Volume 3 Number 3
The Man Who Built the Ark
01 March 1990
Jean Vanier heard the `silent cry' of two men with mental handicaps and found himself living in the first of the L'Arche communities. He talks to Christiane Mallet-Watteville.
I first met Jean Vanier over 20 years ago, when L'Arche (the Ark) was hardly known. In those days, adult institutions for people with a mental handicap were almost non-existent in France. Those who had no family or whose families could not cope ended up in psychiatric hospitals - which were quite the wrong places. Meanwhile L'Arche had started quietly to open its doors to male adults with impaired intelligence.
Believing that every adult needs the chance to be independent, whatever their difficulties, I was looking for a place where Isabelle, my mentally handicapped daughter, could blossom. I met Vanier briefly at an international conference. `If ever you start a home for women, keep me in mind,' I managed to say. He took my address and the conversation ended.
We had no contact for two years. Then he telephoned me to say that a home for women was about to open. I met the woman who was taking it on and Isabelle became one of the first women to be welcomed at L'Arche.
Jean Vanier is not an easy man to profile. Not interested in talking about himself, he would far rather talk about his work and the people for whom he pours out his energy and his love. He is the son of a Governor-General of Canada, and he served as a naval officer before studying philosophy. He obtained a doctorate and then taught at the University of Toronto.
His life's work can be traced back to a visit in 1964 to a Dominican friend - Father Thomas Philippe, the chaplain of a hostel for 30 men with handicaps at Trosly-Breuil, a little village 60 miles from Paris.
Following this, Vanier visited other centres and psychiatric hospitals. `I discovered a whole wide world of suffering I never knew existed - men and women in unimaginable distress,' he says.
Two whom he met were Raphael and Philippe, who had been put in an asylum when their parents died. They did not say anything - they were not capable of coherent speech. But their expression and manner said, `Take us with you!' And he heard their `silent cry' (one of Vanier's favourite phrases).
With the support and encouragement of Father Thomas, Vanier was able to buy a dilapidated little house in Trosly-Breuil and there he welcomed Raphael and Philippe. Vanier knew that by so doing he was irrevocably committing his life. Thus began L'Arche, with the three men cooking, eating, working and praying together.
In essence, this is how the 90 L'Arche communities around the world today function. People of normal intelligence live in roughly equal numbers with their fellows who have mental handicaps. Many young people are among those who, after a trial period of two or three months, commit themselves to the community for a year or more. Their common life includes religious devotions as well as all the practicalities of daily living.
What made Vanier respond to Raphael and Philippe? There was, of course, the exchange of looks. But he explains that his commitment to follow Christ had impelled him to find out who, in the affluent West, were really the poor.
The poor person, says Vanier, is the one who is calling out because he does not belong anywhere. He has no voice and no one to love him; and he is defenceless. The person with a mental handicap is amongst the poorest, the most oppressed, in the world. They are crying out for a relationship, for people to live alongside them, to recognize their dignity, their gifts and their beauty.
We do not want to hear the cry of people with handicaps, Vanier maintains, because it brings us straight to the poor person in ourselves, arousing our hidden fears which are nonetheless very real. `If we are to bear the sound of our own cry of anguish, we have to pray, as in the Psalms, to God our Father.'
Vanier says that if we welcome the cry of the poor, it is a fresh spring of hope. 'It joins the spring dormant in each one of us, which is the spring of life. It comes and stirs the deepest and most precious parts of our being, of which we are often unaware, "that spring whose waters never run dry".'
Vanier welcomes some who have never known their families, who need a whole new emotional stability. Vanier and his coworkers enter into their suffering day by day. In practice, this means accompanying them through all the details of daily life.
He talks readily of how much he has gained by living in community with people with handicaps. `They taught me much about the difficulties common to all human beings when it comes to entering the realm of love,' he says.
When you live under the same roof, he adds, there is friction and clash and you hurt each other. `One has to learn forgiveness. To enter into communion with someone implies knowing how to receive as well as give. It is an attitude of welcoming rather than one of doing, and that is often difficult.'
The aim of the L'Arche communities, says Vanier, is to create little oases where people can love, where they live a life of celebration and learn to forgive one another. They aim, too, to be communities of faith, starting with faith in human beings.
He explains, `In every religion there is the conviction that each human being is precious in the sight of God. In each human being there is that spark of light, God's light, which is life itself. When we come together, we find that God is there, that he hears us and guides us. And so we have come to share our spiritual life together for the sake of a united community.'
Not all the L'Arche communities are Christian-based. One in India consists of 18 Hindus, six Muslims and two or three Christians. How, I ask, is it possible to achieve a shared spiritual life in such a case? `Different spiritual sensitivities can sometimes give rise to painful misunderstandings,' admits Vanier. `But people who are handicapped live out their relationship with God in quite a different dimension from the rest of us. This teaches us to respect one another and to keep searching ourselves. Each morning and evening we all pray together.
`A community,' he adds, `isn't built in a day. In fact it is always either growing towards greater love or going backwards - depending on whether people accept or refuse to enter the dark tunnel of suffering in order to be reborn in the Spirit.'
The health of a community, he says, can be measured by the quality of its welcome to the unexpected visitor; by the joy and simplicity of relationships between its members; by their confidence in difficult times; and by their creative response to the cry of the poor.
How, I ask, have the communities grown across the world from that little house with Raphael and Philippe? `The birth of each community is a beautiful story in itself,' he replies. Each of the L'Arche communities is very different - the one about to open in Japan will look nothing like those in Africa or Central America. He adds, `We have never chosen to go to a particular place.
We have followed the signs and one sign has led to another until something has resulted. Each community exists above all because of the people we welcome.'
Each community, he says, starts by serving the poor - but they must gradually discover the gift those poor people bring. `In the end the most important thing is not to do things for people who are poor and in distress but to form a relationship with them, be alongside them and help them to have confidence in themselves and discover their own gifts.'
Paradoxical as it may seem, Jean Vanier often speaks of the beauty of the person who is mentally handicapped - though he admits that the first impression is of a wounded face and body, which can be frightening. He warns, `If you are afraid, it is difficult to start a relationship; but once a relationship is formed, something changes in the face. It relaxes, the eyes begin to shine and there is a light in the childlike smile.' He says he has never seen such a quality of smile on the face of someone who is fully integrated into society - and it is all the more striking in a disfigured face. `One realizes that true beauty comes from within.'
When asked whether it was this beauty which helped him to love those with mental handicaps, he answers, `Yes.' Men and women with mental handicaps overturn the values of normal society. They are not trying to be successful, to climb the ladder. They have an element of innocence. `There is something very clear, pure, fragile about them. There is an aura of light which for me is God's presence.'
He acknowledges that a simple heart can also become a fearful heart and shut itself in its fears. `Yet,' he continues, `out of the fears trust can be born - and that is what means most to me.'
What would Vanier say to people who do not feel particularly called to look after those who are mentally handicapped?
`Every person is called to love and to change something in this world,' he responds. `The most important thing for us humans is to welcome frailty, to welcome our own frailty and admit it-for all people are frail. We must come down from the ladder and go to meet our fellow human beings. Each one is luminous with God's light.'
What more dare I ask him?