By Jim Tune
Those around men like Jean Vanier usually anticipate they will do great things. He is the son of Major-General Georges Vanier, who became the 19th governor general of Canada, serving from 1959 until his death in 1967. And his early years wrote a resume that depicts greatness.
In his youth Jean Vanier received an elite education in Canada, England, and France. He served admirably in World War II and was a close companion to members of England’s royal family. After resigning his naval commission, he went on to complete a PhD in philosophy from the Institut Catholique de Paris, with a doctoral thesis on Aristotle. Vanier wrote several books and taught philosophy at the University of Toronto before leaving academia in 1965 to seek deeper spiritual meaning.
Something had changed for Vanier in 1964 when he visited Father Thomas Philippe in France. The priest was working as a chaplain for men with mental handicaps. Vanier was especially moved by a vast asylum south of Paris in which all 80 adult men did nothing each day but walk around in circles and take a two-hour compulsory nap.
He eventually bought a small house nearby and invited two men from that desolate asylum to share life with him. That simple act of hospitality created a way of living now imitated in 147 L’Arche communities in 35 countries. They are places of human communion. Hospitality is lived out as a core virtue. Every member is a contributing and equally valued part of the “family.”
One could say Vanier has achieved greatness unlike what anyone would have anticipated.
In his book Becoming Human, Vanier observes: “We human beings are all fundamentally the same. We all belong to a common, broken humanity. We all have wounded, vulnerable hearts. Each one of us needs to feel appreciated and understood; we all need help.”
Vanier believes when we don’t know what to do with our own pain, we are unable to know what to do with the pain of others. If all we do is deny or hide our weaknesses, how can we fully welcome the weakness of another? Consequently we withdraw from those who are noticeably weak or hide them in dehumanizing institutional conditions.
In a move that mirrored that of Vanier, Henri Nouwen, at age 64, left his position at Harvard to spend the final years of his life at Daybreak, the L’Arche community in Toronto, to live with mentally disabled people. At Daybreak, the disadvantaged and their assistants try to live together in the spirit of the Beatitudes.
Nouwen described his experience in Life of the Beloved: “Instead of excluding others, it includes others. Instead of rejecting others as less valuable, it accepts others in their own uniqueness. It is not a competitive, but a compassionate choice. Our minds have great difficulty in coming to grips with such a reality. . . . Perhaps it is only our hearts that can accomplish this.”
Nouwen is correct. When I find myself masking my imperfections or feeling superior to another, it is always a heart issue. When I acknowledge and accept my imperfections, I see myself as Christ sees me—broken, weak, dependent, and beloved.
In working with the poor and diseased, Mother Teresa admitted to feelings of repulsion, but learned that repulsion can become compassion, and compassion, wonderment.
Lord, cultivate that wonderment in me.