Jean Vanier on community

Jean Vanier is an illustrative example of the point made by John Paul II in Novo Millennio Ineunte concerning the vital role of witness:

We must therefore ensure that in every Christian community the poor feel at home. Would not this approach be the greatest and most effective presentation of the good news of the Kingdom? Without this form of evangelization through charity and without the witness of Christian poverty the proclamation of the Gospel, which is itself the prime form of charity, risks being misunderstood or submerged by the ocean of words which daily engulfs us in today’s society of mass communications. The charity of works ensures an unmistakable efficacy to the charity of words.

Yesterday one of my classes met to discuss Living Gently in a Violent World; the words and deeds of Jean Vanier moved them very deeply and they were excited to discuss the ideas he presented in the book about community and faith. The students are regularly deluged with an “ocean of words” in their reading and from being lectured at all semester. They really sat up and took notice of Mr. Vanier. His deeds are remarkable and his words ring true. We talked for a full two hours.

Vanier stepped into the “huge gap of injustice and pain,” as he puts it, separating the “normal world” and those pushed aside because of their disabilities. He began to live with the disabled and eventually founded a federation of communities. (On Vanier, click here; on the L’arche communities, click here)

The great message of Vanier is that the community with the “normal” and “disabled” transforms them both. Because people with disabilities “long for an authentic relationship more than for power,” they catch us all up short. He says they are not obsessed with “acclaim and promotion.” Rather “they are crying out for what matters most: love. And God hears their cry because in some way they respond to the cry of God, which is to give love.” (30)

Vanier explains how this transformed him, and continues to transform him. He was a successful man, he served in the Navy and earned a PhD. He said “I could go up the ladder but not know if I was really love.” He understood his desire for admiration and acceptance, for acclaim and power. But the simple need for love — that we so easily deny and cover over. Why? Vanier says because it exposes a weakness. He understands this through the story of the fall: “Adam, where are you?” “I was frightened because I was naked, and so I hid.” Vanier takes up the theme — fear, nakedness, hiding. Much is found in those fateful words: rejection, abandonment, not succeeding, failure, deterioration, death. Vanier says it amounts to being “pushed down” or being seen as “valueless or nonexistent.” So we are compelled to resist being pushed down, and we become obsessed, he says, with having a name where we can be glorified, or achieving a position where we can be seen as worthy.

The relationship to the disabled starts to rip that away and reveals the more authentic need and essence of personhood. “The primal cry for relationship” — with others and with God.

Thus Vanier lives and teaches that weakness is the way to God. “When we meet people with disabilities and reveal to them through our eyes and ears and words that they are precious, they are changed. But we too are changed. We are led to God.”

The students responded very positively to the witness and words of Jean Vanier. They are completing service learning projects at the University of St Thomas; and this illuminated their experiences of working with the disadvantaged. How important it is just to BE WITH them, not only doing things for them.

Vanier pushes up even deeper — he explains that the world is broken and it cannot be fixed and made totally right. The attitude that we can fix everything leads to a destruction of the people with disabilities. In France, Vanier reports, Downs syndrome will soon be eliminated through abortion. And people refer to them as “monsters.” What a violent approach to a creature of God! Vanier says we cannot deal with the brokenness because we too are broken, and in denial about it. We need God and others. “We cannot really enter into relationship with people who are broken unless somehow we deal with our own brokenness.” We are hiding our weakness, and therefore denying our creaturehood, and fallenness. And we fail to see or own dark side, our hypocrisy and lies, our desire to prove we are better. Conversion to Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit lead us to the communio of love.

Vanier writes a very stirring conclusion which I read out loud to the students yesterday:

We must not get caught up in the need for power over the poor. We need to be with the poor. That can seem a bit crazy because it doesn’t look like a plan to change the world. But maybe we will change the world if we are happy. Maybe what we need most is to rejoice and to celebrate with the weak and the vulnerable. Maybe the most important thing is to learn how to build communities of celebration. Maybe the world will be transformed when we learn how to have fun together . .  Maybe what the world needs more than anything is communities where we celebrate life together and become a sign of hope for our world. Maybe we need signs that it is possible to love each other. (75)

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