Last week, the Canadian Catholic leader Jean Vanier died at the age of 90. Born into a privileged family, Vanier’s life took an unexpected turn when he founded L’Arche, an international network of communities for people with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities.
As Bethany McKinney Fox, the founding pastor of a church inspired by L’Arche wrote for CT:
“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.”
In addition to his legacy of work with intentional communities, Vanier was also a prolific author.
“The themes that constitute those books—peace, peacemaking, community, community building, communion—are pretty consistent,” said Michael Higgins, the author of Jean Vanier: Logician of the Heart. “They undergo various kind of elaborations if you like, various more sophisticated iterations, but they are fundamentally the same themes built on the radical simplicity of the gospel that calls for us to live lives for others.”
Higgins joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editor in chief Mark Galli to discuss the counterculturally private personal life of Jean Vanier, his relationship with Henri Nouwen, and what evangelicals should learn from this deeply Catholic intellectual and practioner.
This episode of Quick to Listen is brought to you by the Truce Podcast. Truce dives deep inside church history and culture to explore how we got here and how we can do better. Download Truce anywhere you get podcasts or at trucepodcast.com.
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May 15 Transcription
Mark Galli: Joining us today is Michael Higgins. Michael Higgins is distinguished professor of Catholic thought at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut and also, more to the point, author of John Vanier: Logician of the Heart, a biography of the well-known Catholic philosopher and activist that has been a deep influence on a lot of people among others, Henri Nouwen. Michael Higgins is also written a biography of Henri Nouwen, and he'll come up in our conversation today as well. Welcome, Mike.
Michael Higgins: Well, thank you. Thank you. Glad to be here.
Morgan Lee: We're really glad to have you here Michael, as well. And I'm just going to kind of give people a little bit of an overview of Jean Vanier, but I'm really excited for you to tell us way more about him over the course of the show. Last week the Canadian Catholic philosopher, activist, leader John Vanier died at the age of 90. A prolific author, Vanier was also the founder of L'Arche, an international network of communities for people with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities. As Bethany McKinney Fox wrote for CT last week, while many ministries involving people with intellectual disabilities began with the clear separation between those being helped and those doing the helping, slowly the paradigm has shifted towards 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. In addition to transforming how the church thought about and acted towards people with intellectual disabilities, Vanier was also very influential on the life and theology of Henri Nouwen, who people may be deeply familiar with as well.
So this week on Quick To Listen, we wanted to learn more about the life of Jean Vanier—what his writings grappled with and what evangelicals have to particularly learn from this deeply Catholic intellect and practitioner.
So Mark, I would love to just get kind of a gut check from you of when you saw the news that Vanier had passed, what kind of went through your head?
Mark Galli: Well, to be honest, I knew the name and I knew what he stood for, but to be frank I was even unsure if he was still alive or not. So that's how unfamiliar I was with him. And my only image of him is a caricature of a wise man who spends a lot of time with people with intellectual disabilities. It's almost a sentimental view. But then as I started looking into it as a result of that news story, I realized he wasn't a mere sentimentalist, he was a Catholic philosopher and had a very interesting life. And at that point, as I said to you, I just want to know more about this person rather than this caricature we get. Which is not untrue, but it's just so incomplete.
Morgan Lee: Absolutely. I first heard of Vanier in college, when we were reading some stuff by Henri Nouwen who writes about his time at L'Arche a decent amount, and I was really intrigued by the ways that Vanier is obviously articulating for people of the mind, I guess—you know that love to talk about ideas all the time—but he's also deeply living it out as well. And that kind of tension that I see in lots of people, between almost picking one or the other sometimes, feels much more unified in him and I too don't know much about his life or what kind of prompted him to end up where he did, but I'm really glad that we're going to be learning so much more about him today.
Mark Galli: Yeah, and that's why I told you before we started recording, I'm a little nervous about doing this podcast because I have a feeling it might be life challenging.
Morgan Lee: Life challenging and changing. All right, well Michael, since both Mark and I have a long ways to go in terms of understanding and knowing a decent amount about Vanier, I'm wondering if we could start with talking about his religious background.
