Something Beautiful for God: The Gift of Jean Vanier
Vanier and the L'Arche communities exemplify the "journey inward" funding the "journey outward."
When I discuss with students my heroes in the faith, two names always come to mind: Mother Teresa and Jean Vanier. I never had the privilege of meeting Mother Teresa, but when I organized a Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar in Rome about six years ago, Jean agreed to come and to participate. His presence and contribution was the highlight of the event, and from his life and work we can draw valuable insights into how the church might draw nearer to God in our time and become a plausible community—a city on a hill.
Vanier comes from a distinguished Canadian family, served in the Navy, did a doctorate in philosophy on Aristotle’s Ethics, and then taught philosophy at the University of Toronto. He enjoyed teaching, and through it, he says in Our Life Together, “[I] discovered that I had a gift for announcing Jesus. God seemed to be at work in and through my words and the passion and joy that sustained them.”
However, he was still searching for his vocation. Under the influence of his mentor and spiritual director Père Thomas, introduced to him by his mother, Vanier experienced the call to set up community with people with intellectual disabilities. Père Thomas had moved to a village in France, Trosly-Breuil, where he was chaplain of Le Val Fleuri, a small institution that welcomed thirty men with disabilities. Vanier bought a house in the same village, named it L’Arche (ark) and welcomed into it Raphaël Simi and Philippe Seux, two men who had been placed in a dismal institution when their parents died. Thus began what is now an international movement with L’Arche houses all round the world.
Learning the Practices of the Journey In
Jean Vanier learned from Père Thomas the practice of prayer, being still in the presence of God, to simply be and remain in communion with Jesus. It is this practice of prayer that is utterly foundational to Vanier’s life and to that of L’Arche. Central to the original community in Trosly-Breuil is the oratory, a place for prayer where the host remains present at all times.
In this respect, Vanier and L’Arche exemplify what Elizabeth O’Connor has called the journey inward and the journey outward. Church of the Savior in Washington D.C. made this double journey central to their mission with surprising results. The journey in involves deep relationship with God and Scripture, with a small group and with oneself. One’s vocation or journey out emerges from the journey in. Vanier and L’Arche have done mission on steroids, as it were, and made a huge contribution to the commons of countless cultures, as genuine mission should do, but it has been deeply rooted in the journey inward.
As evangelicals rightly woke up in the 20th century to the fact that the Gospel relates to all of life, a great deal of cultural engagement has been generated. The journey out into every aspect of our culture has been recovered. Alas, this has too often been embodied in a sort of evangelical activism bereft of an ever-deeper move into Jesus. This sort of activism not rooted deeply in Jesus is precisely what Vanier has avoided. The authentic spirituality he embodies requires that everyone, in all the diverse vocations, regularly dedicate, every day, appropriate times to enter deeply into silent conversation with him by whom they know they are loved, to share their very lives with him and to receive enlightenment to continue on the daily journey. It is an exercise which requires fidelity, because we are constantly being bombarded by the estrangements and excesses which come from today’s society, especially from the means of communication. At times fidelity to personal prayer will require a true effort not to allow oneself to be swallowed up in frenetic activism.
Recovery of the journey in will not be easy. Nouwen notes that statistically most pastors spend less than twenty minutes a day in prayer. Vanier would ask people, “Do you pray?” When they replied about being too busy, he would respond, “I expect then, that you pray a lot when on holiday!” We are starting to see a recovery of deep spirituality among North American evangelicals, which is a real sign of hope. Practices require a tradition and spiritual direction of the sort that so powerfully formed Vanier in an oral rather than a written tradition. We need to recover such practices if our lives and work are to be genuinely “something beautiful for God” (a phrase from Mother Teresa).
With the practice of prayer goes the practice of searching the Scriptures, which are the fields hidden in which we find the pearl of great price. A crucial question for our day is how to listen to Scripture, so that time and again we find ourselves in the presence of that pearl— namely, Jesus. We urgently need to recover the ancient practice of lectio divina, a practice for listening to God’s address in Scripture so that we hear his voice and are drawn ever more deeply into his life. Of course, such a recovery has to be for our day and in a way that works for us.
I do not know of a better modern example of lectio than Vanier’s Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John. He says in the introduction,
What I share in these pages is the music I have heard behind the words and the flow of the Gospel of John.
I have listened to the song,
which warmed and stirred my heart,
opened up my intelligence,
gave hope, meaning and orientation to my life,
with all that is beautiful and all that is broken within me,
and meaning to this world of pain in which we live.
I want to sing this song, too,
even if my voice is weak and sometimes wavers
so that others may sing it
and that together we may be in the world
singing a song of hope
to bring joy where there is sadness and despair.
Vanier’s reading of John truly enables one to eat and drink Christ. As Augustine says of Mary—sister of Martha—“I know what she was doing; she was eating Jesus”! I am tempted to quote repeatedly from Vanier’s book, but I leave it to you to savour it for yourself.
Yet two points should be noted about Vanier’s lectio reading of Scripture. The first is his semipoetic style of writing—he calls it “meditative prose”—which is characteristic of many of his books. Jean Leclercq notes in his superb The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture that monastic exegesis yielded its own literary styles, and this is true of Vanier. There is something about lectio that calls forth a more poetic literary style as it evokes the fullness of the life we are called into in communion with Jesus.
