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Coming to Terms with Jean Vanier: Beyond Conventional Admiration

Jacques Dufresne


Jean Vanier, the co-founder of L’Arche, is often immediately compared with Mother Teresa or even St. Francis of Assisi. He truly has been, and remains, the friend of people living with intellectual disabilities, and we admire such people a trifle too easily, ignoring – or pretending to ignore – the fact that a superficial, precipitous, conventional admiration makes it unnecessary to...

Jean Vanier, the co-founder of L’Arche, is often immediately compared with Mother Teresa or even St. Francis of Assisi. He truly has been, and remains, the friend of people living with intellectual disabilities, and we admire such people a trifle too easily, ignoring – or pretending to ignore – the fact that a superficial, precipitous, conventional admiration makes it unnecessary to truly understand them. Now, we can only understand the life of another through our own lives, and I want to understand Jean Vanier– even at the risk of reducing him to a being like myself – because this man is a living being, someone who professes to be continually and continuously maturing and developing. But do we have to take his words literally when he says that he moved from “wanting to do things for” to that of “listening to”1 the poor and when he adds that it is through being with the poorest of the poor that we may gain knowledge of ourselves and inner freedom? What? By giving in this way, or rather by being attentive in this way, we may find that happiness which so many people seek so diligently, but in vain, and with such pain?

Neither Ocean nor War

Jean Vanier speaks little about his early childhood, and nothing about it truly captured my attention apart from the fact that his parents were deeply and authentically reigious, ad that he retains a strong memory of a Scottish governess who affectionately called im “Jock.” Kathryn Spink, in her book Jean Vanier & l’Arche, writes that Jock “… was to eceive a largely English education. The Vaniers spent most of the 1930s in London, here George Vanier, then a Lieutenant-Colonel, was Secretary at the office of the Canadian High Commissioner, Vincent Massey.”2 I note too that his childhood was a virtual invitation to travel, a prelude to the voyages that would become one of the constants of his life. After Switzerland and England came France, which he left quickly, bound for Canada because of the war.

This was 1942, and Jean Vanier was thirteen. Even though they lived in Quebec City, where his father was promoted to the rank of General, his parents registered him at Loyola High School in Montreal. But this excellent Jesuit school did not suit him; his star called him elsewhere: to the prestigious Royal Naval College at Dartmouth, England. At the age of thirteen-and-a-half, he dared ask his father to register him there. Considering the ongoing German bombing of England – Dartmouth was, in fact, bombed during the war – and of the very present dangers of a transatlantic voyage, was such a request at all reasonable? Although his mother cried, his father responded, “I trust you.” In an effort to console his wife, Jean Vanier’s father said, “You know, we mustn’t clip that child’s wings. We don’t know what he may become in later life.”3 Having been trusted by his father, Jean Vanier would henceforth trust himself, and he would have the wings – and would know how to use them – when the moment came: Hence the importance of this moment in his life.

Why did he – so resolutely and at so young an age– want to embark upon a military career? One might assume that, following the example of his father, he wanted to assist in the war effort. His father’s courage had been tested during World War I, during which he was seriously wounded, eventually losing a leg. Considering what the rest of Jean Vanier’s life would look like, we might also think that his thirst for the absolute was already so vibrant that it called him far from the beaten path, toward the risks of the war and the splendour of the sea.

It has been said of Jean Vanier that he “showed good qualities as an officer but lacked respect for his senior officers.” When this aspect of his behaviour was brought to his father’s attention, his father would only say: “As long as he shows respect for those under him, he’ll be all right.”4 Such was the path the younger Vanier had already begun to walk. Neither the sea nor the war proved, however, to be the “absolute” this young cadet was seeking and, believing he had plumbed the depths of the wisdom to be found in schools, he would henceforth seek friends and masters on the fringes of university institutions, people who would guide him on the road toward respect for the disadvantaged.