Michael Higgins: Well, John Vanier comes from a quite distinguished family in Canada. His father and mother were the vice-regal couple. Georges Vanier, his father, was a very accomplished soldier and diplomat and had become a governor-general of Canada. That means the representative of Her Majesty, the Queen. Canada is a constitutional monarchy unlike the United States, which of course is a republic, so the representative of the Queen in Canada—the governor-general—exercises a titular or symbolic role, but a very, very important one. And when Georges Vanier receive this appointment, one of the things you did at Rideau Hall, which is the residence, official residence of the vice-regal couple, is he had a chapel built where he attended daily mass and where he prayed before the blessed sacrament. This is Jean Vanier's father. And I tell you this because it's very important to understand his background.
His mother, Pauline, was a woman of capacious spirituality. Her mother had as her spiritual director a Jesuit priest who is also the spiritual director of Saint Thérèse de Lisieux, one of the great Catholic saints of the last century. So the family has had a saintly-ness as a pedigree, it's part of their DNA it seems. And right from the beginning he lived in a world which took his religion, his faith very seriously, and would meet these great French intellectuals in Eau Vive. But also, he understood fairly early on the high importance that was attached to human compassion. His mother took him to meet, in Paris to meet people who had just come out of the concentration camps at Dachau, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and the other camps, and so he had a very early exposure to the capacity of human suffering and to the importance of empathy. He went on to do a doctorate at the Institut de Catholique in Paris on Aristotle, quite an impressive work. And began his career actually as a university professor in Toronto at St. Michael's College, where he taught ethics. But very early on he felt called to do other things and he explored them in terms of his religious life. He'd always been and remained intensely religious all his life. Crystal centric, he had a very important relationship with Jesus. This was critical to his spirituality. And he had given up also a career in the Royal Canadian Navy. I mean he was an officer in the Navy, an intellectual, a professor, the son of a very distinguished family, and he ends up in the 1960s, early 1960s, electing to spend his time with—and this would define the rest of his life—working with people with profound intellectual and emotional disabilities.
Mark Galli: How old was he when he made that move?
Michael Higgins: It must have been around 30. Early thirties. He read The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton, who was also as you know, deeply influential in the life of Henri Nouwen. And he read him, I think when he was on board a ship near the harbor in Havana, and that seemed to have had quite an impact on him and helping him make a decision about which trajectory to follow, peacemaking or remaining in the Navy. And he chose to take the peacemaking route.
Morgan Lee: So what was the first step that he took after he read that book?
Michael Higgins: Well, I think it just—I'm not sure that he took some massive leap—I think it just helped to consolidate his intuition that perhaps he was being called to the religious life. Certainly he thought seriously of becoming a monk at one point—his brother became a monk, a very famous monk, Trappist monk Oka in Quebec. His name was Father Benedict. He died actually just a couple of years ago. He [Jean Vanier] thought of the priesthood, but he decided really that he was going to remain a layman and find his way, find his particular ministry of service, and he did. He not only found it in a very important way, he created an international movement.
Morgan Lee: What was the origins of this particular idea to start a community?
Michael Higgins: Well he had lived in community here in France. He had worked with Père Thomas Philippe in something called Val Fleuri. He had the experience of meeting these gentlemen in the asylum and decided that, you know, this was unbelievable way to treat people and that he was going to find a home and he was going to live with him. Now I don't think he had a particular blueprint or a template that said, you know, here's what I'm going to do and eventually the be International movement over this. I think what he did when he established L'Arche—in English of course, it's "The Ark"—what he was doing was establishing a living quarters where he was going to live with them. He wasn't going to rule over them. He wasn't going to be their supervisor. He wasn't going to be even their spiritual director. He was going to be the companion. And that's very important to understand the way that Vanier articulated the large vision, as you indicated earlier on. That it wasn't really caring for people with mental and emotional disabilities, it was a matter of living with them, being part of their community, and having them help to shape your life and helping you better understand your humanity.
Mark Galli: Is that—I read briefly that he kind of had a crisis moment after starting L'Arche.
Michael Higgins: Well, I am not sure it was a crisis. I mean, there were, you know, he had his relationship with the Dominican Father, Thomas Phillipe, it was a very important one. It would eventually become a rather troubled one, but at the beginning it was very, certainly a very important. In the in the real world, of course, you have to be pragmatic about some of these things. Where are you going to get the funding? Would psychiatrists make the important referrals? What levels of competence does he have to be able to exercise? Questions, I would suspect around, you know, his own self-worth, his own capacity to be able to be an agency of God's mercy, and yet at the same time learn to deeply from them. I am not sure there was a particular crisis. Not sure what you were alluding to, Mark.