Secondly, note that Vanier never sets lectio against academic biblical interpretation. In preparation for his book, he read many commentaries and books on John. But all of this academic work is put in service of listening to John for God’s address. Today, amidst the minority recovery of the so-called theological interpretation of the Bible, we need renewed attention to lectio and its relationship to biblical exegesis. In my forthcoming Biblical Hermeneutics, I argue that biblical interpretations should begin and culminate in lectio. Such a recovery will need examples of good practice such as those by Vanier.
As is widely recognized, Western individualism has been destructive toward community, and many attempts have been and are being made to recover it. Amidst the juggernaut of globalization, this is no easy task. Churches have too often become businesses and have moved their focus away from people, and thus from community. In one of his books, the historian Butterfield says that he lies awake at night sometimes wondering if something vital was not lost when the Protestants closed the monasteries. What was lost was the hundreds of years of experience in living community—no easy task.
As evangelicals recover a vision of community, they do risk assuming that with the Bible and the Spirit, we can easily do community. However, few things bring our unformed false selves to the surface as quickly as community, and great wisdom is required in its practice. One of the best resources in this respect is Vanier’s classic Community and Growth. He notes,
There is a big difference between a community and a group that is militant for a cause. A community will say “Come and see.” It wants to manifest the truth in a non-violent way, offering it to others; visitors are encouraged to come, to ask questions, to experience the way of life . . . Militants for a cause will tend to be organized for a struggle which they hope to win; they will seek to impose their way aggressively. Frequently they seek outward change more than inward changes. Of course it is very different when those concerned with causes and issues are living in community.
This quote comes from Vanier’s chapter on “Mission.” He notes how unity emerges in a community when it has a sense of urgency about its mission: “this sense of urgency, however, does not mean that members are hyperactive, nervous and anguished; it does not conflict with a sense of abandonment, trust, peacefulness and inner relaxation.” Today, the discovery and practice of missional church is helping to recover community. But if missional church is to be sustained, it will need to develop the sort of communal practices discussed by Vanier in Community and Growth.
Vanier has repeatedly noted the gift of people who have disabilities. He set out to help them, but they have enriched his life enormously and led him again and again to Jesus. L’Arche is important in our consumer, high-tech cultures precisely because it is so counter intuitive. The seriously disabled simply cannot enter (easily) into the mainstream of Western culture; they compel a slowing down and attention to what really matters, namely relationship. Their disabilities mean that they embody the vulnerability and openness we need to recover since their wounds are on the surface, whereas ours are buried beneath sophisticated false selves. As Vanier notes in his conclusion to The Challenge of L’Arche, “People with handicaps, and especially severe handicaps, are particularly vulnerable, for they cannot hide their yearning for relationship behind hyper-activity. In a way, they are only heart: a wounded, open heart.”
When I spoke at a conference in Ancaster, Ontario in 2009 on Jean Vanier and sociology, a truly wonderful thing happened: the local Hamilton L’Arche came to the talk. At the conference, a student made a radical suggestion: universities like ours need a L’Arche community living in our midst. While this is unlikely to happen, the point is right—we need L’Arche and its lived practice of community if we are to survive and contribute missionally to Western culture at this time.
I sometimes ask my students why someone like Mother Teresa was able to go to the White House and rebuke the powers of the day over abortion, while we would never get a hearing. The answer, of course, is that her life was so inherently plausible that they had to listen to her. The same is true of Vanier and L’Arche; his life so embodies the gospel that his words are powerful and inherently plausible. His preaching style is noteworthy (I recommend readers to listen to recordings of his talks). He certainly does have a gift to announce Jesus, but it is unlike most preaching we hear from our pulpits. His talks come from a place of deep silence and centredness in Jesus, and are, as a result, truly life-giving.
In the West, we Christians urgently need to attend to plausibility. The concept of a “plausibility structure” is particularly associated with the sociologist Peter Berger. In The Sacred Canopy Berger defines a plausibility structure as follows:
A plausibility structure thus refers to that network of practices and habits and social intercourse that supports and makes credible a particular set of beliefs, a particular way of viewing the world.
Whereas, he says, “religion has been the historically most widespread and effective instrumentality of legitimation,” much of Western culture is now radically secular, and “by secularization we mean the process by which sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols.” The effect of secularization has been the widespread collapse of the plausibility of traditional religious definitions of reality. Much of western Christianity has adjusted to modernity by privatizing its faith with the result that, while many, many words are spoken, their words come across as inherently implausible. Berger rightly notes that “all religious traditions . . . require specific communities for their continuing plausibility.” Little wonder that in his posthumously published work on postmodernism, Believing in the Future, missiologist David Bosch argues that in today’s context the Church urgently needs to attend to plausibility and worldview.
For the gospel to be taken seriously in and outside of the West today, it must be embodied in practices and communities so that when we speak it is impossible and undesirable to ignore us. The gifts of Vanier and L’Arche need to be extended into all our churches and institutions, our universities, businesses, restaurants, homes, and the like, until they too embody a comparable plausibility.
Jean Vanier and L’Arche are a great gift. To me that gift can be summed up in a few words—prayer, lectio, community, plausibility—or in one word: Jesus. In the deepest sense of the word, Vanier has fulfilled the vocation of his namesake John the Baptist, constantly pointing us to Jesus. As Kierkegaard notes of Chrysostom, Vanier has gestured towards Christ with his whole life.
I sometimes reflect on whether it might be possible for contemporary evangelicalism to produce a Jean Vanier or a Mother Teresa. Perhaps we already have, and they are at work in different parts of God’s world in glorious obscurity. It should be possible, but only with prayer, lectio, and community, issuing in plausibility.