Among them were Dominican priests Father Thomas Philippe and his brother, Father Marie-Dominique, both sons of a religious family similar to Vanier’s own. If England was his military homeland, France was to be his spiritual homeland. Kathryn Spink writes that “… much later he would advocate for others in community what he describes as ‘filiation’ as opposed to the structured acquisition of knowledge based on clear principles which ‘formation’ implies, as the only means by which certain knowledge at a spiritual level can be transmitted.'' 5 And Jean Vanier himself would later write the following: “In India, if you want to become a guru, you live with a guru until he confirms you and sends you out to be a guru who forms disciples in his turn. These days, we tend to believe that everything can be learned from books. We forget that there is another way to learn: by living with a master.”6 It is difficult to understand the spirituality of Fathers Thomas and Marie-Dominique without seeing it in light of the great French spiritual tradition in which Descartes’ reason is not very far from Pascal’s heart. Jean Vanier had already chosen the path of the heart. The two brothers were not only Dominicans; they were Thomists, and they found in Aquinas’ realist philosophy, similar to that of Aristotle, the best balance possible between the heart and reason, between the senses and intelligence.

The Messenger

Some people attach more importance to the messenger than to his or her message; others do the opposite. Without underestimating the message, Jean Vanier always attached more importance to the messenger, from which his love for his masters arises, as does his natural affinity with people affected by intellectual disabilities. Unable to easily understand the message, these people adapt by paying more attention to the messenger. At Mass, for example, it is the celebrant’s authenticity that touches them most of all. About a messenger who does not quite live up to his message, we might say, “If such a being possesses the truth, I will forever place myself on the side of error.” Of a messenger such as Jean Vanier, we would say instead: “I would be tempted to believe all that he says, because I recognize all that he is.” This quality could become a fault were it not tempered by intellectual rigor. Is this the reason why Jean Vanier wished, before dedicating his life to the “elite of the heart,” to spend time at l’Eau Vive, with the intellectual elite, and then to undertake a doctoral thesis on Aristotle?

L’Eau Vive was a small international centre, founded by Father Thomas “for students who wanted to come and get to know something of the theology and spirituality of the Church, for laypeople who wanted to know more and who would afterwards take that knowledge back to their respective countries and use it to help shape future development” 7 – an invaluable education at a time when certain colonies were beginning the long road to freedom.

L’Eau Vive quickly attracted people of various religions, and became a kind of ecumenical meeting ground well ahead of its time, where communal prayer – but not fractious discussion – was encouraged by Father Dominique. In 1951, one could see there “Arabic philosophers, a Persian merchant, several Germans, and a young woman who went into a concentration camp for being a key worker in the ‘underground’ during the war.”8

Why a thesis on Aristotle’s view of happiness? According to Jean Vanier, it was because “[Aristotle is] a very realistic guy. The intuition of Plato stems from his inner experience whereas Aristotle is something about outer experience. Somewhere in Christianity is the harmonisation of the two, but from a philosophical point of view, just to love reality and to touch, to look at things, to listen to people is very Aristotelian.9

When we add this to what Jean Vanier would live and write in the coming years, his comment illustrates to what degree thought and action were already intimately linked in his mind. To listen to people, to touch reality and, above, all the body, this would be his great preoccupation. The substantial unity of the spirit and the body is at the heart of Aristotle’s – and St. Thomas’ – conception of human beings. Jean Vanier could not, because the Incarnation meant so much to him, do otherwise than accept, without reservation, such thoughts as the following: “[There is] nothing in the mind that has not previously passed through the senses.” He would come to emphasize the importance he assigns to the senses to the point of talking about the body as if it includes the soul – so much so that in listening to or reading his words one wonders if he has not fallen under the influence of Nietzsche on this point. Not the Nietzsche who cursed the weak, and from whom no one could be further than Jean Vanier, but the Nietzsche who praised the wisdom of the body, rather the one who said: ''There is more sagacity in thy body than in thy best wisdom''10 and who had such thoughts as this one: ''Your love for woman, and woman's love for man – ah, would that it were sympathy for suffering and veiled deities! But generally two animals alight on one another11 ,.12

Jean Vanier once wrote about a man who had recently been welcomed to a community and was very agitated. They discovered he was suffering from athlete’s foot, and the doctor advised them to wash his feet three times a day: This man changed – his speech became more coherent while they were washing his feet. There is something special about touching someone’s body; holding someone in your arms, respecting him or her. This is the primary means of communication. Vanier asserts that we forget this, and yet it is at the heart of everything.13

Convinced that Jean Vanier will hold a place of honour on history’s list of those who have battled effectively against the slavery that we don’t call slavery – that is, exclusion – I wanted to know how he had dealt with the question of slavery in the work of Aristotle. He did it with perfect objectivity, not denying that Aristotle approved of slavery, but underlining the fact that he encouraged masters to treat their slaves with respect. On this point, as in relation to the issue of the inferiority of women in comparison with men, Jean Vanier showed a more critical edge in his book Made for Happiness than he did in his doctoral thesis.14

