Jean Vanier's comfort and joy: 'What we have to do is find the places of hope'
Jean Vanier created L'Arche – a unique community for mentally disabled adults – to nurture a different kind of life: one focused on connection rather than commerce. More than 50 years later, Ian Brown goes on a journey to understand how simply admitting our weaknesses can make us strong
Photos by Alex Crétey Systermans for The Globe and Mail
I don't want to overamp this, but at the end of a long dark year – after Charlie Hebdo, the Paris massacre, San Bernardino, thousands murdered by terrorists in Africa and the Middle East, passenger planes blown out of the sky, unstoppable climate change, unprecedented rates of species extinction, 12,747 U.S. gun deaths (and counting) in a single year – I can't help wondering, and I don't think I'm the only one: Is this the way we're going to live now? Surrounded by threats, terrified but resigned, exhausted but furious? Welcome to the holiday season.
How are we supposed to proceed in this new, diminished normal? How do you get up and go to work and pay your bills and raise your children if you can't look forward to the future?
How do we believe in the way we live if it doesn't seem to be working? Here's a theory: Maybe we could stop pretending that we know how to fix it. I know, for me, that might bring some peace of mind.
MOMENTS OF UNSCRIPTED GRACE
I first met Jean Vanier, the 87-year-old Canadian founder of L'Arche, a network of communities for the intellectually disabled, seven years ago. I was looking for something that was hard to find: a place of love where my son could live without me. Walker was born with an exceptionally rare genetic syndrome that has left him severely disabled, intellectually and physically: Now 19, he looks 12, and has the mind of an infant. He always will. He can't speak or take care of himself, though he loves to walk. He's a sweet guy, and a lot of trouble: I spend some part of every day wondering why he feels so valuable, given how little he can do, and where he will live when my wife, Johanna, and I are no longer here to look out for him. L'Arche was one of the possibilities we considered.
Then, earlier this year, Mr. Vanier was awarded the $2.3-million Templeton Prize, awarded for "an exceptional contribution to affirming life's breadth of spiritual dimensions." Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu had won it before him. I figured Mr. Vanier might know how to find a sense of peace in a time as dark as the one we live in. We seem to have lost the habit. Lexicographers estimate that the word peace occurs half as often in common usage today as it did in the year 1800.
So I flew to Paris and rented a microscopic Renault and drove 90 kilometres northeast to the village of Trosly-Breuil, where Mr. Vanier lives in a small one-storey house.
It was in Trosly, in 1964, having resigned his commission as a naval officer and earned a PhD in theology and philosophy, that 35-year-old Jean Vanier quit his job as a lecturer at the University of Toronto and moved into a small stone cottage with Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux, two intellectually disabled middle-aged men. He had met them in one of the crowded psychiatric institutions that convinced him the intellectually disabled were the most oppressed among us.
The cottage had neither indoor plumbing nor electricity. I once asked why he thought he could care for two disabled men on his own, with no training to speak of.
"I thought we might have fun," he said.
"And how did you plan to do that?" I asked him.
"Well, I had a little car, one of those little two-horsepower Citroëns. I thought we could go for drives."
It was 10 in the morning and 35 degrees in the countryside by the time I pulled up to Place des Fêtes, a tiny square in Trosly. I parked and instantly fell asleep in the car.
I woke up half an hour later dazed and groggy, like a housefly trapped behind a window pane. I staggered out of the car, and was immediately greeted by Régine Kerhuel, a slim, grey-haired woman. Ms. Kerhuel arrived at L'Arche in 1976, at the age of 25, as a schoolteacher from Paris. She intended to stay a year, then get married and return to work. She never left. "I was so happy," she told me. "I realized there was a place I could learn to love." I'd known her two minutes when she said this.
