Sunday, December 27, 2009

Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche, a community centered around people with mental disabilities that has now become a global movement.

The Wisdom of Tenderness
The Canadian philosopher and Catholic social innovator, Jean Vanier, founded a community centered around people with mental disabilities, L'Arche, that has now become a global movement. To many, he is simply one of the wise men in our world today — an icon of lived compassion. We speak about his understanding of humanity and God that has been shaped across a fascinating lifetime by the likes of Aristotle, Mother Teresa, and people who would once have been locked away from society. He has spent his life practically exploring the most basic, paradoxical teachings of Christianity — notions about power in humility, strength in weakness, and light in the darkness of human existence — that resonate as Christmas draws near.

{ This program was first released on December 20, 2007. }

A Physical Study in Paradox
I had wanted to interview Jean Vanier for many years, especially after we created an early program on L'Arche from our radio pilgrimage to the community in Clinton, Iowa. Even at 81, Vanier travels widely, though he says he is slowing down; it took years to make his rare visits to the U.S. and our production schedule converge.

I sat down with him early on a Sunday morning at a retreat center in rural Maryland where he was leading a weekend gathering for college students. A few of them came to meet us before he arrived for the interview, clearly energized by their encounter with Jean Vanier. But energized is really not a big enough word — "enraptured" is perhaps closer. They were visibly joyful after being in his presence, and poised to head back out to their futures in our gorgeous, confused, hurting world with a new sense of peacefulness and purpose.

Being in Jean Vanier's presence brings qualities like that together — peacefulness and purpose — that in our culture can seem at odds. There is something deeply countercultural about this man and the movement he has created. He never set out to change the world. He follows Gandhi's good advice, he tells me, that none of us can change the world; what we can change is ourselves. Vanier has always insisted that L'Arche communities are not a "solution" to the fact of disability in our world, and the human challenge of that, but a "sign" of another way forward.

The central countercultural message of L'Arche happens in the course of daily life in small communities. The suffering and "imperfect" bodies and minds of the "core members" of each community — people with mental and intellectual disabilities — are not treated as a problem to be solved. They are honored as a mystery of the human condition — the simple fact that some human beings have been and always will be born with brokenness that is physically rooted, visibly debilitating.

But Jean Vanier the philosopher and wise soul has long seen through the true challenge humanity faces before this mystery. He asks, "How do we stand before pain? Why are we frightened of people with disabilities?" After a lifetime steeped in these questions, he answers, it is because we all struggle so fiercely to subdue, deny, and hide the suffering and imperfections in ourselves. Core members at L'Arche are often transformed by the practical love and care they receive. But equally dramatically, the able-bodied, strong-minded individuals who come to share life with them quickly learn that they too are being healed, made whole.

The phrase we've taken as the title of this program — the wisdom of tenderness — came to me through Jean Vanier's words, but also through the lasting impression of being in his presence. Like the vision he's brought into the world, he seems a physical study in paradox. Even at 81, and well over six feet tall, he still has the distinguished, powerful bearing of the naval commander he was in his youth. He also radiates the intellectual intensity one would expect of the philosopher he later became, and he is manifestly energized and delighted when we briefly discuss Aristotle. Underpinning all of this, he exudes the tenderness of spirit that L'Arche communities embody in the most practical, ongoing way. I very much had the sense that I was sitting with a great teacher — of life, not just of thought.

And though this is not a Christmas program per se, Jean Vanier is, as he says, a lifelong "friend of Jesus." The spirituality at the heart of his life and his vision puts the contradictions of this season in Western culture in stark relief. We've taken the story of the birth of Jesus as a baby — an ultimate moment of human frailty — and overwhelmed it with frenzy and consumption. Jean Vanier's tenderness is not a condemnation of this, but it does provide an open-hearted contrast — not a solution, but a sign.

Becoming Human by Jean Vanier
I Recommend Reading:
Becoming Human
by Jean Vanier

Becoming Human is one of Jean Vanier's most beloved books, providing insight into his theology, anthropology, and spirit. And, The Heart of L'Arche (out of print but available used) is his lovely, slim history and introduction to L'Arche.
Speaking of Faith, American Public Media, Krista Tippett


Terry Nelson said...

Vanier's parents are candidates for sainthood, as will he be after he dies. His writings are a source of excellent spirituality, and his model of care became something of a standard worldwide - as in secular group homes and so on.

The Ironic Catholic said...

Great man, great Christian. I work with someone who has studied and worked with him...very lucky guy.