"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Jean Vanier on Loving Human Beings

Normally I find Canadian nationalism utterly risible, and a long time ago I developed an allergy to the pathetically passive-aggressive boosterism that some Canadians use (what is the current and apt portmanteau? "humblebragging"?) to try to prove their worth in the face of superior cultures. But in at least one instance, I am glad indeed to share the same terre de nos aïeux with this year's Templeton Prize winner, Jean Vanier. Axios!

I think I first heard Vanier (who has a lovely and lyrical speaking voice) during his 1998 Massey Lecture, and thereafter began to read him. I have remained haunted by this man's life and work for he is an example to all of us, but especially those of us who endanger our faith and humanity by being academics. Descended from a famously distinguished and much-decorated vice-regal family of deep Christian faith, Vanier could have had a conventional academic career, for which he received a doctorate in Paris. But truly here is a man who has heeded and embodied that famous Evagrian dictum that Eastern Christians are forever quoting to each other: the "theologian" is a man of prayer, of service, and of love. All the degrees in the world matter not a whit if you have not love, especially for the most unlettered and unloved of people, including, in Vanier's case, those "handicapped" people otherwise condemned to be warehoused away.

Vanier, appalled at such treatment, founded the now widespread international movement L'Arche, with 147 communities in 35 countries. L'Arche puts Christian hospitality into action, creating houses where "handicapped" people can love and be loved. Early on he helped me understand one thing clearly: people involved with serving others can often be prone to a kind of paternalism in thinking of themselves as only the givers, but in fact they often receive back far more than we give, and far more important gifts too. Moreover, Vanier, together with Henri Nouwen, helped me to realize that all of us are "wounded healers" and we need to be open to receiving from others even as we need also to be able to give. Vanier's life of heroic virtue shows us the wisdom that Charles Ryder utters in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited: "to know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom."

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