In 1964, 2015 Templeton Prize winner Jean Vanier visited an asylum in Trosly, France. He discovered a hidden world of anguish and hopelessness where intellectually disabled people were locked up and lived without hope. He took action, inviting two of the disabled men who had no family to live with him. Their mutually transformative experience of living together attracted others.
From this humble beginning, Vanier founded L’Arche, a unique organization of one hundred forty-seven communities around the globe where the able and disabled live as peers. Emphasizing the common humanity of all people, L’Arche is a sign of hope; despite their different abilities, cultures and religions, people live together in peace.
Vanier’s Trosly experience was liberating. Freed from the culture of success where people are valued for their abilities and achievements, he discovered what it means to be fully human. In Vanier’s experience and thought, to be fully human means to discover that each individual is a treasured part of the human family. Before being a Christian or a Jew, before being an American or a Russian, before having visible or invisible disabilities, says Vanier, we are a person.
When Vanier speaks of what it means to be fully human, he embraces the vulnerability that many of us try to hide. For Vanier, the story of every individual is the discovery of one’s fragility. Living with vulnerable people has taught him that the cry of the disabled for love is the common cry of every person; it is a cry from the heart of God. When people are loved for who they are, not for what they can do, their spirit soars, and they can enter more deeply into relationship.
I first heard of Vanier in the 1970’s. My late mother-in-law, who was instrumental in bringing Vanier to our diocese to give a retreat, said of him, “He preached the gospel by the way he lived.” He made a deep and lasting impression on her, as he did on other individuals who attended the retreat, and who still speak about him with great clarity.
One woman, who told me about her retreat experience, said the content of the retreat was secondary to Vanier himself. He opened up a God of love for her with his gentle manner and the love in his eyes. Listening to Vanier, she said, “was like sitting as a child at the feet of the Master”.
Another individual described Vanier to me saying, “He is the most authentic person I have ever met. His commitment to the gospel was remarkable and he was living it beautifully.”
The Templeton Prize honors an individual who has made an extraordinary contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension. While it is clear that Vanier’s Christian faith and love of Jesus is at the basis of his lived theology, he is not pushy about creed. Asked what he would say to a person who does not believe in God, Vanier answered, “Do you believe in love? You don’t need to believe in God. God is love. The important thing is not belief – but can you grow in love?”
That may be the tougher question.
Trail, BC resident Louise McEwan is a freelance religion writer with degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation. Her blog is www.faithcolouredglasses.blogspot.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .