Cathleen Falsani on How Jean Vanier Broke My Heart and Saved My Life

Jean Vanier visits Sebastien, a young man whose injuries in a car accident left him with profound cognitive and physical disabilities, at the L’Arche care home in Trosly-Breuil, France, in 2015. Photo courtesy of Summer in the Forest/R2W Films

Thirteen years ago this week, I met a man — a living saint, many insisted — who broke my heart and forever changed my life.

Jean Vanier, the Canadian theologian, philosopher and humanitarian who died Tuesday (May 7) at the mighty age of 90, was just 77 years old when our paths crossed in Chicago on a glorious spring day in May 2006.

Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, an international network of small communities where adults with intellectual and physical disabilities and those without them live, work and care for each other, was in town from his home in France to accept a Blessed Are the Peacemakers Award from one of the city’s many seminaries.

As religion writer for the Chicago Sun-Times at the time, I was dispatched to cover the great man’s public address.

Running late, I arrived at the Catholic Theological Union just as Vanier was introduced to the standing-room-only crowd and walked toward the microphone.

I plopped down on the floor cross-legged not far from the dais, grabbed my reporter’s notebook, turned on my audio recorder and started taking notes.

Just another day in the life of an ink-stained wretch, I thought.

But then, Vanier started talking.

About 10 minutes into his address, Vanier began to tell the story of a serial killer — a man imprisoned for murdering five women.

I leaned in, wondering where he was going with this unexpected narrative.

“He needs someone who will see that behind all those walls that have been created, there’s a little child who has never been awakened,” Vanier, a towering man with a slight stoop that made it seem as if he were bowing to everyone he met, said with characteristic quiet gentleness.

“Will one day he find somebody who will reveal to him his beauty? That he is a child of God? That he is precious?”

Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, an international network of communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together, gestures as he talks during a news conference in London on March 11, 2015. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

The idea that a serial killer, despite the sins and horrors he has perpetrated, remains precious to God and should, Vanier seemed to suggest, also be precious to us, touched me in such a profound way I scarcely have appropriate words to describe it all these years later.

It was as if Vanier’s radical compassion broke something in my soul that needed to be broken. It widened the aperture of my heart, making room to accommodate a love more expansive than I thought myself capable of feeling or giving.

“The quest is not just believing in God, but believing in other people,” Vanier continued. “Believing in ourselves as children of God, and that we are called to see other people as God sees them, not as we would like them to be.”

This can be done only when we are in relationship with another, when we take the time to connect, to listen — really listen — to what someone is saying, to hear the story behind the story, he said.

“Tell me your story, your pain, your suffering, your cry, your needs,” Vanier said. “Tell me about your childhood, tell me what you maybe remember. Tell me. Tell me your dreams. Tell me your hopes.”

Vanier started L’Arche (“ark” in French) in 1964 after learning about what many people with disabilities suffered in psychiatric hospitals and other institutions at the time.

He invited two men with disabilities to live with him in his small home in Trosly, about 60 miles north of Paris. He thought he was doing a good deed for the two men, Philippe Seux and Raphael Simi.

Over time, Vanier learned it was not for, but with Seux and Simi, his friends and equals.

Today L’Arche has more than 150 homes in 37 countries.

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Source: Religion News Service