At Convivium we have given prominent attention to the Vanier family. I wrote at length about Georges Vanier as the greatest Canadian in history, and in 2017 as a highlight of our Canada 150 celebrations we conducted a video interview with his son, Jean Vanier.

Much has been written – all of it in hagiographical vein – about Jean Vanier upon his death this past Tuesday. It is well deserved. I added my own contribution in the National Post earlier this week. 

Here I would like to add an additional, or perhaps, deeper point about what set Jean Vanier apart, even from other Christians who heroically served the poor and afflicted. One might go so far as to say that L’Arche was a philosophical project, not a theological one, though by no means were the two opposed. 

In founding L’Arche and living with the developmentally disabled, there is no doubt that Vanier was living out his vocation as a Christian disciple. Even though L’Arche was not confessionally Catholic, Vanier understood his life’s work as the fruit of his Catholic faith. 

“Friendship requires that we are vulnerable to each other,” I remember Vanier saying at the International Eucharistic Congress in Rome in 2000. “The mystery of the Eucharist is the mystery of a God who makes himself vulnerable to us – a God who allows himself to be eaten. Here we confront the smallness of God, the fragility of God. In our handicaps – and interior handicaps can be much more serious than the handicaps of the mind and body – God comes to us as one who is also fragile, who is also weak. In the tabernacle, God is poor.”

Yet most people who followed Jean Vanier in his public pronouncements, for example in his 1998 Massey Lectures, would have not heard him speak that way. Though like Mother Teresa, the saint of the gutters, he could not be understood apart of his Catholic faith, he did not speak like she did. Her most frequent refrain was that she desired “to serve Jesus in the distressing disguise of the poor.”

In her early years as a religious sister, before she discovered her call to serve the destitute and dying, Mother Teresa was a catechist. Her focus was on bringing people to an encounter with Jesus, to know, love and serve Him.

Jean Vanier was trained as a philosopher and did his graduate work on Aristotle’s treatment of happiness. He was a scholar and lecturer. He was no less a Christian disciple, but his focus was on man’s capacity for happiness and love, independent, as it were of divine revelation.

Consider what another scholarly philosopher wrote about man in some of his most famous lines, St. John Paul II in his first encyclical in 1979:

Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it. This, as has already been said, is why Christ the Redeemer “fully reveals man to himself.” If we may use the expression, this is the human dimension of the mystery of the Redemption. In this dimension man finds again the greatness, dignity and value that belong to his humanity.

Christ is not absent from this analysis, but the “human dimension” is in the foreground. That is why Vanier’s best known work, his collection of Massey Lectures, was entitled Becoming Human not, for example, Following Christ. The Christian philosopher begins with the human, enlightened by Christ. He does not begin, as Mother Teresa did, with Christ Himself. 

Consider how Vanier describes the life at L’Arche, and how “assistants” – those who live with and serve the disabled – are chosen. The disabled themselves are called “core members” of the L’Arche communities. 

Our primary focus at L’Arche is caring for and creating meaningful relationships with the developmentally disabled. … But there’s another set of “poor” L’Arche serves, and these are the assistants.

To be an assistant you can show up, you can apply, you can send an email. And we’ll say, Come for a few days. After a few days, we ask: Are you happy? If they are happy, then: Do you want to stay a week? And then after that: Do you want to stay three months or a year? People who think they’re coming for two years will stay maybe for only two weeks. And they’re followed, what we call “accompanied,” to see whether they are happy, because the important thing is for them to feel at home and to be in a place of growth. If people have a harmonious relationship with people with disabilities, then they stay. If they develop fusional relationships – if they become particularly attached to one core member – you see them becoming jealous and closed, and they may be asked to leave because such relationships are dangerous for the core members and for the assistant. 

The ones who stay are open, full of fun, generous, non-ideological, but with a capacity to live relationships and assume responsibility. Combine these elements with the salt of faith and you have a good assistant. Some of them discover that L’Arche is a real call from God and stay for life. And sometimes the best assistants are the ones who are most lost when they come to us.

Notice how the starting point is encounter, accompaniment, and happiness. Nothing there is particularly Christian, which is partly why L’Arche attracts assistants from different Christian communities and outside the Christian faith altogether. Only a very devout Catholic can be a Missionary of Charity with Mother Teresa. Hers is a religious order. Vanier founded a human movement, rooted in the Biblical conviction that the deepest meaning of being human is discovered in God’s revelation that we are made in His image and likeness. 

Vanier’s great insight was that the developmentally disabled are stripped of so many capacities that they are left only with the capacity to relate, to love and be loved. But this is what is fundamentally human, and therefore to live with them is to return to that which is most distinctively human – the capacity to relate. 

The capacity to relate is what the disabled can teach us, or at least remind us of; that is why Vanier spoke of the core members ministering to the poverty of the assistants as much as the assistants tended to the poverty of the core members. 

Our cultural moment is impoverished by a deep theological illiteracy. At the same time, there is a crisis in philosophy, so that there is no longer a consensus on who the person is, and what he is made for, and what he is capable of. Vanier’s life was a long lesson in how to live conformed to Christ, to be sure. But he had much to teach as a philosopher of man, much more after he left the university lecture hall for L’Arche than he did before.


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