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Reflections 2018

7th January 2018

Jean Vanier (1928- )

Jean Vanier is a Canadian Catholic philosopher, theologian, and humanitarian. In 1964 he


founded L'Arche, an international federation of communities spread over 37 countries, for
people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them. Subsequently, in 1971, he
co-founded Faith and Light with Marie-Hélène Mathieu, which also works for people with
developmental disabilities, their families, and friends in over 80 countries. He continues to
live as a member of the original L'Arche community in Trosly-Breuil, France.

A desire to belong

At the heart of Vanier’s theology is the human desire to belong. Human beings are made for
deep relationships; they are made for community. As he puts it: “The longer we journey on
the road to inner healing and wholeness, the more the sense of belonging grows and deepens.
The sense is not just one of belonging to others and to a community. It is a sense of belonging
to the universe, to the earth, to the air, to the water, to everything that lives, to all humanity.”
In order to belong somewhere a person has to be missed when they are not there. Vanier’s
theology of community and belonging requires that those whom we have chosen to name
"disabled", should have a place of belonging within the community of the friends of Jesus. If
they are not missed they do not belong; if they do not belong there is no community.

Strength in weakness

Vanier believes that the great reversal that is the gospel is lived out in the lives of people with
intellectual disabilities. Here we see clearly that the weak become strong and that the
foolishness of this world turns out to be the glory of God. In Jesus, Vanier sees a paradigm of
strength in weakness: “Jesus is the starving, the parched, the prisoner, the stranger, the naked,
the sick, the dying. Jesus is the oppressed, the poor. To live with Jesus is to live with the
poor. To live with the poor is to live with Jesus.” In the weakness and vulnerability of the
profoundly intellectually disabled Vanier discovers Jesus. If such lives are truly fully human,
then "being human" can no longer be understood in terms of power, strength, intellect and
ability. To be with the intellectually disabled is to realise what it means to be human.
“Growth begins when we begin to accept our own weakness.”

The way of the heart

The way of the heart is a way of putting people first; of moving beyond the boundaries of the
label of “intellectual disability” and putting the person-as-person. The "way of the heart" is a
way of encountering people; a way of being with and learning from people with intellectual
disabilities. As Vanier says: “Power and cleverness call forth admiration but also a certain
separation, a sense of distance; we are reminded of who we are not, of what we cannot do. On
the other hand, sharing weaknesses and needs calls us together into “oneness.” We welcome
into our heart those who love us. In this communion, we discover the deepest part of our
being: the need to be loved and to have someone who trusts and appreciates us and who cares
least of all about our capacity to work or to be clever and interesting. When we discover we
are loved in this way, the masks or barriers behind which we hide are dropped; new life
flows. We no longer have to prove our worth; we are free to be ourselves. We find a new
wholeness, a new inner unity.” The way of the heart is the embodiment of the Spirit of God’s
love.

"God takes time for the trivial"

Vanier’s embodied theology requires that we see time differently. We are tempted to treat
time as we do other commodities. We waste time, we spend time, we lose time and we make
time. Vanier asks us to look at time differently; to become friends of time. In his words: “The
friend of time doesn't spend all day saying: 'I haven't got time.' He doesn't fight with time. He
accepts it and cherishes it." Vanier reminds us that in God’s time those people whom the
world refuses to spend time with become the very focus of God’s attention. God, as Stanley
Hauerwas has put it, “takes time for the trivial,” and those who follow Jesus, God incarnate,
are expected to do the same. There are no lesser lives in the Kingdom of God. Spending time
doing what the world assumes to be trivial is the essence of the way of the heart and the
spirituality of L’Arche.

A Spirituality of friendship

All this adds up to what we might describe as a spirituality of friendship. By the term
"spirituality" I simply mean the outworking of a person’s beliefs in the day-to-day life
experience of believers. Vanier’s spirituality of friendship seeks after community within
which people are made to feel that they belong. Within such a spirituality those whom society
considers weak are seen to be strong; those who are considered vulnerable are respected and
protected. Their voices are closely listened to as their hearts are embraced and loved through
friendships that are quite literally inspired by the Spirit of Jesus. Vanier’s spirituality of
friendship reminds us that friends take time to be with one another; not just in terms of
physical presence but in heart-to-heart relationships within which disability exists, but it
really doesn’t matter. Learning how to live in such ways is Vanier’s witness and his gift to
theology, church and society.