Jean Vanier died on May 6; he was ninety years old. I’ll never approach the depth of his spirituality, but I owe a lot to him for the little I’ve progressed. After successful careers in the military and as a professor of philosophy, Vanier dedicated the rest of his life to living with people who have intellectual disabilities. In 1964, he established the first “L’Arche Community.” “L’Arche” means “The Ark,” which in the Noah story is a place of safety and covenant. These houses are places of where people who in many cases have experienced acute rejection can find a safe place where love is freely received and given, and a loving God is worshiped.
Vanier saw and lived out an important truth that too few in the world see: Intellectually disabled people help us as much or more than we can help them. They do this by giving us access to our own hearts. When you cannot talk about abstract ideas with someone, you have two choices: you either run away or you learn to communicate with your heart. That’s the gift. You become attentive to each other’s emotions, soothing pain and sadness, dealing with anger, encouraging laughter and helping each other feel good and important.
I consider my friendship with a person who has an intellectual disability to be one of the greatest gifts in my life. There are wonderful parts of my heart that would be undisturbed and unused, even unknown, were it not for this friendship.
When asked about the process of forming friendships with intellectually disabled people, he once responded, “They were not very interested in my knowledge or my ability to do things, but rather they needed my heart and my being.” He also spoke of his initial fears in forming these friendships. He was intimidated by their physical appearance, difficulty in speaking, and, mostly, by what he perceived as their “bottomless need and incurable loneliness.” Rather than run away from their need, he realized it was a reflection of his own neediness, fragility, and inevitable death. This led to one of his most important insights: In order to best serve broken people, we need to be in touch with our own brokenness. When we are at peace with our own fears and fragility, we can be at peace with the brokenness of others. When we know we are loved in our own brokenness, we can love broken people.
As a result, Vanier rejected a form of Christian service from above, where we see ourselves as the “good strong guys” helping out those “poor weak souls.” Rather, he invited us to see our service as walking together as friends who are in essence not that different from each other. We all need love. We are all blessed, all broken, and all fulfilled when we give our love away.
I would love to go on a retreat led by Jean Vanier. I have miles to go in developing a heart like his. He is no longer here to lead a retreat, however. But any of us can do what he would advise. Do not be afraid of people who are different from you. Know that everyone needs love, including yourself. Know that everyone has wounds in life, including yourself. Trust that you are precious to God and realize that everyone else is also.
When we follow this advice we will learn over time some wisdom for life. When you are in touch with your own need for mercy, you will show abundant mercy. When you are aware of your own deep need for love and friendship, you will not ignore your lonely neighbor. When you dare to feel the pain of your own failures and rejections, you will be kind to the failed and rejected. Together we find salvation.