Jean Vanier is the son of the late Governor General of Canada. He served in both the British and the Canadian Royal Navies, and in 1950 left the navy to study and teach philosophy in Paris, France. There, through his friendship with a Dominican priest, Father Thomas Philippe, he became aware of the plight of thousands of people institutionalized with mental disabilities. Jean felt God’s call to do something about it, and invited two men to leave the institutions where they were living and share their lives with him in a real home. That simple act was the beginning of an international movement called L’Arche—French for “The Ark”—a network of more than 100 faith-based communities in 30 countries. At L’Arche, men and women with mental disabilities live together with their care givers in loving and spirit-filled homes. Jean Vanier was a friend and mentor of the late Fr. Henri Nouwen, a frequent guest on this program. He’s written more than 20 books, including Our Journey Home and Becoming Human. Jean travels widely, lecturing and leading retreats, and continues to make his home at the original L’Arche community in France. [Biographical information is correct as of the broadcast date noted above.]
Interview with Jean Vanier
Interviewed by Lydia Talbot
Lydia Talbot: Jean, you do what most people could never do. You have given your life to ministering to the poor, the handicapped, the intellectually disabled. You are living your faith. Where did you learn that kind of discipleship?
Jean Vanier: I think, essentially, from Fr. Thomas Philippe. I find that this kind of discipleship is just filled with celebration. I sometimes find that it is very difficult for people to be so-called “normal.” Our world is a world of incredible tension. I found with Raphael and Philippe, the first two people I began to live with, that I began to discover myself. I began to find the child in myself. I was never so happy as when I was living with them in a very simple way in a little house, working together, having fun together, praying together. That is to say, I sensed a completely new meaning to my life, very different from when I was in the navy, very different from when I was teaching philosophy, but something much more fulfilling. It was a place where it was quite clear that Jesus was present.
Talbot: You say you discovered yourself but that discovery, as you say in your book, “Becoming Human,” took you a long time—to discover the “brokenness” in the history and life of your church as well as in yourself. Can you talk about that?
Vanier: You see, I believe that we are all very broken in our capacity to relate. Human beings like power and to be admired and to be brilliant. When you start living with people with disabilities, you begin to discover a whole lot of things about yourself. Some are easy to live with, but others can make you climb the wall. Others can make you touch your own brokenness, your own poverty, your own violence and so on. I have lived experiences when I have sensed incredible violence inside of myself. Maybe being in community I didn’t hurt anyone, but I discovered who I was. I discovered also that the truth will set me free, and so there’s the gradual realization about what it means to be human. To be human is that capacity to love which is the phenomenal reality that we can give life to people; we can transform people by our attentiveness, by our love, and they can transform us. It is a whole question of giving life and receiving life, but also to discover how broken we are.
Talbot: Broken and lonely. You begin your book with a very detailed discussion of loneliness and the primal call that people who are disabled make when they are lonely, like death, as you put it. Have you ever felt that kind of loneliness?
Vanier: What I have found is that I had learned to cover up my loneliness.
Talbot: How were you lonely?
Vanier: I think fundamentally we’re all lonely but we cover up our loneliness. What I have lived is anguish and I think we all live anguish. Anguish is inneragitation. It affects sleep. I think that we are called to discover anguish. You see, anguish is the reality of human beings because we are not God. We haven’t all the power in us. We haven’t got all the resources that we need. We are people who are mortal and, therefore, there is an element of disintegration which is inside all of us. But we are very frightened of mortality. We’re frightened of anguish so we cover it up. We go into the world of dreams or we go into the world of work. We become workaholics. We’re frightened of touching.
So, I have lived quite a bit of anguish. I believe this is what it means: we human beings are called to discover how to hold onto anguish, how not to flip into compensations of drug or alcohol or easy sexuality, how not to run away into a world of work, but how to just live relationships in community. I believe that living with people with disabilities, they helped me a great deal to find and to come into my body. One of the wonderful thing with people with disabilities is how they come up and hug you.
Talbot: You have fun.
Vanier: We have fun because the way people with disabilities relate is not by discussing economics, theology or politics.
Talbot: It’s a two-way street.
Vanier: It’s a two-way street.
Talbot: But it wasn’t always that way. At the age of 13 you joined the navy and you spent all of your adolescence surrounded by things of war and World War II. You were a stiff person, bent on duty and discipline, as you say. What was that moment of revelation for you that you followed this calling?
Vanier: That pushed me out of the navy. It was a gradual consciousness and a yearning for love—a gradual consciousness that there was something over and above warfare and preparing for warfare, so there was a gradual estrangement. I remember in 1950, as a young naval officer, the aircraft carrier I was on went to Havana. Fidel Castro wasn’t around at that time, and all my brother officers went out dancing. I, like crazy, went to church because I had been attracted to something different, a new meaning to my life. It wasn’t a big moment of revelation. It was a gradual consciousness that there was something deeper than just being prepared for war, machines, efficiency, competence, commanding. Something else, and I suppose it was something about myself also. It was probably a desire to come back into myself and to find what was most important inside of myself, which was my heart.
Talbot: You studied philosophy in France and before your ordination you became a professor of philosophy.
Vanier: I was never ordained.
Talbot: No. This is the priesthood of all believers, isn’t it?
Talbot: But in a sense you have devoted your life to the L’Arche experience of solidarity with the disabled.
Vanier: Yes. Yes.
Talbot: And in that sense, your vow.