I ate dinner that first night at Les Fougères (translation: the ferns), a big, open house for people who have both physical and intellectual disabilities. Mealtimes at L'Arche are when everyone interacts, the disabled and their able-bodied assistants alike, three times a day. Everyone sits up to the communal table. A man named George met me at the door and led me inside. He decided he wanted to keep his spoon in his mouth throughout the meal. He considered this amusing, and I have to say I agreed. I was a little nervous, as I always am at first in a room full of intellectually disabled people: I never know what to say or how to behave, though I usually get less nervous fast, because no one else in the room behaves the way they are supposed to, either. We thus become equals: them equal to me, me equal to them. When you are equal, and equally inept, and can admit it rather than pretending the opposite is true, you have nothing to hide, and are less defensive, freer. That is a far more unusual experience for me than it was for my dinner companions that evening.
Then an older resident, I think his name was Christophe, coughed, and a woman, another resident, said, "Ooh la la!" which everyone thought was hilarious, whereupon Christophe coughed again, and everyone at the table coughed along with him, in sequential solidarity. Then George made a loud noise, and a woman named Emilie blew him a kiss. George seemed unaffected by this, but I was not. Then a man named Davide looked at a young woman whose name was Alexandrine (I think: for a table at which hardly anyone spoke, there was a hell of a lot going on), and Alexandrine, so as not to be distracted by the sight of Davide, held her hand up to the side of her face, as a barrier. I have often wanted to do the same at dinner parties.
Another man was holding the hand of the woman next to him, and put it down for a second, whereupon she wiped her nose on her palm and offered it back to him. She was making a joke, another good one. The people at the table were 24, 30, 29, 22, 24, 34, 47, 31, 21, 35, 59 and 69, but it didn't seem to make any difference, the way it might have at a so-called normal table. I turned to one of the assistants, and Christophe walked over and sat on my knee. Then we said a prayer about L'Arche. Then we sang some songs. Sometimes the byplay was even slightly boring, until someone tried to connect with someone else, at which point it became vivid and unforgettable.
These moments of unscripted grace occurred at every L'Arche house I visited in Trosly. At La Vigne (the vine), a wiry 65-year-old guy named Dominic showed me his room: It housed his pet rabbit, Fanfan.
"Is it a girl?" I asked.
"Don't know," Dominic said, matter-of-factly. His mother and father had sent him to L'Arche as a young man, and had never visited him. "It wounded me," he said. But his best friend, Jean-Louis, lived down the hall. Jean-Louis was blind.
"What do you guys talk about?" I asked.
Dominic thought for a moment. "Coffee," he said then. "Whether it's cold or not." He paused. "How much would it cost to visit Toronto?" he asked.
"Three hundred euros."
"Oh! 300 euros! Ooh la la!"
The cook at Les Rameaux (the branches), another L'Arche house, is a middle-aged woman named Gabrielle. Gabrielle was a nun in Mexico City for 35 years before she quit and came to work at L'Arche last year. "I came looking for a new spirituality," she said, one that was more hands-on, less theoretical. Still, she spent her first day at L'Arche in her bedroom, crying. "Because I was so afraid of handicapped people. Then I walked out, and into a home. Now I'm so happy." What she likes most about L'Arche is that everyone is included in every decision, even if it is difficult for some residents to make one.
"The idea of liberty is such an important thing," Gabrielle said, passing me a loaf of bread. "They have their own personalities, their own way of being. Their own tastes. The assistants never take a decision without asking the residents' opinion. Even if it's to choose a movie." Intention is choice; choice is dignity.
In most group homes and assisted-living facilities, the main concern of the house is the medical care of the disabled: The business and details of health set the tone. Everything is practical, and the goal of the practicalities is to make the disabled as much like the able-bodied as possible.
At L'Arche, by fairly stunning contrast, people with intellectual disabilities (the residents) live and work side by side with the nondisabled (their assistants) as peers, in what L'Arche likes to call "mutually transformative relationships." Because the disabled have an equal hand in setting the tone (often hilarious) and pace (unpredictable) of the homes they live in, they can fairly call these communities their own. They're the residents, the co-bosses, not the guests. We, the able-bodied, are the ones who have to be integrated into their world, not the other way around. They are honoured as people in their own right, with a contribution to make, no matter how subtle that contribution may be.
"Vanier discovered," the Templeton Prize citation declares, "that those people who society typically considers the weakest enable the strong to recognize and welcome their own vulnerability."