Having found his happiness among people whom Aristotle would have considered ill, I also wanted to know how Jean Vanier interpreted the philosopher’s thought on this matter. In a footnote in his thesis, I found this citation from Aristotle: “The good man may make use of illness and poverty, but he can never be happy except under the opposite conditions.” My first reaction was to think that Jean Vanier was, on this point, a very bad disciple of Aristotle. A better understanding comes from the following passage found in the conclusion of his thesis: “The goal of our study was to know the real thought of Aristotle, to cull the principles of his ethics from his writings. We have deliberately avoided making judgments on the limits and lacunae of this ethics because, as Christians, we believe that these limits spring from the fact that man does not live in a purely natural order, rather that he was created for a supernatural end of faith and of love.”15

In 2000, Jean Vanier took up the broad strokes of his thesis once again in a work destined for a wider audience. Written in collaboration with Elise Corcini, it is called Made for Happiness. This book is anything but an educational manual, and yet it is a masterpiece of pedagogy. The passages from Aristotle and Jean Vanier’s comments are interspersed, or better, interwoven, so rhythmically that we feel as though we are reading a dialogue between two friends. Jean Vanier faithfully follows Aristotle’s texts, while remaining supremely free in his comments; his goal being less to teach us the truth about Aristotle than to invite us to seek that truth in his company. This page, about pleasure, nicely illustrates the tone and spirit of the book. “Happiness and pleasure are so connected that those things done without pleasure do not attain their full worth. They are not complete, says Aristotle, they do not attain their full worth. They have not reached their completeness.”16 Here’s what is clear: There is no ethical fulfillment without delight! Far from having a harmful effect on the moral or human depths of actions, pleasure heightens them. The concern for purity that characterized the ethics born of Jansenism, for example, doesn’t even cross the mind of the well-balanced man who is Aristotle. “Numbness is not human,” he says in another context, in his chapter on temperance. A remark that might seem banal inperspective of an ethic aimed at an entirely human creature, it signifies that the insensitive cannot be virtuous, nor fully moral, to use the modern phrasing.17

After successfully defending his doctoral thesis, Jean Vanier taught philosophy in Toronto for several months, but the spur of the absolute, which had led him away from the navy, also steered him away from this vocation, however consistent it was with his gifts as a messenger. When, for complex reasons, l’Eau Vive had to close its doors, Father Thomas took up a post in Rome, but he eventually moved back to France, to Trosly-Breuil, where he lived in a state of voluntary poverty that won the hearts of a largely anti-clerical people. He would remain there almost to the end of his life, not actively participating in life at L’Arche, but welcoming all those who wished to meet him and leading a life of prayer and contemplation. “Father Thomas is there, a rock…,”said Jean Vanier.18

Among the numerous testimonies to his deep devotion to others is that of Jean-Louis Munn,19 an assistant at Trosly-Breuil for six years. “During the last years of his life, Father Thomas became completely deaf. He responded, without understanding our questions, but his words always reached a secret target in those who listened to him. His memory also deteriorated little by little. While he forgot names, and then faces, his kindness and welcome became more translucent. It revealed as brightly as daylight an unconditional love free of all judgment. It was this that animated him until his death.” Struck by Alzheimer’s, he spent his last month in the Langeac monastery in Auvergne, where one of his sisters was the abbess. He died there in 1993, but would be buried at Trosly, near the L'Arche chapel.One must keep in mind the presence of this priest, and the importance that both he and Jean Vanier would attach to prayer and to the inner life as the foundation for action on behalf of the poor and handicapped.

Shortly after returning from Canada, Jean Vanier bought a small house in Trosly. He soon moved in, along with three companions who had been in a nearby institution: Philippe, Raphaël, and Danny. Sadly, Danny was so violent and so agitated that the fledgling community could not live more than a single day with him. Right from the start therefore, there has been evidence that L’Arche is not necessarily able toaccommodate everyone who needs such a place to belong.