There were certainly ups and downs in this life, I don't know if it was a crisis, but I mean he has to navigate a way forward of course. And he does. And you have, they're called foyers, these individual houses, and the Trosly-Breuil now, you know where he died, which was the foundation of the movement, has several houses of foyers, it's quite a large expanse of land. But now there are something like, I don't know, about 154 large homes throughout the whole world, and 30 some countries. And they would change of course due in part, depending upon the local social, political, and religious climate, depending on the jurisdiction which they find themselves. But by the mid-1970s, certainly by the late 1970s, he's withdrawing further and further from any kind of oversight in terms of actual administration. He realized that his special gift, I think, was to write, to travel extensively and helping with the emerging homes, to be present with people.
This is very important for Jean, to be present. It was not a matter of you know, some grand architectural vision, and then he withdraws from it. He immersed himself completely and lived in community, lived with the people he loved and the people who loved him. So it wasn't a matter of being head office, and then sending out missives and manifestos and everything else and exhortations. It was a matter of actually living the mission of L'Arche.
Mark Galli: Okay, yeah, I think the word crisis was a little too strong. I was just under the impression that when he started, after living with these people for a year or so, he realized he had to reorient it, how he was thinking about that.
Michael Higgins: Oh, well he certainly did. Yes, he certainly did. And certainly two of the three he could work with, but there was one who was very seriously damaged, and I think he realized that it was very difficult for him to be able to actually manage those difficult waters. And so in the beginning there were hurdles simply because he's doing something entirely different. Think about this now, even though he's an academician, he's had a very privileged life, he's a former Navy officer, he comes from a vice-regal family, he has all the opportunities that very few would have in their lives, and he chooses to live with men who had never crossed his path, his life. I mean, he would never meet such people, and he meets them and they're in an entirely different space that he is, and he befriends them and he comes to love them very quickly, and then he begins to realize that he needs them as much, if not more, than they need him. So there's a kind of Copernican revolution in the way he thinks.
Mark Galli: I do think it's not unusual in the history of certainly Catholic saints that they often come from families or social situations of some privilege. I mean Martin of Tours was a military officer, Francis came from a wealthy family, and so forth. So it is interesting that so many of them came out of that, were raised in a privileged environment, and yet nonetheless chose to serve in some radical ways.
Michael Higgins: Yeah, it does underscore the, as you say, the radical nature of the decision. I mean their discipleship, it takes them in a very different direction from their privileged, and comfortable, and high-level reputational background that they've inherited. So it makes that change even—in the direction of their lives—even a greater rupture than would say be the case for someone who's not in the higher echelons of society.
Morgan Lee: I'm actually really curious about one logistical question, which is where was L'Arche getting its money from in the early days?
Michael Higgins: I don't know. But it might have been some funding coming from the state. France, the French government, operates a little differently than the American government in providing support for various health and dependency services, so perhaps there was some money coming from the psychiatric hospital from which the early core community had been discharged from. There could have been resources coming from various religious orders, and certainly various churches in France that would have been motivated by this ministry. Or inspired by this ministry. But I can't imagine that it would have been very great. The homes themselves become pretty self-sufficient in a fairly quick period of time. It's not that people aren't doing anything. I mean they're involved in agriculture, or some of them are involved in pottery, some are involved—in Toronto, in fact, they work in a woodery, they have their own woodery—so there are various ways in which income for support could be supplemented, but you've got to remember they're not paying them wages in the same way that we would talk about in the professional world. These people are living a life of mission.
So the money they would have would be very little and they would accept that, and they would live in the home—these are the assistants I'm speaking about—they would live in the home and they would work very closely with the core community, and I don't think salaries and benefits would be a driving principle in their lives.
Morgan Lee: So when Vanier began to write, I'm curious about the nature of the first couple works that he put forth and what type of ideas and arguments he was making.
Michael Higgins: It's not particularly complicated because although he was prolific, as you indicated—he wrote a great number of books throughout his life—the themes that constitute those books—peace, peacemaking, community, community building, communion—are pretty consistent. And they undergo various kind of elaborations if you like, various more sophisticated iterations, but they are fundamentally the same themes built on the radical simplicity of the gospel that calls for us to live lives for others. And there's a consequence that reciprocity allows us to more deeply engage her own humanity, that when we are working with the disadvantaged and the disabled, they allow us to face our own vulnerability. In other words, we need them more than they need us. And the important development in that, against kind of a topsy-turvy world, but as the world of Francis of Assisi, the world of Jesus of Nazareth, that you begin to see the wisdom of the broken, the wisdom of the discarded. And you begin to realize how important it is to be with them because they give you an unconditional love, they allow you to more deeply understand your own humanity.
