Remembering Jean Vanier: The Tender Rebel We Need Today

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Dear friends,

On May 7, Jean Vanier passed away at the age of ninety. Many people have never heard of Vanier, but I believe he should be respected and celebrated like Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, and other iconic moral leaders who inspire and challenge us. Vanier shows us a fundamentally new way of being human that is so beautiful and healing.

I explore Jean Vanier’s life and thought in my video course Neighbor-Love, and I want to invite you to spend a few minutes learning about this beautiful man with me. “The Life and Love of Jean Vanier” (4 minutes) explores Vanier’s story and work. “Vanier’s Wisdom of Tenderness” (8 minutes) explores five of the core ideas that energized his vocation and defined his philosophy. Both videos are free.

Stop & Think this week is a lightly edited version of “Vanier’s Wisdom of Tenderness.” Look for the recommended reading list at the end. Thank God for Jean Vanier!

Yours with gratitude,

Andrew

 

What were the core ideas that inspired Jean Vanier’s work with l’Arche for the last half-century? His books are numerous and his ideas profound. But let me mention a few of his insights.

First, the other person is precious.

This is the most fundamental revelation and confession of love according to Jean Vanier. Each and every person is important and valuable. You can find this conviction in almost every one of Vanier’s books and speeches. For example, in his book Becoming Human, Vanier writes,

The first aspect of love, the key aspect, is revelation… To reveal someone’s beauty is to reveal their value by giving them time, attention, and tenderness. To love is not just to do something for them but to reveal to them their own uniqueness, to tell them that they are special and worthy of attention.

In fact, Vanier argues that this is the very heart of Christ’s message and the Christian faith. He writes in Encountering the Other,

For me, the message of the Gospel is that each one of us has a gift to give; each one is precious; each one needs to be loved and to belong. The fundamental principle of peace is a belief that each person is important. Even if you cannot speak, even if you cannot walk, even if you’ve been abandoned, you have a gift to give to the other.

Each person – no matter who you are – is precious and worthy of love. This is the most simple and powerful insight that Jean Vanier has been living for the last fifty-five years.

Second, the weak have special gifts to share with the strong.

Indeed, the weak and broken are our most profound teachers and our most precious treasures, because they invite us to embrace our vulnerability and form a new belonging with others.

Jean Vanier shows that inside each one of us, there are deep vulnerabilities like loneliness, insecurity, anguish, fear, and aggression. There is a cry of distress in each one of us, sometimes like a volcano waiting to explode. Vanier says it like this in Becoming Human:

Our lives are a mystery of growth from weakness to weakness, from the weakness of the little baby to the weakness of the aged… Weakness is at the heart of each one of us.

So when we embrace the mentally and physically disabled, they can help us face and reconcile with who we also are. Rather than running away from ourselves and faking a false strength, which leaves us alienated and aggressive, the weak invite us to stop hiding and pretending. The weak remind us that we are also weak and that we will depend on the tender care of others at the end of our lives.

Notice, then that Vanier doesn’t see the mentally or physically disabled as objects of pity or paternalism. He shows that they are not only precious but also profound teachers who help us become truly human. Vanier writes,

“The one who is healed and the one who is healing constantly change places.”

This is an extraordinary insight for a person who joined the Navy at fourteen during World War 2 and became a man on warships: the weak and disabled can help us become human in the face of our deepest problems and needs.

Thus, third, we are called to live in new community with others, rather than pretending that we are autonomous and self-sufficient.

Vanier points out that at the root of community is communion, which he defines like this in Becoming Human:

Communion is mutual trust, mutual belonging; it is the to-and-fro movement of love between two people where each one gives and each one receives… Communion is mutual vulnerability and openness one to the other… Communion is at the heart of the mystery of our humanity. It means accepting the presence of another inside oneself, as well as accepting the reciprocal call to enter into another.

