Jean Vanier, the Catholic theologian and founder of L’Arche, the international network of communities for adults with learning disabilities, has died at the age of 90. His friend David Ford offers a personal reflection on Vanier’s legacy.
What a person! I cannot think of anyone who has rung so true. Hearing of his death, in that stillness of trying to take it in, one memory and reflection after another came up.
In 1992 Jean visited Cambridge, and I wanted to introduce him to my wife, Deborah. I had got to know him through a group of theologians that had begun meeting with him and other L’Arche members in Trosly-Breuil. As Deborah recalls:
We talked about a lot of things, including what I might be being called to in this next chapter of my life. Jean suddenly gripped me by the arm: “You should start a L’Arche in Cambridge!” As soon as he said it, I knew he was right. In a place where people rely so heavily on their intellectual abilities (and are often very fearful of their ‘weakness’ and fragility), there needed to be a way to discover the ‘upside down’ secret & mystery of L’Arche – a way for people to discover the gentleness and joy of loving and being loved whoever they are and whatever their abilities/disabilities.’
About twenty years later Deborah, James and Judith Gardom, and others founded Lyn’s House, which is now in its seventh year. After consultation with Jean and others in L’Arche, it was decided to make it a home where four people (some students, some with jobs in Cambridge) live as an intentional Christian household and, with the help of volunteers, offer hospitality and friendship to those with and without learning disabilities who live ‘in the community’. We do evening meals, a monthly large tea party, celebrations, and other events, and we have a wonderful group of over a dozen core friends, some of whom have been coming since the beginning. The most important thing is the indefinable sense of that L’Arche reality: a community of friendship across all sorts of differences.
Whenever Jean, other theologians and I met as a group, intensive conversations ranged far beyond L’Arche. But, looking back now, there was one core concern to which we returned every time: how might L’Arche International develop a vision, mission, ethos and constitution that could enable succession and flourishing beyond its charismatic founder?
To this end, major consultations were organised across all the communities around the world, and it was fascinating to see what emerged. But just as fascinating and inspiring was seeing the way Jean encouraged and self-effacingly helped to shape the whole process. He was acutely aware that the commitment of L’Arche to its core members is permanent, and so there must be continuity. The text that occurs to me is what Jesus said in his Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John, ‘It is to your advantage that I go away…’ (16:7). Now Jean has gone away, and he has left an organization that has learned, far better than many I know, how to sustain and develop its life and work for the sake of coming generations.
I sometimes think that part of the reason Jean spent so much time in his later years writing his extraordinary commentary on the Gospel of John, Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John, writing other books on John, doing a TV series on it, and giving regular retreats on it, was in order to leave L’Arche, and everyone else, with his own Farewell Discourses. For me, that commentary is his greatest writing, distilling the wisdom of love and faith that he longed to share. It interweaves what he has learned from following Jesus with his experience in L’Arche, but it goes even further: it offers a whole way of living – thinking, praying and acting – for the twenty-first century.
I once accompanied a close Libyan friend, Aref Ali Nayed, to Trosly and introduced him to Jean. The three of us, together with Nadya, a Muslim assistant in L’Arche, sat talking for a whole afternoon. I have no quotations from the conversation, just an overwhelming memory of experiencing two Muslims and two Christians in communion. In particular, Aref and Jean shared thoughts and experiences on one topic after another, above all on disability and God. There were the seeds for a l’Arche in Libya that will, I hope, in due course be planted and grow.
That afternoon has for me become a paradigm for a healthily plural world. The pluralism we most need is one of multiple depths that can enter into full conversation with each other, and then, where possible, comes collaboration – and even, I dare to hope, long term covenantal relationships can develop.
That brings us back to Jean’s own passionate longing for peace in the fullest sense, with love, abundant life, joy, and celebration, yet with utter realism about all that can go terribly wrong, not least within ourselves. My final thought is about Jean’s prophetic message and example for our century.
In November 2018 I was with some others who had been invited to spend time with him during a week in Trosly. His health was already failing, but he spent afternoons with us. Among the gems that I noted down were the following:
‘In L’Arche everything came out of friendship. This happened as a gift. Something so deep. We have received the mystery.’
‘The advantage of L’Arche is fifty-four years of experience. An evolution has happened. It is evolving to something deeper.’
‘All I know is there is a story of L’Arche that began: to follow Jesus to be with the poor. Where will it lead? I don’t know. The whole vision needs to go further.’
‘Trust in the Spirit!’
‘I believe there is a treasure of peacemaking. A vision where the weakest and the most excluded change us.’
Perhaps that last one best sums up his most distinctive insight, which he himself exemplified most beautifully.
About the author
David Ford is Emeritus Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University.
Note: This piece gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the LSE Religion and Global Society blog, nor of the London School of Economics.