So all his life really, he wrote books that underscored that particular message and he went back to it again and again. It was the cantus firmus. It was the major theme that ran through his entire opus, from the early books right up to the later books.
Morgan Lee: Which of these ideas would you say was really well received and which of these ideas would you say that people kind of criticized or pushed back upon?
Michael Higgins: Well, I don't know anyone who did the latter. I'm not familiar with anyone who's ever critiqued him negatively. I certainly know that Stanley Hauerwas engaged in a public debate with him in a wonderful book around peacemaking and non-violence and pacifism. But I don't know that that was an effort to demolish his argument. In terms of building up community, I think for many people his approach was certainly different from their own approach, with which they were more familiar. So it was disruptive, but I'm not sure they ever particularly critiqued it. He lived what he preached, and so he became in a sense the message. That's one of the reasons why so many people are drawn to him. They're drawn to him because of his serenity, because of his interiority, because he lived what he preached.
And he was a man who suffused joy—joy emanated from him, joy to find him. He loved being with people. And he didn't love being people because he was particularly sociable, he loved being with people because they helped him to realize his own humanity. They help to heal his wounds. They helped him to accept his vulnerability. So I think in a such an important way, Jean's message is communicated by his presence. By the presence in the community, by the presence when he gave public lectures, gave retreats, did things like this. People were profoundly moved when they were in his presence.
Mark Galli: I can imagine a criticism that's been set against Mother Teresa, for example, that all well and good that she helps dying people to die well in Calcutta, but why isn't she marching on the Parliament and demanding changes in society so that these social ills can be changed? I can imagine Vanier's emphasis on one-on-one personal relationship could be criticized in the like manner. But you haven't heard that at all?
Michael Higgins: No! Because there is nothing particularly ideological about him. He decided that he, from the very beginning, he wasn't going to be engaged in any kind of political platform. That he wasn't aligned with any particular movement. That what he was really about was a personal undertaking to understand and to build community, communion really, with those that were disabled and disadvantaged and to live with them.
Now I don't know what one would do in a case like that, by saying well that's really kind of insufficient because it's changing the world. It was changing the world. Nobody was looking after the challenged, mentally challenged, deficient in the same way he was. He was building community. So, he wasn't critiquing their mental health system, he was offering an alternative in terms of living with and allowing people in the community to not only be enriched and valued because they were loved, but also to communicate their own unconditional love to their caregivers. In fact, caregiver was a term that he didn't approve at all. I mean, they were assistants. They were all part of a family. Each large home was a family, it wasn't a hierarchy. They weren't the professionals and then the others. If there were issues around psychiatric care, clinical matters, or matters around food or hydration, or things that have specific physiological genesis—I mean he worked with physicians and psychiatrists. I mean he didn't attempt to offer some kind of alternative medicine.
They were offering an alternative way of living community. And one of the reasons why they flourished everywhere from Ukraine to Honduras to Africa to Bangladesh, they're all over the place. And it's not because the government's look at them and say oh, you're somebody doing some good work, but they might have some kind of hidden agenda that they're really proto-capitalists are proto-socialists— no. I mean, he was a man who wanted to live the gospel intensely, to discover Jesus in the other, and so that took a concrete direction. It never talks an ideological direction.
Morgan Lee: I'm wondering if you can talk about moments of pain or personal suffering that Vanier experienced in the course of his life.
Michael Higgins: Well, he doesn't talk very much about it Morgan, really. This has been a critique that I've had, I've written about him, his biography, but I've also written about him in the Literary Review of Canada, in Commonweal Magazine in New York, what not, and have reviewed some of his publications—particularly an important volume: his letters. And I remember a fairly sharp critique, which Jean never disputed, where I said that they don't reveal anything. That they're not self-disclosing. And that's true. When I asked him, when I told him at one point that I had been commissioned to write a biography—another one, there have been many biographies that have been written of him, but mine was the most recent of the time, in English anyway—and he was largely indifferent to it. He didn't put any hurdles in the way, but he didn't encourage it. He felt, Michael I'm not important, write a biography about the movement, write about the movement. And I said, well the publisher is not, you know is interested in the movement, but is primarily interested in you. But he's not interested in him. So as a consequence when it came to private matters, very deeply private matters of the heart, his publications give very little evidence of. disclosing, self-disclosure.