Two related events in his new life gave me the feeling that I was beginning to understand Jean Vanier. Philippe and Raphaël had been institutionalized following the death of their parents, but Philippe did not realize that his mother was dead. He constantly asked for news of her, but people said very little, no doubt trying to avoid traumatizing him by telling him of her death. Jean Vanier arranged for one of his relatives to drive Philippe to his mother’s tomb to help him accept the fact of her death. Of this event, Jean Vanier wrote: “He threw himself on his mother’s grave and howled and howled in a way that you could hear for miles around, and I think those howls were not only because his mother, the only person he had ever loved, was dead but also because no one had treated him as her son. I began to discover a world of immense suffering.”20 L’Arche was founded by Jean Vanier, Philippe, Raphaël, and Father Thomas, and this visit to a cemetery is an important moment in its history: This confidence in the strength of the weakest beautifully illustrates the spirit of L’Arche.

A second event was equally significant. In the beginning, it was simply taken for granted by Jean Vanier that his companions would, as he did, go to Mass each morning. But one day he asked himself the following question: Is this what they truly wish? From that moment on, he stopped conducting himself as, in his own words – “a naval officer” – and started behaving as a companion.

Companion is the word that best describes the essence of L’Arche, if we remind ourselves of its etymology: cum (with) and panis (bread). As Jean-Louis Munn reminds us: “L’Arche was born around a table, around shared food, in daily conviviality. It had to be a place where each person felt equal to the others, where forgiveness and celebration were possible. “L’Arche became a movement only at the moment when those who came with Jean to “do good” or charity (even in all good faith and with the best intentions) fell, like Paul - bowled over - emerging from the illusion that they had freed Raphaël and Philippe, and realizing that it was they who had been freed by Raphaël and Philippe.”

If Jean Vanier has often spoken of L’Arche as a work of justice (and this is not an inaccurate description), he speaks of it above all as a work of liberation, with freedom understood as a restoration – a return to our humanity: “To be free is to put justice, truth, and service to others over and above our own personal gain or our need for recognition, power, honour, and success. When we cling to personal power and success, when we are frightened of losing social status, then we are in some way denying our humanity; we become slaves to our own needs. We are not free.”21
To paraphrase Jean Vanier: “At L’Arche I was able to welcome the beauty of Raphael and Philippe, the purity of their hearts, the depth of their sufferings, their tenderness and their trust. The hidden child in them woke the child hidden in me. There were obviously moments when I continued to play the role of a naval officer and when I directed things strongly and efficiently. It was sometimes necessary, but that was most often a reflection of my own insecurity, of my fear of loss of control. There was, and there is, always, a battle in me between the need to be right, to have power, to control everything, and the profound welcoming of the other, the trust in God and in others: between the need to rise above so as to command, and the desire to step down so as to love, to listen, and to be vulnerable in front of people. When he washed the feet of his disciples, Jesus showed us how God loves and calls each one of us, yesterday as today, to love, to enter into a certain excess of love, to love to the very end.”22

Have I finally understood Jean Vanier? Not yet, not really! Something in me still believes that he embellishes when he speaks of his friends, that in his heart he remains conscious of that which places him “above” them, that the joy he says he knows with them seems a bit forced, that it is the fruit of his virtue more than of the real qualities of Raphaël and Philippe. If it is true that he knows real joy with them, a joy which, in his eyes, is preferable to a more conventional love, how can I stand it? How could I have missed such happiness, given that, all my life, I have passed by the poor who could have given me access to it?

To Understand Obliges One

This is the subtle reasoning behind the precipitous, conventional admiration of Jean Vanier: we are freed by it from having to understand him. Because to understand is to become committed; to understand is to become obligated. I remember a number of experiences in my past that Jean Vanier’s writings have helped me to better understand. Feeling that I am understood by him, maybe one day I will end up feeling that I understand him.

Witnessing the long and violent agony of the first loved one I would see die, I sustained a fear of death which shamed me. At about a metre from the bed, I found I could not move any closer to it; I felt like an animal approaching an electric fence. Where would I get the strength to jump over this fence? I was finally able to take the hand of my loved one in my own hand, to kiss her forehead, and to give her one final earthly pleasure by moistening her lips. Even if these acts held in themselves more than their reward, a greater joy awaited me: Witnessing the glory of this wondrous body, no longer suffering, from which was revealed a dawn where we had feared to see nightfall. These supreme moments of joy are rare and fleeting, but they reveal to us a knowledge that can remain forever present in our minds: supreme joy is elsewhere, often at the polar opposite of the place where we spontaneously seek happiness.