Fifty-one years after Jean Vanier moved in with Raphael and Philippe, there are 148 L'Arche communities in 38 countries. Another 1,500 outposts of Faith and Light, a sister organization, provide support and respite for families with disabled relatives in 81 countries. Mr. Vanier is the author of more than 30 books, including Becoming Human, which has been translated into 29 languages. But L'Arche has never been a place where anyone cared much about status or rules or success.
WAITING FOR THE WORLD'S BEAUTY
Mr. Vanier was in his living room the next morning, stacks of scribbled notes and reading materials arrayed on the floor around his chair. He was wearing brown corduroys and what looked like the same blue windbreaker from seven years earlier. He still looks like the Maytag repair man – the original one, not the new studmuffin.
We were barely in our seats when I asked him why he thought so many young French men and women were attracted to Islamic State, or Daesh, as Mr. Vanier calls it. He loves to talk with visitors. He tends to proceed laterally, and has a talent for finding the emotional centre of any subject almost immediately, which in turn makes talking to him feel reassuring and significant, as if you are visiting some kind of conversational spa. But he never wastes time.
"Fear," he said. "It's because they're frightened. What are they frightened of? Violence. Insecurity. Maybe change. Maybe frightened of themselves. Because they don't quite know who they are and what they want to be. They're in a humanity that is so geared to winning that those who are unable to win are pushed down. Right from the beginning, except during the first months of the life of a child, it's success. You have to be the best … But we're losing something about community, about accepting people who are different. If we have a culture of winning, a culture of success, a culture of knowledge, those who have less knowledge are not winning. So we're in a culture of huge divisions."
He put it another way, as is his habit. "There are what they call the sensitive parts of Paris: 50 per cent of the kids have failed in school, 50 per cent have no work. So what happens when you're 20 years old, you have failed, and you're just ready to ignite? They've been looked down on, smacked. So there's a whole world of the despised, the humiliated. And the fruit of humiliation is either depression or violence."
For a brief time after the Second World War, which had revealed the horror of Auschwitz and the terror of the atom bomb, the individual became important again, Mr. Vanier believes. But driven by capitalism, Western individualism quickly mutated into a relentless meritocracy, with its emphasis on status and success. "On one side it was beautiful, the sense of the person. But on the other, we fell into the trap, we forgot that the person is part of the human family. And whatever our religion, whatever our culture, we all belong to this huge human family." The microscopic fraction of Muslims who perpetrate violence are, in Mr. Vanier's view (he's a devout Catholic), just that – a microscopic fraction of the second-largest religion in the world.
He was thrilled to win the Templeton Prize. "It was the recognition that people with disabilities are people, and that they have a value. That these people have something to say, because they are people of relationship." He paused. "I don't know if you've noticed, when you eat here, people come rushing up to you, kiss you, ask what's your name. They'll be struggling to say two words in English, but they're people of relationship. Not people of fear. They have a liberty inside them, while the rest of us are all caught up in the diktats of a culture. We have to win, we have to be the best, we have to make more money. We get caught up in this whole problem of everybody fighting each other."
We talked for an hour in his shaded, cluttered living room. Outside, the sun was blasting down. His voice has grown slightly more frail over the years. But in 2014 he had an audience with Pope Francis. Last year, he addressed Britain's House of Lords. Just last week, he returned from a visit to Palestine. He claims not to feel his age a lot. "I have less responsibility. In fact, I have no responsibility. So there's a freedom to be myself. I have the time just to reflect."
Not that he doesn't have difficult moments. He has heart issues. He watches the news once a week, on Sunday evening, on a television in one of the foyers (hearths), as L'Arche homes are called, and finds it depressing and hopeless. He has wells of loneliness and anguish. "There is obviously in me, like in everyone, anguish. Where does that anguish come from? At the depth of our being, there's our poverty, there's our vulnerability, there's our weaknesses. We're frightened of loss."
