people will always choose to live with them. He also describes L’Arche as a place of transformation, both for assistants and the disabled, transformations that reflect the mystery of the Spirit’s work. He describes three crucial activities in their community, all requiring gentleness and patience: meals together, prayer and communion, and celebration of everything from birthdays and holidays to deaths of members. The message in all of this is, “You are a gift. You’re a gift to the community.”

Hauerwas responds by discussing how L’Arche is a “modest proposal” in a violent world that is a witness to the church of its call to gentleness and non-violence. It is a witness of care for those who cannot be cured, of patience in a particular place. For this reason, Hauerwas also believes that L’Arche needs the church as a reminder that they need to worship with the larger body that is not L’Arche. It is not only as a witness to the church, amplified through the church, but also support and sustenance from the church that makes its life possible.

Vanier then writes of L’Arche as a place that in a small way addresses the woundedness of the world by recognizing in weakness and wounds a way to God. He speaks of the connection of fear and violence, and the power of surrendering our fears to love–the love of God and the present love of the community, both the abled and the disabled. Grieving the sentiment that would abort all those with Down syndrome and the message that leaves the disabled feeling, “I am no good” Vanier writes:

“The heart of L’Arche is to say to people, ‘I am glad you exist.’ And the proof that we are glad that they exist is that we stay with them for a long time. We are together, we can have fun together. ‘I am glad you exist’ is translated into physical presence” (p. 69).

Hauerwas’s concluding essay explores the politics of gentleness in an extended engagement with the thought of John Rawls and Martha Nussbaum, both who labored to articulate a rationale for the rights of the disabled to help. He summarizes how L’Arche went beyond this:

“Nussbaum wants to give Jean justifications for helping the disabled. What she can’t do is give him a reason to live with them. But that is exactly what Jean says he needed. He had to be taught how to be gentle. It is not easy to learn to be gentle with the mentally disabled. As Jean has already said, they also suffer from the wound of loneliness. They can ask for too much. Which means gentleness requires the slow and patient work necessary to create trust. Crucial for the development of trust is that assistants in L’Arche discover the darkness, brokenness, and selfishness shaped by their own loneliness…. According to Jean, through the struggle to discover we are wounded like the mentally disabled, we discover how much ‘we need Jesus and his Paraclete…” (p. 90).

There is a gentleness that flows out of this awareness before God of our mutual weakness, exemplified in the practice of mutually washing one another’s feet, transformative to assistants and disabled alike, that is a witness in a violent world.

This slim volume is an extraordinary testament, a witness as it were, to the power of gentleness that flows from weakness, both in its description of the quiet wonder taking place within L’Arche, and the record of the conversation between Vanier and Hauerwas, as they opened minds and hearts to each other to explore the significance of the “modest proposal” that is L’Arche in an impatient and violent world.

Jean Vanier, Templeton Prize Winner

Jean Vanier with John Smeltzer"702524260 txjiQ-O" by Warren Pot - Own Photo: Warren Pot taken at L'Arche Daybreak, Richmond Hill, Ontario. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Jean Vanier with John Smeltzer”702524260 txjiQ-O” by Warren Pot – Own Photo: Warren Pot taken at L’Arche Daybreak, Richmond Hill, Ontario. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In the midst of many lamentable events in the news both here and abroad came the wonderful news today of the awarding of the Templeton Prize to Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche communities. His work began in 1964 when he invited two developmentally disabled men to live with him. These two men are listed with Vanier as the founders of the first L’Arche Community. Since then he has founded 147 similar communities. He left an academic post at the University of Toronto to pursue this work.

In his statement on receiving this prize he said:

“We must start to meet: people must meet people; we are all human beings. Before being Christians or Jews or Muslims, before being Americans or Russians or Africans, before being generals or priests, rabbis or imams, before having visible or invisible disabilities, we are all human beings with hearts capable of loving,”

This is in fact what occurs in his communities where people are treated with dignity. Whenever Vanier speaks he has developmentally disabled people with him. The press conference at which he received his prize was no exception.

While there seems to be a media frenzy going on right now around the SAE fraternity video, I thought it might be salutary to help circulate a different kind of video, one that celebrates rather than demeans the dignity of all human beings, and gives us an example of someone who has lived both simply and nobly in a deeply Christian mission. Better than anything I can say is to hear Vanier himself.