This experience brought me closer to the heart, to the life, and to the thought of Jean Vanier. A dread, he has often said, a dread tied to our fear of death holds a permanent place in the depths of our being, keeping us from the acts and the sight that would transport us to the country of tenderness and joy. How do we move beyond, above this dread? We often outrun it, but from below, by identifying ourselves with the positive images we project of ourselves, by taking refuge in the feeling of security that money brings or, on the other hand, by revelling in the imaginary fear of the lack of money. But going beyond it? Above it there is only love, that love whose source Jean Vanier has found in Jesus, in this Jesus who washed the feet of his disciples and who healed the lepers. And Gandhi, Jean Vanier reminds us, reached this same source by a different path.

A loved one in agony, crushed by it, is less foreign to us than many people living with both an intellectual disability and a physical handicap. We must take another step in order to get close to them. In the most intractable phase of autism, the one we would see as the cruellest, Sonia, a little girl in our neighbourhood, was not someone you would call “good company.” For instance, she could spend hours making noise with an iron door latch. Her whole body, her whole being, her evasive gaze, a nose like Cyrano’s, her hesitant voice – everything seemed to remind one of the cleft palate that marked her entrance into life. She could be violent in her anger: In French, the word for anger is colère, a word that has the same root as the French word for heart, coeur. And the passions of her heart were pitched at the same level as her anger, as was the crush – both hopeless and without possessiveness – that she had on a young friend of her own age. She lived with and through that impossible love for years. Who spoke to her about God? Her Italian grandmother, perhaps? Sonia spoke of God as a friend. She had, and still has, a very beautiful voice, a voice in which the soul is so entwined with the body that one cannot hear it without a breaking heart. She knows how to draw and has a surprising mastery of the French language. Sadly, she has never been able to make much headway in arithmetic – sadly, because a child who can count, even if deprived of all other gifts, seems somehow “normal.” Sonia appears and feels herself to be abnormal. Not that it has stopped her from maturing, better and faster than most young people her age. She was about 16 or 17 when the question of cosmetic surgery for her nose came up. She understood better than anyone – none of her defects escaped her notice – but it was her nose, and she refused to have the operation for that very reason, displaying an acute sense of her own integrity. In doing so, she became more beautiful and loveable. She has helped me understand that one can move toward such beings. Because of her, I am better able to understand Jean Vanier.

But there is more to understand about the centrality of the idea of dread in his life and thought, that dread which appears to me to be the most common element at the heart of unhappiness, the silence of isolated loneliness. Jean Vanier writes: “I once visited a psychiatric hospital that was a kind of warehouse of human misery. Hundreds of children with severe disabilities were lying, neglected, on their cots. There was a deadly silence. Not one of them was crying. When they realize that nobody cares, that nobody will answer them, children no longer cry. It takes too much energy. We cry out only when there is hope that someone may hear us. Such loneliness is born of the most complete and utter depression, from the bottom of the deepest pit in which the human soul can find itself.”23 These babies were living that form a depression. I didn’t know that – I didn’t know that we stop crying if we have lost the hope of being heard. I didn’t have the right to adopt this maxim from Terence, who summarised humanism, in the best sense, in this way: “I am human and nothing that is human is foreign to me.” Jean Vanier invites us to listen to this silence when he urges us to become more human – to welcome our humanity. And if belonging to a group of friends, to a community, to a home, to life, to humanity, to the universe is so important in his eyes, it is because belonging is the remedy for the evil that is the silence of loneliness. The first sign of belonging, the truest, the most touching, is found in the tears that accompany it. The soul becomes ice to protect itself, to save itself. It melts little by little as a result of belonging.

Metaphors, unlike logical propositions, are not subject to the principle of noncontradiction. A soul that has become ice may, at the same time, be earth scorched by the fire of agony. And a scorched land may also be a press that crushes all feeling. This is the most common face of dread, but that same dread may also become the wellspring of love. It is common to all; it is at the very heart of our humanity. We do not know ourselves, we do not really love ourselves until we have rediscovered in ourselves this dread, which reduces the most desperately unhappy to silence. “When I started welcoming those with intellectual disabilities into L’Arche, men and women from institutions, psychiatric hospitals, dysfunctional families, I began to realize how lonely they were. I discovered the terrible feeling of chaos that comes from extreme loneliness. A sense of loneliness can be covered up by the things we do as we seek recognition and success. This is surely what I did as a young adult. It is what we all do.

