The Message Is the Messenger
What draws so many different people from diverse cultures—the young, especially—to Jean Vanier’s message is his authentic way of speaking. When he speaks, he never takes on a false persona; he never tries to impose his thoughts or manipulate anyone. He connects to others by being totally himself and totally open—it is obvious where he’s coming from and what his reference points are. He is Christian and Catholic, which he affirms clearly, yet everyone is able to receive his message, because he is neither militant nor dogmatic. He respects the freedom of his listeners. His delivery is forceful but not adversarial. The witness of his life and the choices he has made give him credibility, too.
In 1985, Stephan Posner, who would become the international leader of L’Arche, was twenty-one years old. He was Jewish, but not so sure that he was really a believer. Did God exist? A rabbi told him that was a question for Christians! Posner wasn’t interested in disabilities or Catholicism. He was a conscientious objector to military service in search of a place to do his required alternative service, and he hoped to find an activity in the area of alternative economics. Someone suggested L’Arche to him, and he accepted without knowing much about it. One evening, the members of his community decided to go hear Jean Vanier, who was giving a speech, and he went with them.
I don’t remember very clearly what he said, but I know that he spoke to me. He spoke to me, even though he came from a completely different world with reference points that were very different from mine. His talk was punctuated by references to Jesus and God. At that time, the very word “spirituality” was suspect to me. But there was something in what he said, perhaps especially in the way in which it was said without empty words, something that pushed beyond cultural barriers and representations and preconceptions—my preconceptions. And that, I believe, is a trademark of Jean Vanier. When you listen to him, it rings true. There is something very distinctive in his way of speaking. He is what he says. With him, the message is the messenger. This man impressed me very much; what he was saying reached me. He told a story, a story that brought together what we humans have in common. A universal story. My story.
This encounter with Jean Vanier inspired Stephan Posner to commit his life to the L’Arche movement.
Jean’s word rang true for Posner and others because there is complete continuity between who he is and what he expresses. “He is a man of absolute simplicity and sincerity,” says Gérard Daucourt. Words play a small part in conveying a message compared to everything else—look, attitude, gestures, tone of voice—that communicates to those who are listening. People with disabilities who don’t understand the words very well are particularly sensitive to that “music of being,” to use Jean Vanier’s expression, but we all hear it. We all perceive if a speaker’s manner of delivery is in harmony with the words he or she speaks. With Jean Vanier, that music of being accords so precisely with what he is saying that, says French-Canadian philosopher Jacques Dufresne, “from a messenger like Jean Vanier, I would be tempted to believe everything he says, so much am I sensitive to all that he is.”
Jean’s message is also rooted in stories: his story, the stories of the people he lives with, and the stories of the thousands of people he has met. Because of this, his message never feels disembodied. He grasps—first of all in himself, then in others—the enthusiasm, joy, rejection, fear, anxiety, and certainty that mingle in the human heart, that heart which, the Bible tells us, is deceitful, desperately sick, and inscrutable (Jer. 17:9). Jean often talks about himself and the path he has taken: of the trust his father showed him, the beginnings of L’Arche, and the evolution of his thought. But he doesn’t give the impression that he’s only talking about himself. He is not only a guide and master; he is a brother and a fellow traveler. He never places himself on a pedestal; what he says about himself tells us about ourselves.
Jean speaks from experience and from the knowledge he has drawn from that experience. The verb “to do” is an important one for Jean Vanier. He distrusts ideologies. He only relies on theories to the extent that they shed light on everyday life. For him, “reality is the master.”
And so, when a journalist, surprised to see him doing the dishes after a meal at Val Fleuri, asked him, “Why are you doing the dishes?” his answer was, “Because they’re dirty!” This quip also points to a simple truth: we have to do what needs to be done. The act of performing a task is its own end. This is part of his message: do useful tasks because they need to be done and not for a selfish reason or for some future reward. It’s a message of humility and simplicity. The Good Samaritan who approached the wounded man, unlike the Levite who turned away, was not thinking first about himself or the consequences of his actions. He was moved at the sight of the man and was thinking about what needed to be done: he staunched the flow of blood, dressed the wounds, poured wine and oil, and took him to a place he could be cared for and recover. Jean, like the Samaritan, tends to the immediate needs around him.
“We will do and we will understand”
“We will do and we will understand” (Exod. 24:7) the Hebrew people answered Moses, when he presented them with the tablets of the Law and proclaimed the covenant with God. This response might seem strange to us; we would tend to invert the terms, not committing ourselves to obeying the commandments before we fully understand them. Yet this ordering—trusting, obeying, and acting first—is fundamental to the life of faith; Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal calls it the “order of charity.” Jean Vanier lives according to this order. He is a man of faith, a man who trusts the injunctions of the Bible that we too often see as beautiful, but impossible, words.
One day, while Jean was walking along a street with friends in Trosly, he was confronted by a man who was raving mad. The man had just come from a home where he had been making a disturbance. He approached Jean, gesticulated, and threatened. He shouted, “I’m going to hit you! You people at L’Arche, you have bathrooms, you have everything. I don’t have anything. I’m going to hit you!” Jean stood motionless between the man and the little terrified group that accompanied him. “Hit me, if you want to,” he said. The man struck him in the face with such violence that Jean would remain deaf in one ear for the rest of his life. He who was so big let himself be struck and did not answer blow for blow. Instead he said, “You can hit me again if you want to.”