Of course, I am me, and you are you in our own bodies, and our differences must be respected. But we can also live in one another, expanding our sense of who we are and what it means to be truly alive. Our lives are not meant only for ourselves but to be lived together, serving one another, spending our days together, becoming who we are together. Growth comes out of community.

Here we discover our profound differences and diversity, and we are given the challenge and support we need to face our fears, wounds, and aggression. In From Brokenness to Community, Vanier writes, “Community is the place of theophany” – the place where we learn to see God. This takes us back to Matthew 25 where Jesus claims that we meet him in “the least of these,” which Vanier sees as each one of us.

Fourth, love is not simply warm feelings or kind words. But love is also more than helpful deeds. Love is best expressed through presence and being with people – not simply doing things for them.

Vanier emphasizes the importance of our physical bodies, nonsexual touch, and spending time together listening to each other similar to Bonhoeffer. He writes,

It’s important to encourage people to come together to tell their stories, to say to them “Tell me your story, your story of pain, your story of hope.” … We must listen to each other because that’s where it all begins.

For Vanier, asking someone a sincere question and then attentively listening to them without interruption can be the most profound expression of love.

This takes us back to the revelation of love. If others are precious, then they’re not just problems or tasks or responsibilities. They’re also sources of joy to be cherished. So Vanier emphasizes that true neighbor-love is also expressed through play, laughter, meals, and other forms of celebration that take us beyond our goal-driven busyness.

I had the gift of experiencing this love when I visited a l’Arche community in Chicago where my friend and former student Katie Robinson lives with three core members and two other assistants.

As I spent the evening with Katie, Evangeline, Ryan, Bubba, Tim, and Chris, there was no competition or sizing up going on. None of us were distracted with our phones. There was no sense of something more important to do somewhere else that made us anxious or short of time. There was simply the goodness of being together, which created a sense of freedom and joy as we sat together, ate, told stories, prayed, and took a walk in the neighborhood.

At heart, love is a revelation of the other’s preciousness, and that revelation is embodied through presence: being with each other, listening to each other, accepting each other, and sharing with each other through all of life’s joys and sorrows.

Finally, then, the tender wisdom of love results in a tenacious challenge to culture.

Again and again, Vanier points out how contemporary culture is obsessed with greatness, power, and winning. We want to be on top and see others as our rivals.

But Vanier points out that this pride, which is often driven by our hidden fear of vulnerability and valuelessness, is the source of racism and war. So Vanier calls us to look inward and realize, “The worst enemy is inside our own hearts not outside!” Yes, we all have loneliness, anguish, and aggression inside ourselves. But when we release our drive to compete and defeat others, a new way of being human becomes possible.

Vanier tells the moving story of a young man who wanted to win a gold medal in the Special Olympics. But during the hundred meter race, one of the other runners fell down. So this young man decided to turn around, pick him up, and they ran to the finish line together in last place. Vanier asks in Encountering the Other,

Do we want to win or do we want to be in solidarity with others?

This is the ultimate question that tests whether the prize or other people are truly precious to us.

Jean Vanier called for and actively organized a counter-culture in which revealing the other’s preciousness – rather than winning for ourselves – is what we treasure most. And this opens the way to see the weak among us as our most profound teachers, to enter into community, and to practice love through faithful presence, patient listening, and mutual celebration one day at a time.

According to Vanier, this is the community that Jesus called for two thousand years ago and that points the way to our ultimate hope. May we follow Vanier’s inspiring example.

For Further Reading

I highly recommend all of Vanier’s books, but these are my personal favorites:

  • From Brokenness to Community (1992 – 52 pages).
  • Encountering ‘the Other’ (2005 – 62 pages).
  • Becoming Human (1998 – 163 pages).
  • Community and Growth, Revised Edition (1979/89 – 331 pages).
  • “10 Rules for Life to Become More Human” – a short article. In this 13-minute video for his 90th birthday, Vanier unpacks his rules.

Here are some obituaries that discuss his life:

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