We all have this drive to do things that will be seen by others as valuable, things that make us feel good about ourselves and give us a sense of being alive. We only become aware of loneliness at times when we cannot perform or when imagination seems to fail us. “… I believe that loneliness is something essential to human nature; it can only be covered over, it can never actually go away. Loneliness is part of being human, because there is nothing in existence that can completely fulfill the needs of the human heart.”24

A Shared Dread

When we read these words of Jean Vanier, we associate him less with Aristotle or St. Thomas than with more recent, existentialist thinkers such as Soren Kierkegaard and Miguel de Unamuno, whose masterpiece was titled The Tragic Sense of Life. It is for Kierkegaard, however, that the theme of dread is central, although he and Jean Vanier differ in one important respect here: Kierkegaard connects dread to sin and guilt, whereas for Jean Vanier dread is tied to the human condition itself. Kierkegaard writes: “If a man were a beast or an angel, he would not be able to be in dread. Since he is a synthesis he can be in dread, and the greater the dread, the greater the man, not however in the sense that people in general understand, as a dread of external things, of what is outside of us, but as a dread we ourselves produce.”25

In other writings, Kierkegaard ties dread to sin through a subtle analysis to which we can’t do justice here. Jean Vanier confines himself to showing, in relief, the negative and positive aspects of dread, without seeking for its sources, and striving to minimize the image of God the strong one, God the judge, who has been, for many, a source of this dread. “The message of Jesus has often been mangled,” writes Jean Vanier. “Jesus has come to lead us all into a society that is a body, where each part, weak or strong, able or disabled, finds its place and is free. This vision for humanity, which is a vision of goodness and compassion for each person, comes from a God of Love, who wants to change our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh. Humanity needs to return to this humble, loving God who is all heart. It needs to rediscover the message of gentleness, tenderness, nonviolence, and forgiveness, to rediscover the beauty of our universe, of matter, of our own bodies, and of all life.”26

Jean Vanier’s journey also intersects with that of Kierkegaard on the paths toward freedom. Jean-Paul Sartre titled one of his novels The Paths to Freedom, and “The Path to Freedom” is the title of one of the CBC Massey Lectures Jean Vanier delivered in 1998, lectures gathered and published in a work entitled Becoming Human. In borrowing this title, with which Vanier was no doubt familiar, was he trying to indicate that we may move beyond Sartre to a Christian existentialism whose ancestor is Kierkegaard?

Apart from his doctoral thesis, and his book about happiness which followed it, Jean Vanier seldom cites philosophers: Martin Buber is one of the few so honoured. And it so happens that there is a close relationship between Buber and Kierkegaard. In the course of a colloquium dedicated to the two philosophers, one of the presenters summarized his thesis by saying that Buber is a thinker who values relationships in the same way Kierkegaard does. 27 The resemblance between Kierkegaard’s and Vanier’s notions of freedom is striking. For one as for the other, dread is the basic condition, and the goal of freedom is achieved when limitations are surpassed in and by faith.28 “Our human heart,” writes Jean Vanier, “is uneasy, starving, parched, thirsting for fulfillment and the infinite. It is not satisfied by the limited, the finite. Since its beginnings, humanity has sought to go further, higher, deeper, in search of the hidden meaning of the universe.”29

Dialogue with the universe, with the other, and with oneself: the three relationships are inextricably linked in the eyes of Jean Vanier. On this very point, he is closer to Buber than to Kierkegaard. For Buber, “the beginning is relationship.” He starts from the principle that the human being is in essence a homo dialogus, that the individual is incapable of knowing himself without being in communion with humanity, with the creation, and with the Creator.

The Buberian being may equally define himself as homo religiosus, for love of humanity leads one to the love of God and to his love for us. The divine Presence participates in every authentic encounter between human beings and inhabits those encounters which are true dialogues: “The celestial and the terrestrial, explains Buber, are linked, one to another. One cannot speak to people without speaking to God, but the words of one who wants to talk with God without talking to human beings are lost.”30 To understand Buber is to begin to understand Jean Vanier.


Given the importance that he assigns to belonging as a way of relating to the universe and to other people, it is important to recall Jean Vanier’s ties – the ways he belongs – to the community of thinkers. The words of Buber, cited above, might have been written by Jean Vanier. They are infused with the same spirit as are the most beautiful of Jean Vanier’s writings on belonging. Think again of the psychiatric hospital, mentioned above, where babies were mprisoned in a silence of ice, without any hope of being heard if they cried or creamed. Here is a place of alienation, a place where one becomes a stranger to neself because one is a stranger to others.