In that moment, perhaps Jean remembered Christ’s words in the Gospel of Matthew, “You have heard that it was said: ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other cheek also” (Matt. 5:38–39). Or perhaps he had absorbed the words of Christ so deeply that they had become part of him, guiding his reaction without him even thinking about it. Was he overcome with pity in the face of the blind violence of that man? Was he afraid? Yes, Jean says. He was very scared, but he did what seemed right. He didn’t run away. He didn’t retaliate. The man calmed down immediately, took his hand, and said, “Let’s drink some lemonade together at my home.” Jean followed him home. In the courtyard a German shepherd growled and stirred. “He won’t hurt you,” said its master. The two men shared a drink in the kitchen.
In the same spirit of the gospel, while settling into the first L’Arche community with Philippe and Raphaël, Jean followed to the letter Jesus’ injunction in Luke: “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors. . . . But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.” Jean Vanier’s table included the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And each time he accepted an award, it was only on the condition that his L’Arche companions, who broke bread with him every day, would be invited to accompany him to receive it.
“We will do and we will understand,” says the Bible. Pascal says something similar: “We say that it is necessary to know human beings before we can love them . . . The saints, on the contrary, say in speaking of divine things that it is necessary to love them in order to know them, and that we only enter truth through charity.” There are existential truths that we must commit to in order to know them, at the risk of being transformed by them. We cannot contemplate them from outside, as we might observe some object. There are truths that have to become part of us if we want to comprehend them.
These truths that must be loved, practiced, and engaged with if we want to understand them are what Christianity calls “mystery.” Jean Vanier speaks to us about this mystery, which he is careful to distinguish from a secret. In his book Signs of the Times he writes, “While a secret can be revealed, leaving nothing more to say about it, a mystery is never exhausted. One can always plunge further into it. I really mean ‘plunge,’ because a mystery is a dwelling place: we don’t contain it; it is greater than we are and it contains us. A secret lives in us, but we live in a mystery." It was in this spirit that Jean addressed priests in Rome in 2012:
I would like to be a messenger to you, transmitting this mystery that can’t be explained, that we at Faith and Light and L’Arche are called to experience and to announce. Saint John began his letter to the Christian communities by evoking his life experience: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life” (1 John 1:1). I can only tell you about what we have experienced.
What Jean has experienced is poignant. Unexpected. But unheard of? No, for we read in the Gospels: “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children” (Matt. 11:25) And Paul, in the First Letter to the Corinthians, is just as clear: “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things . . . so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor. 1:27–28)
God has revealed his mysteries to little children; he has chosen the weak of the world to shame the strong. But this is difficult to hear and believe. Jean Vanier didn’t believe it in the beginning, either. The man who settled in Trosly with Philippe and Raphaël in 1964 thought he knew what he was doing. At least, he knew what he wanted: shocked by the living conditions of people with intellectual disabilities, he wanted to give them a more dignified life and to help them be fulfilled. He had few doubts that he would know what must be done and how they should live. He was wise and well-educated. He was cultured, efficient, organized, generous, and religious. But he quickly discovered that these were not qualities that mattered for his new companions. Little did he know at that time that they were the ones who would help him understand himself. It was they, the weak and despised ones, who would become his “masters in humanity,” in a way that was totally upside-down for him.
I discovered that we grew together and that it was they who helped to fulfill me, they who little by little revealed to me my humanity, they who led me further and further into a world of friendship and communion that healed my heart and awakened life in me. Yes, I knew how to do things, I knew how to organize, lead, and teach. I could be efficient, but I discovered that that was not primarily what they wanted from me. They wanted what was most important: a presence, a relationship, love.
What Philippe and Raphaël wanted was a friend, someone who could simply be happy in their company, someone who would love them just as they were. “Living with Philippe and Raphaël, these two men who were so fragile and weak, having suffered so much from rejection, I discovered that everyone thirsts for communion with other human beings.” What surprised Jean was that he found that same thirst in himself. He discovered that there is a wounded child hiding in each of us, a child who has been calling in vain, whom we wall up and silence with our social standards, professional titles, and personal successes. We have hidden this inner child behind so many walls that we have eventually forgotten him. Yet he is awakened in us by the cry of the poor, by their raw thirst for relationships and love, their inability to play the social games of power and prestige, their inability to disguise their feelings, and their lack of satisfaction with those superficial relationships that we settle for all too often.
Life shared with Philippe and Raphaël shook the defenses that Jean Vanier had built up around his inner child—those barriers that had protected the young Jean who was alienated from his depressive mother, who witnessed the suffering of his amputee father, who remembered the cries of the refugees abandoned by the Nariva, who left his family at thirteen without a tear, and who was carried away by waves that nearly drowned him. Jean Vanier rediscovered in himself that vulnerable, loving child that was made for happiness and joy, the child the Gospels say we must become if we want to enter the kingdom.
Cardinal Ryłko, president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, has called L’Arche a revolution: “You people at L’Arche and at Faith and Light,” he declared one day, “have created a veritable Copernican revolution. It is no longer you doing good to disabled people. You tell yourself that it is they who are doing you good!” Like Jean Vanier in 1964, volunteers still arrive at L’Arche driven by generosity or concerned about justice. They come to help the poor, hardly imagining that the poor might be able to help them. But then, Jean says, the encounter with these people who are weak and suffering “transforms, little by little, their generosity into true love, compassion, and tenderness.” They discover that they, too, are vulnerable and fragile, but at the same time capable of loving and being strengthened by the power of love.
From Jean Vanier: Portrait of a Free Man, by Anne-Sophie Constant. Copyright © 2019 by Plough Publishing House. All rights reserved. Used with permission.