"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).

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Jean Vanier: In Gratitude

I noted a few weeks ago the move by Jean Vanier into palliative care. Now he has died. Here is a moving interview he gave almost twenty years ago reflecting, inter alia, on death.

I first discovered him in the 1990s, probably around the time he gave the celebrated Massey Lectures in 1998. Those were published as Becoming HumanBefore that, and often afterwards, he was interviewed on my favourite CBC Radio show, Ideas. You can find many of those interviews starting here.

When I was both listening to him on the radio--he has an absolutely unique and unforgettably enchanting voice--and reading some of his many books, I was at at that time a psychology student and an analysand of Dr. Louise Carignan, thinking of clinical training as a pastoral counsellor and/or psychoanalyst. At the same time, I was living in an ecumenical intentional community--Somerset House--which we set up in part with the hope of working with street-people in downtown Ottawa, some of whom lived very literally on our doorstep (which was at a major intersection a few blocks south of Parliament Hill). During this period I was doing volunteer pastoral work at a large nursing home while also volunteering with the Ottawa Crisis Centre, working overnight shifts on the suicide hotline.

These latter two experiences gave me my first, and ever-memorable, taste of the fact that the very frail and elderly residents I was accompanying, and many of the deeply broken people who called into the suicide line, gave me back far, far more than anything I may have thought I was giving to them. Vanier was the one who helped me understand this. He wrote about this many times, and in this very moving article an unnamed Catholic bishop also realizes this paradox so richly illustrated by Vanier's life:  “Up until now, we have spoken about doing good to the poor. But at L’Arche, you say that it is the poor who do us good."

That lesson, along with his constant emphasis on how much the gospel is lived by, and revealed in, those the world considers "defective," are the two things that have remained with me for more than twenty years now, informing my work on Dorothy Day and also my fascination with "holy fools" who blur the boundaries between what we want to call "sanity" and "sanctity" and who are often regarded as losers, freaks, misfits.

There are many other books written by Vanier which you can see here. And there are a number of books written about him, including Michael Higgins 2016 work Jean Vanier: Logician of the Heart. 

Forthcoming later this summer is what seems to be a major biographer of Vanier: Anne-Sophie Constant, Jean Vanier: Portrait of a Free Man (Plough, August 2019), 250pp. About this book the publisher tells us this:

The life of Jean Vanier, founder of l’Arche, who changed the way the world views disability
It’s a crazy story. In August 1964 a thirty-six-year-old Canadian from a famous family – one who has already joined the navy during war at age thirteen, become an officer, earned a PhD, and taught ethics at the University of Toronto -- takes up residence in a little house he just bought in the village of Trosly, France, with two mentally disabled men he has removed from a care home. The house, which he calls l’Arche (the Ark), has neither water nor electricity. His plan? None. He is just convinced he has to do it, touched by the silent cry of these men shut up in the gloomy, violent institution where he found them. His example is contagious; within months the community has grown to over fifty.
Jean Vanier is known and loved around the world for having created L'Arche, those unique communities of people with disabilities and their volunteer caregivers in more than one hundred and fifty sites on five continents. But Vanier is also a philosopher, a spiritual master who touches believers and nonbelievers alike, a tireless messenger of peace and ecumenism, and an adventurer with life full of twists and turns. Anne-Sophie Constant's literary biography paints a rare portrait of this extraordinary man and the events and influences that shaped his destiny.
“The story of Jean Vanier is the story of a free man – a man who knew how to become himself, who knew how to free himself from restraints, opinions, and prejudices; from intellectual, religious or moral habits; from his epoch; from popular opinion. . . . Jean Vanier has transformed the lives of thousands and thousands of mentally disabled people. And he has transformed the understanding of thousands of people regarding the disabilities of their own children and of people with disabilities. Where we see only failure, disgrace, impossibility, limit, weakness, ugliness, and suffering, Jean Vanier sees beauty. And he knows how to open the eyes of others to see it.”
And now, his earthly life over, I have to imagine that Vanier has made God's job very easy, allowing Him quickly to say, even this very day, "Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of your master!" May Vanier's memory be eternal, and may his intercession inspire all of us to deeper lives of vulnerable service.

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