I suddenly remembered that line of Philip Larkin's: Being brave/Lets no one off the grave./Death is no different whined at than withstood. "To be human," Mr. Vanier continued, "is to enter a greater vulnerability. So how to live that vulnerability joyfully? How to live anguish?"
Bingo! Exactly my question! Mr. Vanier had been clapping his huge hands together at intervals, to punctuate his points. It was a loud clap, and gave his words a rhythmic beat.
"One of the ways is quality of friendship, quality of community. When I go down the street here" – there are seven L'Arche foyers in Trosly alone, each home to about eight residents and eight assistants, and two other sets in nearby Cuise-la-Motte and Compiègne – "I might find that three people with disabilities will rush into my arms. I mean, they are beautiful, and they love me! That's super! So, the greatest thing to calm anguish is the knowledge that we are loved. Not for what we do or have done or for what we will do, but in ourselves. The more we lose, the more we come close to the reality of what it is to be human. Which is to accept our weaknesses, to discover that they're beautiful. So many people are running around doing lots of things, but they're controlled by anguish.
"What we have to do is find the places of hope," he continued. "I love the idea of waiting for the moment. You can't see it now" – here he pointed out the window of his cottage – "but I have a place for birds there. And when I see birds walking or flying low, I notice I always smile. I don't know why. I don't necessarily smile at a tree. But birds! They tell me something about freedom, about movement, about the spirit. There are those moments – it could be looking at a picture, reading a book – it's a moment of a meeting. With what? With truth? With love? When you see the birds, you can't help but think of all that, the origin and beauty of our universe, the beauty of the animals, the flowers. It suddenly hits you: Something is there. But then there are other moments more connected to our legs that are tired. I don't seem to have too much energy. So that is why I wait for the moment."
Does that sound too earnest to you? It sounded earnest to me, but it made sense as well, on that day, in the company of people who had never imagined they could control the world or win the game. In that setting, at that moment, the thought of waiting for the beauty of the world to come to me felt right. It was a matter of being patient, never easy for any of us.
We agreed to meet again the next day. On the way back to my room, pacing slowly through the heat of the late afternoon, I tried to sort out what Mr. Vanier's words meant in practice. I think it is this: If you want to find grace in a culture that is constantly devouring itself alive, if you want to live in hope and not fear, you have to tell the truth and declare your fragility.
This is not a popular position at the moment. It isn't an easy road, but Jean Vanier believes there is no faster way to peace. You have to admit that you have no answer, that you are proceeding from a position of the most tenuous, fallible, human fragility. Instead of banning Muslims at the border, you have to reach out and befriend one, even sponsor one, declaring your profound nervousness as you go. Maybe you just speak to a stranger at the corner store, at the gym. Maybe it will not work out well, this time. Maybe one of the refugees you sponsor will commit a terrorist act one day, which means you are willing to put lives on the line in support of your belief in a common humanity. Your convictions are flawed and fallible, but they do not come any other way.
It felt naïve to think this way, as I walked up the lane. But a meeting with another, with The Other – with the frail, the old, the disabled, the lonely, with one's poorest self – is not about thinking. It is not rational or prescriptive. It is something you do with your body, something you feel your way into. It doesn't have a right way, a script. It happens or it doesn't. The mind follows.
A SMALL STONE IN MY POCKET
My room at L'Arche was as plain as a piece of paper: two narrow single beds, no blankets. No wireless, telephone, TV or soap. All of this made me restless. I kept trying to find a decent cup of espresso in town. I couldn't shake off the modern world.
One afternoon, waiting impatiently for dinner, I walked across the street to a small Catholic church, where mass was being celebrated. I'm an atheist, or at least not a believer, and so sat in the church's courtyard, listening to the buzz of responses inside. A dark-haired woman was already sitting on a nearby bench. She looked familiar, and when I asked for directions to one of the foyers, I realized it was Jessica Zizzo, who had been an assistant in a L'Arche house called Le Semence (the seed) the last time I visited Mr. Vanier. Now she was a superviser in the workshop where those residents who can manage it make L'Arche's famous (and famously expensive) mosaic mirrors and cups and trinkets, as well as boxes for Chanel products, and an absorbent material used to soak up oil spills.
