Jean Vanier, who died Tuesday morning at age 90, lived much of his life beside death.
“Over the last forty-two years we’ve had many deaths, and we’ve spent a lot of time celebrating death. It’s very fundamental to our community,” he wrote, referencing his experience in L’Arche community of Trosly-Breuil, France—where Vanier began the first of an international network of communities for people with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities to live together in faith and friendship.
As he recounted in his book Living Gently in a Violent World, “To celebrate death is to gather around and talk about the person—about Janine, for example, who died recently. We gathered to say how beautiful she was, how much she had brought to us. Her sisters came, and we wept and laughed at the same time. We wept because she was gone, but we laughed because she did so many beautiful things.”
Likewise, those of us who have been formed and inspired by Jean Vanier have hearts heavy with both grief and gratitude as we celebrate the beautiful things we learned from a leader who helped us all to become more human.
We don’t often find people born into privilege and status, and highly educated, who then follow the downward path of Jesus. But as founder of L’Arche International, Vanier spent decades in community with people with and without intellectual disabilities and embraced the joys, complications, and demands that go along with such a life.
The fourth of five children, Vanier was born into a deeply Catholic family with prestige and prominence in Canadian society. He served in the Navy for a number of years but was continually drawn to community life and spiritual practices. After a 30-day Ignatian prayer retreat, he resigned from the service.
It makes sense that for a person whose life was marked by recognizing the impact of relationships of listening and presence, it would be a new friendship—Vanier’s connection with priest and mystic Father Thomas Phillippe—that would transform his life and ministry.
After earning his doctorate in philosophy in Paris and teaching ethics in Canada, Vanier visited Father Phillippe in Val Fleuri, a small institution in France made up of men with intellectual disabilities. Though this was an institutional space marked by foul odors and a lack of human nurture, Vanier recognized that Jesus was there in a special way and eventually felt compelled to invite a few men out of the institution to live with him.
So in August 1964, three of them moved to his home in Trosly-Breuil, France. One, Dany, came and went quickly, desiring to return to a familiar environment. But two others, Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux, decided to stay. With this small household, the L’Arche movement—French for “The Ark”—began.
The Catholic theologian understood early on that L’Arche would not be a place of one-sided service, and his emphasis on true mutuality in relationships has become one of his most enduring legacies for the church. In community, Vanier discovered how human weakness and vulnerability enables us to forge real connections. His fellow community members with intellectual disabilities instructed him with their consistent openness with themselves: their needs, joys, loves, and pain.
Vanier came to emphasize our common humanity: the desire to love and be loved and to develop and share our gifts. He recognized that people who are vulnerable, who experience their anguish and pain openly, are at the core of communities. In their vulnerability, they call everyone together. Over time, we all come to discover our own brokenness and fragility, realizing that “they” are also “us.”
While many ministries involving people with intellectual disabilities began with a clear separation between those being helped and those doing the helping, slowly the paradigm has shifted toward Vanier’s approach at L’Arche, where all are called to share their gifts as members of one body of Christ, doing the work of the gospel together. Our differences show us that we need each other; they can enrich us instead of dividing us.
It is in large part due to the heartful theology of Vanier and L’Arche that those of us who work at intersections of faith and disability have brought this sense of mutual giftedness into churches, social ministries, and the academy. His theological influence extended across Christian traditions and denominations, including intentional communities like Shane Claiborne’s The Simple Way and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s Rutba House. Wilson-Hartgrove counts Vanier and the work of L’Arche as an enduring inspiration, referencing teachings from Vanier such as “People come to community because they want to help the poor. They stay in community because they realize they are the poor.”
Just as Vanier’s ministry drew people who seemed different together in community, his message likewise had broad appeal, capturing the hearts and imaginations both of people with intellectual disabilities and of scholars and intellectuals. Vanier compellingly described and so naturally lived into the integration of our whole selves—including our bodies and our hearts.
For people with intellectual disabilities who are drawn to Vanier, at least as my friends who live in L’Arche tell it, they appreciate him as a gentle and kind friend. They also enjoy living in a community like L’Arche, which strives to be a place where people seek to know and love each other as they are.
Being a community that honors the embodied and emotional aspects of being human is part of what makes this a place to live that—while imperfect—becomes a “school of love” even in its difficulty. As Vanier points out, even Jesus’ first disciples squabbled with each other, yet they were called to be together.
For scholars and intellectuals, or really anyone who can be over-focused on the rational life of the mind, Vanier calls us to pause and find healing as we also attend to our bodies, our anguish, our hearts—and to the bodies, anguish, and hearts of others. Life in L’Arche is less about thinking theology and more about doing theology in community.
As Catholic priest and spiritual teacher Henri Nouwen pointed out, “L’Arche is built upon the body, not the word. Words are secondary.” It’s about “a spirituality of love through small things,” everyday actions like holding the hand of someone as they cry, making space for someone to exercise their gifts, saying “I forgive you for annoying me” and “I will also work on my own patience” when someone we live with is annoying us. These are not lofty, idealized notions of community or Christian love, they are grounded in reality and require the integration of our bodies and our hearts.
I discovered Vanier through Nouwen, having watched a documentary (again and again) where Vanier delivers the eulogy at Nouwen’s funeral. He pays tribute to Nouwen’s charisma and giftedness but also acknowledges the anguish and yearning that marked his life and sometimes their friendship. Vanier said with great compassion, “But Henri was always … Henri.” That small phrase, said with truth and tenderness, touched me and invited me into the embodied, heartful theology of Jean Vanier.
Across ministry settings, people come to know Vanier’s philosophical and theological ideas through his many books, like Becoming Human and Community and Growth among dozens of others, but also through personal encounters as he traveled to L’Arche communities around the world and his speaking on the areas of faith, community, and the possibility of peace in diversity.
For decades he traveled the globe, connecting with Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II, and Pope Francis over shared love for the way of Jesus and the people societies have marginalized. His voice for peace and love on a global scale, rooted in awareness and compassion toward his own vulnerability and to the vulnerability present in all of humanity, resulted in dozens of international awards and honors, like the 2015 Templeton Prize.
Father Greg Boyle, who founded Homeboy Industries, the largest job-training program for formerly gang-involved and previously incarcerated people, describes being deeply influenced by Vanier and the spirituality of L’Arche, in particular, living out the understanding that “tenderness is the highest form of spiritual maturity.” Vanier’s embodied message speaks to the deepest parts of the human heart and resonates across continents and contexts.
In the final years of his life, as a faithful Catholic theologian leading an international ministry, Vanier was repeatedly asked the question of what he would think of being made a saint. He always dismissed the idea. He explains that he really just wanted to be a friend of Jesus, someone who exemplifies a beautiful life of love and humility and not the pursuit of accolades and worldly success. He also said that anyone who would call for him to be a saint must not know him very well.
“As soon as you say people are saintly, you’re putting them on a pedestal and saying you can’t do it,” he said in one interview. “But we are all called to work together and love each other and we don’t have to be saints to do that.”
Through his words and his life, Vanier proclaimed that we’re all the same, fragile and wounded, and that it is exactly there where we are beautiful and capable of connection to others. We may not be saints, but we are humans, and as it turns out, that perfectly equips us to be friends of Jesus and to follow the way of the heart.
Bethany McKinney Fox (PhD, Christian ethics, Fuller Theological Seminary) is the founding pastor of Beloved Everybody Church, a Jesus-centered community in the spirit of L’Arche where people with and without intellectual disabilities participate and lead all together. Her new book, Disability and the Way of Jesus: Holistic Healing in the Gospels and the Church (IVP Academic), comes out in May 2019.