The place of belonging is, on the ontrary, that place where sick babies can scream and cry because they do have ope that they will be heard. Belonging presupposes a community, associated with a specific place, a community that is a vibrant presence, not just a place to live. There is little belonging possible in places or in groups that are, above all else, functional. A niche, a nest, a burrow, a prairie, places of belonging for animals, can never simply be reduced to their functional dimension – i.e., to the provision of shelter. They always also retain the charm of living things, and they are unique precisely because they are alive. These places are signs of life at the same time as they are places to live. The sinuous path that animals trace through the prairie is an apt image. In order to be the “source of life” that Jean Vanier wishes it to be, belonging must be a connection between and among realities that are themselves alive. A group loses part of its life, it freezes up, when it closes in on itself and, consequently, belonging is impossible. “When religion closes people up in their own particular group, it puts belonging to the group, and its success and growth above love and vulnerability towards others; it no longer nourishes and opens the heart.”31

A source of life, belonging is also the condition, in the philosophical sense, of the achievement of this same life. “Each of us needs to belong, not just to one person but to a family, friends, a group, and a culture.” Belonging has two goals, two ends: “Belonging is important for our growth to independence; more important, it is important for our growth to inner freedom and maturity.”

In the following, Jean Vanier presents these ends in the form of a question: Where does this need to belong come from? “Is it only a way of dealing with personal insecurity, sharing in the sense of identify that a group provides? Or is this sense of belonging an important part of everyone’s journey to freedom? Is the sense of belonging akin to the earth itself, a nurturing medium that allows plants and trees to grow and share their flowers and fruits with all? … my vision is that belonging should be at the heart of a fundamental discovery: that we all belong to a common humanity, the human race. We may be rooted in a specific family and culture but we come to this earth to open up to others, to serve them and receive the gifts they bring to us, as well as to all of humanity.”32

In the text just cited, Jean Vanier offers two connections between his thought and that of Simone Weil: first, the metaphor of being rooted, l’enracinement: Simone Weil wrote a book with that title. Second, in the importance she attaches to metaxu –a Greek word meaning “in the middle.” Weil uses it as a synonym for bridge, or intermediary, to designate realities giving rise to the sense of belonging. To paraphrase, she writes: “Do not deprive any human being of his metaxu – that is to say of the ‘goods,’ relative and mixed (home, homeland, traditions, culture, etc.), which warm and nourish the soul and without which, other than for saints, human life is not possible.”33

The goals or ends of belonging, for Jean Vanier, and of being rooted, for Simone Weil, are to help human beings reach the fullness of their humanity, the condition which is the sine qua non of authentic transcendence to wisdom or sanctity. Let us note, in passing, that the word “rooted” emphasizes the connection of plants to the earth, or of the animal with a territory, while the word “belonging” encompasses all kinds of things and all forms of belonging.

Considering all that Jean Vanier says about the importance of sensitivity, and of the body, in the lives of people living with an intellectual disability, the word “rooted” may be more appropriate to them than the word “belonging.” Jean Vanier has often witnessed the signs of this rootedness, which is the emergence of the heart through sensitivity. He writes: “Whenever I visited the little community [of Bethany in the West Bank], I was touched by Ghadir’s beauty. She suffered from cerebral palsy and couldn’t speak, but her smile, her trust, and her shining eyes welcomed me each time I came. Through her body, she “spoke” so lovingly.”34 There is no compensation here.

At this level of incarnation, the risks of psychological distortion are, however, significant. All the testimonies I have heard about him confirm that Jean Vanier knows how to avoid the reefs of emotional overstatement. And all indications are that with Ghadir, as with Raphael and Philippe and all his other friends in L’Arche, Jean Vanier has always been natural and transparent. Natural is also the most appropriate word to describe a quality that has become rare to the point of seeming to be virtually incompatible with modernity. One day, I was telling neighbours about my habit of placing my hand tenderly on the forehead of a loved one whose faculties had become weak. “Oh, you are practicing therapeutic touch,” my neighbours replied. We moderns are continuously tempted to substitute artificial acts for our natural reactions, acts often connected to some profession and tied to a concern for efficiency or efficacy. King Midas transformed all he touched into gold. We transform everything we touch into a technique, an instrument. Friends become contacts helpful to success in business; physical exercise becomes a medical treatment; a house becomes an object of speculation. Nature herself is thus dis-enchanted, becoming something we can transform to satisfy our desire for power. Philosophers call this denatured intelligence “instrumental reason,” and see it as having been turned aside from its proper end, which is contemplation – respect for the other and for the world – to make of the other, and of the world, means at the service of our efforts to dominate. The verb “to instrumentalize” signifies the act through which we transform a laugh – yes, even a laugh – into a therapeutic means to an end.