Mark Galli: That is so countercultural. I mean, I'm just—
Michael Higgins: It is, isn't it? And I think part of the reason Mark, is because he was very fearful of celebritization. It's a big thing, particularly in the United States, where we become obsessed with celebrities. And they become iconic for us. God knows, for any number of different reasons. And he saw that as the kiss of death. To be turned into a celebrity is to have the importance shifted from what you're doing to who you are in the eyes of your devotees or votaries, or the industry or marketing, or advertising, or whatever, as you push the product and the product could be yourself. He had to resist that, and did very successfully by just simply saying, to put it in the vernacular, "it's not about me."
Mark Galli: And it's none of your business.
Michael Higgins: Yeah, that's right! It's not about me, it's about making community, and so I don't want to talk about myself. And he doesn't! So it does make it a little difficult for the biographer. Because we have the you know, the public narrative, and we have all that kind of stuff, but as far as I know—and I may be wrong and now that he's deceased, there may be an embargo for 25 or 50 years on private journals—I don't even know he kept private journals, and there in those private journals, as in the case of Thomas Merton of course, we had the restricted journals that were published 25 years after his life and we discovered all kinds of things we didn't know before. It is always possible that he kept private journals that are embargoed for a period of time, and then we'll find out stuff that we didn't know before.
My sense was that he lived a life of startling simplicity. By which I mean, that he avoided the complexities of intrigue and maneuvering and networking and plotting and all that kind of stuff. So he would meet with dignitaries from all over the world, or they would seek him out. He won the Templeton award, he won the highest award you could win in France, the Queen of England was very fond of him, he was a friend of popes, Mother Teresa was his friend—and they were all across the theological and political spectrum. So, people loved him. They loved him for being the authentic human being that he was, but he never makes a lot of this. Like he doesn't go back and say, "well, when I met her Britannic Majesty, this is what we talked about" or "I had dinner with the Pope, and these are the kinds of things that unfolded." No, he doesn't do any of that because that stuff, that's just a shift of focus to him, right? And he's egoless. I mean, I have written several biographies. I've never written a biography of someone who is so utterly without ego than Jean Vanier. We all have egos and we're all quite taken with ourselves and frightened of our weakness of course, and celebratory about our achievement. And you come across somebody who's utterly indifferent to either, and happens to be a major name, you think okay, how do I deal with this? I mean, he was very fearful of being lionized. He disliked that intensely. That people, you know, adored what he was doing, and he and he would say that. He said, No, it's not about me. If you like what I'm doing, do what I'm doing. That was his point.
Mark Galli: That's a bracing way of thinking about that. We do live in a culture that almost demands that public figures, pastors, writers reveal something personal of themselves before they will start to trust him or her.
Michael Higgins: That's right.
Mark Galli: I've been requested in many books I've written that I don't have enough personal illustrations, and the reader wants to get to know me. And I've been deeply suspicious of that, but I've bent the knee to the publisher who I think knows better. But this is quite a counterexample that's going to give me a lot of room, a lot of space for thought. I think it's a really powerful.
Michael Higgins: No, your point is very well taken. People do like the personal disclosure. They do feel that in a way they have a handle on you. And that you've confided in them and what not. And that's what they're interested in. They're interested in the personal voice, a personal crisis, the personal scandals, the personal insights. But if you're somebody like Jean Vanier, you're shifting the focus away from that, and you're shifting the focus very specifically to the nature of your ministry and his ministry was to emulate Jesus, and Jesus emptied himself. For Vanier then, your life is a life of self-donation is not a life of self-revelation. And that, as you say, is very countercultural.
Morgan Lee: The thing that I do find interesting though is because his practice so much matched the stuff that he was writing about and preaching, it's not like we don't know what he did per se. It's just that he did not kind of lay naked all of his thoughts or details about his personal life, or kind of kind of letting people in that may not have like necessarily earned it.
