Anne-Sophie Constant: Jean Vanier: Portrait of a Free Man (2019)
When I was living in a community with adults with developmental disabilities, one of my colleagues told me he had been inspired to take up this work by the writings of Jean Vanier, founder of the international L’Arche movement. I was intrigued, because I had never heard of the man or the movement, and I wanted to learn more.
So I read Becoming Human, as an introduction to Vanier’s philosophy. In this brief book, he presents ideas about the human condition, our experience of loneliness and belonging, captivity and freedom, and the difficult but necessary path to forgiveness. Behind every word is woven his experience of living together with the so-called “disabled,” who have been his most radiant teachers of what it means to be human.
This experience is not often explicitly described, and given my interest in this realm specifically, I found that somewhat disappointing. When Vanier talked about how one or another of the residents of L’Arche had been transformed by love, I wanted more details. What were the day-to-day practices, what were the steps of the journey?
But that is not really what the book is about. More a description of general principles than of particular examples (though some powerful ones are given), it’s full of gentle, timeless wisdom that deserves to be slowly pondered in relation to one’s own life. Thus is the fruit of the spirit developed, in patient dedication to the way of self-knowledge, and Vanier was clearly a humble but very dedicated servant of this impulse.
I still wanted to know more about L’Arche and its founder, so I was delighted when the opportunity came to review a new publication, Jean Vanier: Portrait of a Free Man, fresh off the press from Plough Publishing House. This biographical work by a longtime friend of Vanier’s has been translated from the 2014 French edition and updated for the English version. It’s about as up-to-the minute as such as book can be, as it concludes with an epilogue written in January, 2019, and Vanier died just a few months later.
The beginning of the story goes back a full century, though, with Vanier’s father Georges and his baptism-by-fire in the First World War. His heroism and ensuing life as a diplomat — as the Canadian ambassador to France, among other things — indelibly shaped the life of his young family, including the third child, Jean. A childhood spent in the public eye, moving around with no settled home, with parents strongly committed to moral and civic causes, was an unusual and in many ways not easy upbringing.
There are more surprising twists and turns to the story, which you may discover if you read the book for yourself — finding out how this boy from a privileged background chose to share his life with the poorest of the poor, the ones most excluded and shunned by society: the intellectually disabled. In the process he found wealth unknown to those who pursue merely worldly success; and even more remarkably, was able to share it with many others who joined or merely heard about his community.
His strong Catholic faith, which he shared with his parents, had much to do with it. Vanier was committed to following Christ, and he found that his way led into this form of poverty. But it was not a way of penitence and sorrow, nor of narrow sectarian religion, but a gateway into joy, happiness, and the abundance of love that embraces all faiths. This is what he found when he spontaneously decided to move into a dilapidated house with two disabled men, to create a home together with them rather than to found an institution. This impulse of joy is what continues to mark the L’Arche movement, which has spread so amazingly worldwide from that one small household, to this day.
It’s a beautiful story, and I found it moving and inspiring. My only quibble, once more, is that I wanted more specific details. I know from personal experience that it is not easy to create such a community, and to keep it going through the tempests caused by our human failings, however much one may believe that we are all rooted in the spirit of love. How did they manage? What are the practices, not only the principles, that support such a movement? What were Jean’s personal trials, suggested but never thoroughly explored?
But again, that’s not really what this book is about. As the subtitle tells us, it’s a portrait — really just a sketch, as that is all that can be given in less than 150 pages. It’s not enough to convey all that I would like to know, but sufficient to give an impression of a remarkable man and his amazing journey through life.
The wisdom I most appreciate as I grow older is not found in the evolving of great thoughts and mind-expanding innovation; it’s found in the expression of kindness, of the compassionate heart that brings new life into a deadened world by offering a space where the other person can become him- or herself. This wisdom is in its essence so simple, so basic, that we can easily overlook and dismiss it, as we do the “simple” folk who walk unseen in our midst. But at times there appears a person who becomes its representative in such a way that we can clearly perceive its healing power.
Such a man, as this book convincingly portrays him, was Jean Vanier. Even if we are not among the thousands who were directly affected by his work, who experienced him face-to-face, we can be glad to know that such a person existed, and try to learn from his example.