Instrumental reason, which has become almost second nature to us, is the greatest obstacle to communion and belonging. The temptation to resort to it is especially strong in environments such as L’Arche communities wherein the professional dimension has a certain place. There is nothing more false than loving a vulnerable person because we want to “do good” to him or her. Love becomes in this way a mimetic act that gives rise to the response that has become tragic commonplace: love me therefore a little for myself. Is there in this a trace of what Jean Vanier calls his naïveté, as a result of which he has been spared this ill peculiar to modernity? We see no trace of instrumentalization of the other or of the world in his writings, nor in testimonies about him.

“The heart must either break or turn to lead.” This affirmation, from the writings of philosopher Nicolas de Chamfort, only achieves its most complete significance if, as for Jean Vanier, the word “heart” signifies authentic emotional connection, not something acted or mimed, nor offered as a show, which is just another form of instrumentalization. Those who have consented to have their hearts broken in this way, authentically – whether they are Hindu, Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist, or atheist – will understand Jean Vanier and the ecumenism of the compassion that is his legacy to L’Arche.

1 Spink, Kathryn. Jean Vanier & L’Arche: A Communion of Love, Nepean, Ontario: Meakin and Associates, p. 42.
2 Ibid., p. 10.
3 Ibid., p. 12.
4 Ibid., p. 17.
5 Ibid., p. 26.
6 Ibid., p. 26, quoting from Jean Vanier, Community and Growth, 1976.
7 Ibid., p. 22.
8 Ibid., p. 22.
9 Ibid., p. 29.
10 Nietzsche, Frederick, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Livre de poche, Paris 1963, p.4.
11Frederick, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Livre de poche, Paris 1963, p.4.
12 Ibid., p. 85.
13 To be completed
14 See Vanier, Le goût du bonheur, Presses de la Renaissance, 2000 p.193.
15 Vanier, Jean. Le bonheur, principe et fin de la morale aristotélicienne, Desclée de Brouwers, Paris-Bruges, 1965, pp.
16Vanier Jean. Le goût du bonheur, Presses de la Renaissance, Paris, 2000, p.69
17Ibid, p 69
18 Spink, op. cit., p. 23.
19 Jean-Louis Munn is currently Director of Communications at L’Arche Canada.
20 Spink, op. cit., pp. 40-41.
21 Vanier, Jean. Becoming Human, Toronto: House of Anansi Press, p. 108.
22 Translation of Vanier, Jean, Aimer jusqu'au bout, Novalis, Ottawa, 1996, p.90.
23 Vanier, Becoming Human, p. 9.
24 Ibid., p. 22.
25 Kierkegaard, Soren. The Concept of Dread.
26 Vanier, Becoming Human, p. 133.
27 La relation chez Sören Kierkegaard et Martin Buber » par Henri-Bernard Vergote, in Martin Buber, dialogue et
voix prophétique, Éditions du Cerf, Paris 1980. Résumé de l'article.
28 Kierkegaard, Søren. « Le concept de l’angoisse », Miettes philosophies, Le concept de l’angoisse, Traité du désespoir,
Paris : Éditions Gallimard, 1990, p.329.
29 Source to be determined.
30 Kalman Yaron. “Martin Buber, 1878-1965,” Perspectives: revue trimestrielle d'éducation comparée. Paris, UNESCO:
Bureau international d'éducation, Vol. XXIII, No. 1-2, 1993, pp. 135-147.
31 Vanier, Jean. Becoming Human, p. 63.
32 Ibid., p. 36.
33 Weil, Simone. La pesanteur et la grâce, Paris, Plon, 1948, p.168.
34 Vanier, Jean. Becoming Human, p.37.


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Jacques Dufresne's

The editor of L'Encyclopédie de L'Agora and well known newspaper chronicler and philosopher, analyses actuality through the looking glass of Belonging.
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