Vanier: Yes. There is a bonding. I think they have devoted their life to me. I have devoted my life to them. We have found something together as you only do something if it is really going to fulfill you and I feel that living in L’Arche, with faith and light, I have become fulfilled.
Talbot: Well, and you are fulfilling others. Jean, you have over one hundred L’Arche communities throughout the world, thirteen are here in the United States. In your book, “Becoming Human,” you really center so much on a radical understanding of the Gospel of Luke and Jesus’ parable about the rich man and Lazarus, the beggar left at the gate. How has that understanding of Luke been a guidepost for you and your ministry?
Vanier: I think there is a whole mystery which we find in Luke. Lazarus was an excluded outcast, a leper, and he is the one that enters into the kingdom. The rich man, who wasn’t able to see him, rejected him. He goes into the place of torment. You see, the danger for rich people is that they become frightened and they build up barriers around their hearts, defense mechanisms, because they have to preserve their riches, preserve their image, preserve their power. So they become people of with lots of fear, whereas Lazarus has nothing to defend. He’s just himself.
Talbot: But by Christ, the real sin was not wealth itself, but the fact that the wealthy do not see the poor, are blind to the poor,
Vanier: And if you are blind to the poor, you become blind to God, and there is the mystery because the word became flesh, became little, became crucified. We know He is hidden in the poor and the weak and the fragile and whatever you do to the weak, whatever you do to the hungry, the thirsty, you do unto Jesus. There are those incredible words of Jesus, “Whoever among you who welcomes one of these little ones, welcomes me.”
Talbot: And so an understanding of our common humanity. How do people get to that place?
Vanier: I believe that it’s through an experience. You see, the danger we human beings face is that we are vulnerable. We’ve all been hurt and so we create defense mechanisms. These defense mechanisms are based on elements of fear and prejudice. I have to say, “I am the best.” We are Canadians. We are Americans. We are this, we are that. We are in this church. We are the ones that know everything and others don’t. And then one day you speak to Lazarus. You share with him and you begin to see that Lazarus is an incredibly beautiful human being.
I will tell you the story about a young boy. It’s quite far from Lazarus but it’s a young lad who died at the age of five, and at the age of three had paralysis of the legs and the paralysis moved all the way up the body. A few weeks before his death, he was blind and completely paralyzed and Mum was weeping next to him. The little boy said, “Don’t cry Mummy. I still have a heart to love my Mummy with.” Now that little boy was incredibly mature. You see, maturity is not to weep for what I do not have but to give thanks for what I have.
Hidden in this broken body of the leper, Lazarus, the beggar, you find a human being who has touched the essence of his humanity, whereas many other people who are rich and powerful are hiding their humanity. They don’t really know who they are. They don’t really know that they are a little child crying out for love. Aristotle says something quite extraordinary. He says, “If you feel you are not loved, you seek to be admired.” That’s to say you want to be brilliant, you want power, you want to have people looking at you, but you don’t quite know who you are yourself.
Talbot: And fear. You write about fear in your book, “On Becoming Human.” You say that with tenderness there is no fear.
Vanier: There’s an incredible thing with tenderness. Tenderness today is something that has become quite sexualized. We don’t quite know what tenderness is. Tenderness is a mother holding her child, giving the child security, and by the way of holding the child revealing to the child that she is beautiful, that he is special. Tenderness is the nurse who removes the bandage when there is still a wound and does it so as not to hurt. So tenderness is not to hurt someone. In Isaiah it talks of the servant of the Lord who does not break the broken reed. To hold people tenderly is to reveal to them that they are precious and that they are important and they have value.
See, in our world there are a lot of very broken people. The Lazaruses are there. There are a lot of Lazaruses who might be big business men, but Lazarus is inside of them. They’re frightened. They’re angry. They’re competitive. They don’t know quite who they are. There is a lot of dirt inside of them and they, too, need to be touched tenderly, to be listened to. I mean everybody is hurting. Lots of people are lonely. They’re working through broken marriages. They need tenderness, which is somewhere somebody saying, “You are precious. You’re important and I understand what you’re living.”
Talbot: So in the process from loneliness through belonging, from exclusive to inclusive, you talk about the path to freedom and you talk about the seven steps on that path. Can you share those?
Vanier: Yes. You see first of all, to desire to be free we have to be conscious that we are not free and that we are caught up in compulsions for power, that we are built up on fear, that we have terrible prejudices. So, the very first thing is a consciousness that I’m not free, that I am shackled to the eyes of people. I want to be what other people want me to be. So this is the beginning. As we begin to know ourselves, a desire can rise up because we’ve met somebody who is free, or maybe in a moment of prayer. It could come as we look at nature. Something rises up within us and in that path of freedom, we need help. We need somebody who is going to walk with us.
Talbot: And you say it is often the disabled who are free and who are our teachers.
Vanier: People with disabilities are incredible because they are not caught by conventions. I remember a whole group of us went to Rome and we were to meet the Pope. Fabio, who has quite a severe handicap but can walk, sat on the throne of the Pope. He was sitting like that, quite happy, and everybody was wondering what was going to happen. But he was free! I would never have dared to go and sit on the throne of the Pope, but he had that freedom from convention because we are caught up in what will people think of us. That’s not their problem. Their problem is, “Do you love me?” So they are caught up in something else, which is something which is coming from the very depths of their being. They call people to trust, and they themselves trust, and they are calling us all into a relationship of mutuality.
Talbot: And a relationship of compassion. Pope John Paul has called your ministry of L’Arche a dynamic and providential sign of the civilization of love. Jean Vanier you are changing the world one heart at a time. We thank you so much for this visit.