When I last saw Ms. Zizzo, she was looking after a woman named Francine, who suffered from cerebral palsy, was paralyzed, in a wheelchair, and couldn't speak. One day, after I said good morning, Francine grabbed my hand and pulled my face down to hers, toward her gaping mouth and splayed teeth. I thought she was going to bite me. I kissed her on the cheek instead, whereupon Francine made a loud, potentially happy noise.
"I'm sorry," I said to Ms. Zizzo, who was gardening nearby. "I didn't know what to do."
"It's not a problem," she replied. "She loves men, but she rarely has a chance to get her hands on one."
When I am with Francine, incapable of fixing her problems or communicating with her in traditional ways, I am as disabled as she is. Our mutual incapacity forces us to relate to each other as we can, when we can, in whatever way we can. Neither of us can control the outcome, which is in fact a liberation. I have never forgotten that kiss.
Suddenly, I spotted a dung beetle moving slowly across the courtyard tiles. Then Ms. Zizzo saw it. She was from Montélimar, a town near Marseille, where they make the most famous nougat in the world. I asked after all her old wards at Le Semence – Laurent, Gégé, Jean-Claude, Francine, the residents I had met years before. To my surprise, they were all still alive. But why wouldn't they be? Laurent had been about 30 when I met him. He was obsessed with trains, and never spoke, except, sometimes, standing stock-still in the middle of the living room with his arms extended, in French, the single word: train. Gégé reminded me of Walker, small, unspeaking, bashful but always watchful.
"How is Gégé?" I asked.
"He is tired," Ms. Zizzo said. That was all she said. My chest felt as if it were cracking a bit, but then she almost stepped on the beetle. She gave a shriek, not a restrained one. Then she bent over and picked it up and put it safely on the grass next to the path. It was a strangely gripping experience. The beetle had been saved.
Several of the residents I met this trip worked at jobs during the day – cutting trees, in the workshop, sorting material in the recycling plant. One day, a man in his seventies gave me a tour of the Rameau house. We talked about marriage and long plane flights and about when it was better to choose to spend time with a woman rather than watch hockey. (I said I didn't know.) The entire conversation was about time, which seemed to be his great preoccupation.
Later I watched some of the residents go back to work behind the house, hoeing a long bed of vegetables. There was a lot of talking and laughing, and even some hoeing. Others just stood in the rows between the plants, waiting. That is what they are good at.
I could write for a long time about the people I met in two days at L'Arche. I like to linger in the memory of their open-hearted presence. The peace of their slowness, as the poet Joan Margarit once put it, made me think of my son, who is like them, fragile and complicated, and who now lives in a group home, not as beautiful or as liberated as theirs, but a good one nonetheless. Every time I talked to one of the people in the foyers in France, I could feel my son inside me, like a small stone I had carried in my pocket to remind me of the land I came from.
'AN EGO WE HAVE TO CONQUER'
I presumed the intellectually disabled men and women I had met seven years before had no memory of me. But the next afternoon in his living room, Jean Vanier wasn't so sure.
"We have intellectual memories, but they have this heart memory. And we're in a world of the heart. I go into my foyer, there's Pauline, she takes me in her arms. There's Devi who comes up, and just puts his hand in my hand. There's a sort of communion."
"You call that communion? As in a church?"
"I use the same word. I think people go to communion, to the body of Christ, for a unique and intimate meeting with Jesus. And here," he said, clapping, "communion is an intimate communion where, in a way, we meet with two poverties. My poverty and their poverty. There's a humility about these people. So much of the time, the rest of us are playing games. In the sense that we're pretending, that sort of thing. But here there's an encounter with them."
Mr. Vanier found peace, in other words, by deliberately choosing a path that led away from conventional notions of success. In 1950, just as he was preparing to leave the navy, while he was reading the works of Thomas Merton, the American monk, poet and scholar, his ship berthed in New York, and Mr. Vanier visited a Catholic outreach centre in Harlem known as Friendship House. He nearly joined. "But somewhere I knew that to be a Christian we should live with the poor. And be a sign of love to those who have been discredited and pushed away."
