Bethany McKinney Fox on the Legacy of Jean Vanier, the Late Christian Advocate for the Intellectually Disabled

Jean Vanier, who died Tuesday morning at age 90, lived much of his life beside death.

“Over the last forty-two years we’ve had many deaths, and we’ve spent a lot of time celebrating death. It’s very fundamental to our community,” he wrote, referencing his experience in L’Arche community of Trosly-Breuil, France—where Vanier began the first of an international network of communities for people with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities to live together in faith and friendship.

As he recounted in his book Living Gently in a Violent World, “To celebrate death is to gather around and talk about the person—about Janine, for example, who died recently. We gathered to say how beautiful she was, how much she had brought to us. Her sisters came, and we wept and laughed at the same time. We wept because she was gone, but we laughed because she did so many beautiful things.”

Likewise, those of us who have been formed and inspired by Jean Vanier have hearts heavy with both grief and gratitude as we celebrate the beautiful things we learned from a leader who helped us all to become more human.

We don’t often find people born into privilege and status, and highly educated, who then follow the downward path of Jesus. But as founder of L’Arche International, Vanier spent decades in community with people with and without intellectual disabilities and embraced the joys, complications, and demands that go along with such a life.

The fourth of five children, Vanier was born into a deeply Catholic family with prestige and prominence in Canadian society. He served in the Navy for a number of years but was continually drawn to community life and spiritual practices. After a 30-day Ignatian prayer retreat, he resigned from the service.

It makes sense that for a person whose life was marked by recognizing the impact of relationships of listening and presence, it would be a new friendship—Vanier’s connection with priest and mystic Father Thomas Phillippe—that would transform his life and ministry.

After earning his doctorate in philosophy in Paris and teaching ethics in Canada, Vanier visited Father Phillippe in Val Fleuri, a small institution in France made up of men with intellectual disabilities. Though this was an institutional space marked by foul odors and a lack of human nurture, Vanier recognized that Jesus was there in a special way and eventually felt compelled to invite a few men out of the institution to live with him.

So in August 1964, three of them moved to his home in Trosly-Breuil, France. One, Dany, came and went quickly, desiring to return to a familiar environment. But two others, Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux, decided to stay. With this small household, the L’Arche movement—French for “The Ark”—began.

The Catholic theologian understood early on that L’Arche would not be a place of one-sided service, and his emphasis on true mutuality in relationships has become one of his most enduring legacies for the church. In community, Vanier discovered how human weakness and vulnerability enables us to forge real connections. His fellow community members with intellectual disabilities instructed him with their consistent openness with themselves: their needs, joys, loves, and pain.

Vanier came to emphasize our common humanity: the desire to love and be loved and to develop and share our gifts. He recognized that people who are vulnerable, who experience their anguish and pain openly, are at the core of communities. In their vulnerability, they call everyone together. Over time, we all come to discover our own brokenness and fragility, realizing that “they” are also “us.”

While many ministries involving people with intellectual disabilities began with a clear separation between those being helped and those doing the helping, slowly the paradigm has shifted toward Vanier’s approach at L’Arche, where all are called to share their gifts as members of one body of Christ, doing the work of the gospel together. Our differences show us that we need each other; they can enrich us instead of dividing us.

It is in large part due to the heartful theology of Vanier and L’Arche that those of us who work at intersections of faith and disability have brought this sense of mutual giftedness into churches, social ministries, and the academy. His theological influence extended across Christian traditions and denominations, including intentional communities like Shane Claiborne’s The Simple Way and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s Rutba House. Wilson-Hartgrove counts Vanier and the work of L’Arche as an enduring inspiration, referencing teachings from Vanier such as “People come to community because they want to help the poor. They stay in community because they realize they are the poor.”

Just as Vanier’s ministry drew people who seemed different together in community, his message likewise had broad appeal, capturing the hearts and imaginations both of people with intellectual disabilities and of scholars and intellectuals. Vanier compellingly described and so naturally lived into the integration of our whole selves—including our bodies and our hearts.

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Source: Christianity Today