Michael Higgins: Well you know, you're right. And in a way, of course, this might be a bit of a reaction to the spotlight he was born in, right? I mean if your father is the governor-general and a very distinguished man, and your mother is rather famous in her own right, you have the famous father syndrome: how am I going to deal with this? In fact in Canada, there was at one point the cause for the canonization of the making both his parents a saint! So I mean, they're kind of pretty heavy figure set of the landscape, and you look at this and you say okay now, how am I going to cope with that? Well, he copes with it's quite simply by emulating his father's humility, his father and his mother's capacity for love. That's what he imitates. He emulates their positive qualities and moves himself further and further out of the spotlight.
Now, because of the work that he does, it's so extraordinary, the spotlight follows him. So now he's got to find a way, how do I work with the spotlight because I need to of course for my ministry to flourish. I need highly people to know what I'm doing, or they're not going to set up these homes in Africa, and Asia, and South America, and Canada, the United States. I mean, there's something here. There's a momentum here that's of the Spirit. At the same time, I can't make it about me. So it's a constant tension or struggle in his life.
But I suspect it's more our struggle than it is his, because certainly on the occasions when I met with him, which weren't many, but they were all really quite meaningful, he exuded serenity. He just simply was. He would answer questions, but they wouldn't be questions about himself. If there were questions specifically focused on him, he would redirect the question to talk about the movement, or the people, or an event, but not about him.
Mark Galli: This is just a personal aside, I found very meaningful the last year or so reading The Litany of Humility, which includes lines like, from the desire of being esteemed. Deliver me, Jesus. The desire being exalted, from the desire of being honored, from the desire of being preferred to others. Deliver me, Jesus.
Was that something a part of his spiritual life? That particular litany?
Michael Higgins: Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, he was influenced by several different, really quite traditional Catholic sources, the Carmelite mystics obviously because of Saint Thérèse de Lisieux, but also, the work was done by Dorothy Day, the work that was done by the contemplative work of Thomas Merton. It was very important for him. He was aware of what are called ecclesial movements, in Europe in particular Chiara Lubich with Focolare. The movement with Andrea Riccardi called Sant'Egidio, he was particularly fond of because of the work they were doing with international peacemaking.
So I mean, he was fed by several sources, and he was open to ecumenical and indeed to interfaith. I mean the head of the L'Arche community in France now is Jewish, the head of the community in Bangladesh is Muslim. So I mean, it's not that it was a narrowly Catholic operation, he understood that the ministry he was doing was going to be extraterritorial when it came to religion. But it's motivated and sustained by a profound and deep religious faith, and that religious faith for him in the end was defined by his relationship with Jesus as mediated by his understanding of Catholic tradition and Catholic spirituality. So he's a deeply Catholic thinker. However, he's catholic with a lowercase 'c,' by which I mean he was universal in this appeal.
I mean, I've been just stunned by the reaction of political, social figures, secularists, religious people, non-religious people, anti-religious people, all speaking so highly of his fundamental humanitarianism. And at a time of greater polarization and warmongering, saber-rattling at least, a disturbing time in many ways, and with a false sense of communion because social media hasn't given people a greater sense of community—if anything is undermined it—the need for Jean Vanier is ever more urgent. But the good news is we have his various videos, we have his audiotapes, we have—none of these by the way, were particularly done from merchandising reasons. Some people just recorded them—and of course his numerous books, and the witness of countless, thousands who were touched directly having met him. Maybe even hundreds of thousands, when you think of the 90 years of his life. Fifty years at least of that in in active ministry with L'Arche.
Morgan Lee: Am I to understand then that he never got married or had children?
Michael Higgins: Oh, no, he was a celibate. And that was deliberate, that was deliberate.
Morgan Lee: Say more about that.
Michael Higgins: Well, I think he made the decision that the kind of calling he was going to live was a calling to be so uni-focused, so disruptive in many ways, because he's going to be traveling, he would be living in community. I mean, could you imagine the demands this would make on normal family life? It would be really quite considerable. So my sense is that he understood that his life would be a type as a celibate. Which is not surprising in his family. I mean as I said, one of his brothers was a monk, and his sister Dr. Thérèse Vanier—who died again just about a year, a year and a half ago at most, and who was like him, 90, maybe 91—she was a hematologist by training, she was a blood specialist, but she founded the large home in London. And she was the co-founder with Dame Cicely Saunders of the hospice movement. So I mean, this is a quite an extraordinary family, and they were celibates as well.
Morgan Lee: That's super interesting, just in terms of the ways that he ended up talking about community and loneliness as well and wrestling with those things.