"Did you ever think you'd made the wrong decision?" I asked.
"What struck me was that I'd found a home," he says of the early days of L'Arche. "We had fun. Everything was around the meals. When I say meals, we'd buy food, make food, cook food, eat food, do the washing up, prepare the next meal. Everything was around food. And food was to be around the table."
He hesitated, then went on. "There's a beautiful text of Jesus, where he says, when you give a meal, don't invite the members of your family, don't invite your rich neighbours. When you give a really good meal, invite the poor, the lame, the disabled and the blind. And you will be blessed."
I was slightly ashamed that I had never tried such a thing. "So I wanted to build a community and not an institution. And that's what attracted people" – by which he meant the travellers and adventurers who came as assistants and stayed to make their lives as L'Arche. "When people came, they ate at our table and we had fun."
But peace – of mind, of body, of soul, of place – is never static, in Mr. Vanier's view. You can find it, but then it disappears and you have to find it again. Yes, he considers the Templeton Prize a great honour. Yes, the Paralympic Games and their athletic brethren are proof that the status of the disabled is rising. But Jean Vanier longs for a bigger revolution.
"I'll tell you a true story," he said. "A young man with disabilities wanted to win the 100-metre race. And he got into the finals. And he was running like crazy to get that gold medal, and somebody in the next lane tripped and fell. And he stopped, picked this guy up, and they ran together, and both of them were the last.
"That's a true story," Mr. Vanier confirmed. It's the deepest lesson the disabled have to teach. "It's not that they can become like us – but how can we become like them and have fun together. And lift up the chap who has fallen on the other lane, and come in last. There's in us all an ego we have to conquer. You kill the ego so that the real person may rise up. And the real person is the one who's learning to love."
He doesn't think a life in L'Arche is for everyone, or even a good idea for many people. "What do you need in order to find a place in society?" he asked me. "Maybe you need to be a good garage mechanic. Maybe you need to be a good commercial person. To be a human being, you have to find your gifts, and see your gifts developed. Then you have to make a choice: Do I just want to be the best? Or do I want to be a good human being, and find the real meaning of my life, and the meaning of every person's life?"
I felt slightly dizzy, as I sometimes do around such talk. It was time to go. I wasn't sure how to say goodbye. If it took another seven years to get back to France … "I might not be there," Mr. Vanier interjected. He was actually laughing.
"Or I might not," I said. "So how does one say goodbye, in that circumstance?"
"We will be together," Mr. Vanier said, shrugging his shoulders. "Because we're part of a spirit, a spirit of love, the Holy Spirit. But it's also the spirit of seeking truth and living together."
He said other things, too, about how I would find my son in the happiness of God, "and he'll no longer be disabled. He'll just be there, and just say, 'Thank you, Dad, I love you.' " He predicted events I do not believe will happen, transformations I have no faith in, but which move me anyway, because they give others hope. Then he said, "We have to let down all the barriers that we've built up to create a place of power and acclaim. We can just say to each other, I love you, and that's all." So I shook his hand, and clapped him on the back, and headed for the airport.
A PATH TO SO-CALLED NORMAL
The catastrophes of the past few months have made it hard to remember the peace of the simple connections I made on that visit in June. But I get glimpses. I was sweeping the walk in front of my house the other day, thinking about how hard it is to be an idealist, and also what to have for lunch, when the woman with the wolfhound walked by. It's a gorgeous, well-behaved beast. The woman had a stroke a year ago, and has been fighting her way back to so-called normal. I talk to her when I see her, but the effort sometimes seems to alarm her.
"There's that beautiful dog," I said. "How are you?"
She looked at me. "Hello," she said.
She looked at my broom. "I love sweeping," she said.
"Me too," I said, before I had time to think of more of an answer. "So regular!"
She nodded twice before the dog pulled her away. I can't imagine how frightened she is, trying to find the person she wants to be. But she can sweep, and finds peace in it, and so can we.
Ian Brown is a feature writer with The Globe and Mail.