Jean Vanier died last week.
His story is worth telling, and his words worth taking to heart. He was born in 1928 to Canadian diplomats in Europe. His family fled Paris just before Nazi occupation, and he spent much of the war as a young student in the British Naval Academy. He was profoundly moved when he and his mother went to assist survivors of the Nazi concentration camps.
He took a Royal Navy commission, which he left in 1950 to pursue a spiritual calling. He considered priesthood, but decided on an academic career, which included a doctorate on Aristotelian ethics and a budding teaching career. But then, in 1964, through friendship with a French priest he became aware of the plight of thousands of people institutionalized with intellectual disabilities. He visited an institution and befriended two men, who he invited to leave the hospital and live with him in a house north of Paris. He soon discovered that he was not doing something for them, but that they were making a home together. That led to an idea, which led to the first L'Arche community, where people with disabilities live with the people who care for them on as close to a one-to-one ratio as possible. This was a radical approach then, and still is. And it has changed the world. There are now around 150 such communities in nearly 140 countries. Seventeen in the U.S. L'Arche means "The Ark," taken from Noah's Ark.
Vanier wrote 30 books, began organizations offering retreats and workshops designed to open people's hearts. He lived in the original L'Arche community until his death.
Vanier's most popular book is simply called, Becoming Human.
Find it. Read it.
In Becoming Human, Jean Vanier says that to be human is not to be autonomous and productive, but to be fragile and vulnerable to others. He describes five "principles" that helped him understand this (with quotes from the book).
One: All humans are sacred . . . and each of us needs help to become all that we might be.
Two: Our world and our lives are in the process of evolving. This is a part of life, for good and ill. We change. Life changes. We want to encourage the flow of life and growth.
It is a question of loving all the essential values of the past and reflecting on how they are to be lived in the new. These values include openness, love, wholeness, unity, peace, the human potential for healing and redemption, and, most important, the necessity of forgiveness.
Three: "Maturity comes through working with others, through dialogue, and through a sense of belonging and a searching together." We need enough security to embrace the insecurity we need to grow.
Four: Humans need to be encouraged to make choices, and to become responsible for their own lives and for the lives of others. We need to be encouraged to . . ."break out of the shell of self-centeredness and out of our defense mechanisms, which are as oppressive to others as they are to ourselves. . . .We need to freely risk life in order to give of ourselves."
Five: In order to make those kinds of choices, we need to reflect and to seek truth and meaning.
To be human means to remain connected to our humanness and to reality. It means to abandon the loneliness of being closed up in illusions, dreams, and ideologies, frightened of reality, and to choose to move towards connectedness. To be human is to accept ourselves just as we are, with our own history, and to accept others as they are. To be human means to accept history as it is and to work, without fear, towards greater openness, greater understanding, and a greater love of others. To be human is not to be crushed by reality, or to be angry about it or to try to hammer it into what we think it is or should be, but to commit ourselves as individuals, and as a species, to an evolution that will be for the good of all.
Thank you for your witness, Jean Vanier.