Michael Higgins: Well, he wrote a great deal about community. And again, it's not particularly complex. It comes down to the fundamental notion that he has, that community enriches our humanity. That we don't live in isolation. That we're all going to be to some degree in our lives lonely, and we will face death with some anguish because we are lonely. But at the same time, the antidote to that loneliness cannot be found in achievement, power, riches, whatever, but actually in living in community with others. Living with their frailties and living with our own. Allowing them to speak truthfully, recognizing the beauty of their lives. Now this sounds all so very idealistic and, in some way, it is, but he lived it. I mean this wasn't just simply, you know, a manifesto or some kind of a primer to right living. This is how he lived his life. He saw the beauty in other people's lives. He's saw the truth of their lives. And he was not indifferent to their suffering. He understood how suffering can define us. He also understood that suffering helps to heal us, and gives lessons in many ways, in so many regards. And suffering could actually be a blessing because it could shatter the illusions we have about ourselves.
So for him, Vanier—and I think this is the mystical side of him—as you look at his life and his ministry over the years, you see him discarding ever more and more of the things that you would think woud be attractive in old age. You know, that we'd have more time just be ourselves, that we would have certain comforts, that we would have people looking after us and what not. That's not how he lived. He lived within community, he lived as part of community—not above it, not under it, and not outside it.
Morgan Lee: Can you tell us a little bit about Henri Nouwen, and how Henri Nouwen's life intersected with Jean Vanier?
Michael Higgins: Vanier seems to have ascertained, from a retreat I think both of them are at in Chicago at the time, that there was something troubling Henri. And there was. Henri was not a happy camper at Harvard. Things were coming to a head. And this was a special gift or charism that they Jean had that he could read into a person's deep disquiet. Everything he approached, he approached with ultimate tenderness. And I think he didn't know the reasons, but he knew that Henri was not in the best of all possible places. And clearly, he wasn't. He had written in one of his last books about his Harvard experience called Lifesigns, had written about how that deeply competitive achievement-oriented world of Harvard was destructive of his soul. So he needed to find some place to go. So he was invited by Jean to come to Trosly-Breuil, which he did, and he lived there and in a foyer with his mother Pauline, of whom he came deeply to love. And then after he left there he was invited to go to Daybreak.
Sister Sue Mosteller—a very important figure, the literary executor of the Nouwen estate and a very close friend of Henri Nouwen and Jean Vanier as well—she was the head of Daybreak, or she was a very important figure at Daybreak anyway, she was instrumental in helping transition Henri from the Harvard and subsequently Trosly-Breuil to the new experience at the large community, Daybreak in Richmond Hill, Ontario. And the last 10 years of Henri's life was a complete turnaround. Again here you have somebody who had taught at Notre Dame, and then was tenured at Yale, and then taught at Harvard and taught at Boston College and taught at Regis College at the University of Toronto. And so he was like the Vanier, a prolific writer, 39 books. And so, he moved into a world utterly unlike, totally unlike the academy. He was a man of words, and now he was living with people who could barely speak words. He moved from a situation where he was very much alone during his private work to a situation where he was on regular show working with the community. Helping to dress, bathe, clean up, and feed Adam Arnett, the most broken person in that community.
So Jean gave him a lifeline. He gave Henri a lifeline, which saved him, I think. Emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. The last 10 years of Henri's life was not spent in the Academy. It was spent living in the kind of community that Jean had lived.
Morgan Lee: Wow.
Mark Galli: Sounds like a precursor to our life in heaven.
Michael Higgins: Well, you know, I mean they were remarkable men. I did a series, I wrote a book on Henri Nouwen called Genius Born of Anguish, but it was also a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation idea series and at the end of the series, I gave the last word to Jean Vanier. And I said to him, "What would be Henri Nouwen's legacy?" And [Vanier] said he didn't want to talk about legacy. He wanted to talk about fecundity, because that's the kind of thing that Henri would talk about. The fertility of one's life is only fully realized in one's death. And so he said, "I see Henri as part of a movement in humanity to a greater harmony, to a greater peace. Trying to find the commonalities that make us deeply human." I think what he said of Henri Nouwen applies equally well to himself.
Morgan Lee: Well, thank you so much for all of this. It was really interesting to hear you talk about it, Michael. And there's lots of stuff to chew on, for sure. If people have feedback, they can give it to us over email. We're at email@example.com. They can also go onto Twitter. We're @CTpodcasts.
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