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.