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The Tender Power of Jean Vanier

Editor’s note: On the news of Jean Vanier’s death this week, we are republishing this excerpt from Krista Tippett’s 2016 book, Becoming Wise. It has been updated for online publication.

When I left Berlin those years ago, I was questioning the lives of power, and the definition of success, to which I’d grown up aspiring. I didn’t study theology in order to be ordained. I studied it to keep exploring the meaning, the necessary nuance, of notions like power and authority in human life and in the exercise of moral imagination and possibility. I was surprised to find myself taking spiritual life seriously. And I needed to know that it could address the complexity of reality I’d experienced. So alongside my discovery of mystics exploring embodied transcendence, I was also attentive to places where spiritual insights were being tethered to hard embodied contradictions in the thick of the human everyday. I was drawn to the L’Arche movement, which remakes notions of power and normalcy by way of shared life between able-bodied and mentally disabled people. In L’Arche communities, people born as strangers practice care that is as fierce, tender, and sustained as the bond of birth. The more “helpless” disabled among them are called, and treated, as the core members, the able-bodied their assistants.

I first read about L’Arche in the books of Henri Nouwen, a spiritual teacher and writer who was immensely prolific and beloved in his day. At the age of 64 in 1986, after teaching at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard, Nouwen publicly declared himself burnt out. He moved to spend the last years of his life as a resident assistant at the L’Arche community in Toronto, which is called Daybreak. “I moved, that is,” he wrote, “from an institution for the best and brightest to a community where mentally handicapped people and their assistants try to live together in the spirit of the Beatitudes. In my house, 10 of us form a family. Gradually, I’m forgetting who is handicapped and who is not. We are simply John, Bill, Trevor, Raymond, Rose, Steve, Jane, Naomi, Henri, and Adam.”

In the early days of my radio adventure, I made a pilgrimage to L’Arche for myself. I traveled to the sleepy town of Clinton, Iowa, on a gorgeous stretch of the Mississippi. There, a revolutionary community shelters among pastel-painted houses on a residential street. It took my eyes and my introverted spirit a little while to adjust to this unfamiliar cross-section of humanity testing the most paradoxical of spiritual teachings – that there is light in darkness, strength in weakness, and beauty in the brokenness of human existence. But their dare does not proceed through theologizing; it proceeds through exuberantly inhabiting the given, imperfect raw materials of the everyday. I’ve rarely been in a place where there is so much laughter and where the rhythm of life includes a real joy in that deceptive phrase, “the simple things of life:” cooking, eating together, washing up; the rituals of leaving for work in the morning and coming home at night; walks around the neighborhood and trips to the library; goofing off and making music and playing. I’ve rarely been hugged so fervently by strangers and enjoyed it. At the same time and not in contradiction to all of that but making it more real, I’ve rarely been in a place where the grief and imperfection and struggle of being human were more honestly faced moment to moment. L’Arche is like family at its best. And it’s a chosen family that then touches the strangers who cross its path. As I moved through the ordinary encounters of ordinary days with L’Arche’s core members, I watched how they unsettled everyone they met, at least a little, and left them more joyful and more graceful: bus drivers, librarians, supervisors at work. And me. It’s a joy and grace transmitted by bodies, and it settled in my bones and is still with me these many years later.

Jean Vanier, the philosopher and Catholic humanitarian who founded L’Arche, likes to quote his late friend Mother Theresa: “One of the realities we’re all called to go through is to move from repulsion to compassion and from compassion to wonderment.” When I finally sit down with him for a conversation after following his work for years, I enjoy the insistence with which he uses that word “reality,” which is so often wielded as something hard and unforgiving. Loving reality, for Jean Vanier, is an antidote to living in the imagination, or operating out of what could have been or should have been. Loving reality in all its imperfection is the necessary prelude to discovering God present and alive.

Wonderment in the face of the other is so beautifully exacting a progression from mere tolerance.

I learn that Jean Vanier’s early life did not foreshadow this progression in his own vocation. He grew up in a prominent French-Canadian family, entered the British Royal Naval College as a teenager and commanded an aircraft carrier in his 20s. But he was consumed with questions of meaning and power. He spent a year in a contemplative community devoted to working with the poor, praying – and studying metaphysics. He wrote about Aristotle’s notion of an “ethics of desire,” and became a professor of philosophy at St. Michael’s College in Toronto. Then at Christmas time in 1963, Jean Vanier went to visit a friend in France who was working as a chaplain for men with mental handicaps. He was especially moved by a vast asylum south of Paris in which all day, 80 adult men did nothing 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 asylum to share life with him. This way of living became magnetic, and there are now 154 L’Arche communities in 38 countries. They are places of pilgrimage for all kinds of people, offering hospitality as a core virtue alongside compassion.

Krista Tippett interviewing Jean Vanier in 2007. Image by Trent Gilliss/Flickr, © All Rights Reserved.

I interviewed Jean Vanier in Maryland, where he was leading a retreat for college students from around the U.S. I met a few of them, and they glowed, as I know I had in Clinton and now revisited in the presence of this lovely man with immense warmth and the stature of the naval commander he once was.

You say that Aristotle’s “ethics of desire” is resonant with who we are today. That people want to have meaning in their lives, which Aristotle identified, and they want to be thrilled by it. You wrote, “An ethics of desire is good news for us at a time when we have become allergic to an ethics of law.” People might look at the life you’ve led and the work that you do and contrast that with what they might call our pleasure-seeking, entertainment-oriented society. But what I hear when you talk about Aristotle is that you’re not condemning that basic impulse that we have to seek pleasure. You’re just saying that we can take that to a much deeper and more profound level.

It’s just finding where, what activity, will give you the greatest, the deepest pleasure. I mean, for some people it might be drinking whiskey. But for me it was to find a meaning through philosophy, through my relationship with Jesus, through justice, through a struggle. And it’s true that I sense deeply that I’ve always been really a happy person. That doesn’t mean to say I haven’t had difficulties, that doesn’t mean to say I didn’t go through difficult conflicts. But fundamentally, I’ve had a pleasurable life, a joyful life.

Talk to me, though, about, you know, how you connect a word like pleasure with the place where I really sense you found your calling, where you understood what was meaningful for you. You went back to France and you encountered men in an asylum. Somehow you were seized by that and that has kind of mapped out the direction of your life.

Yes, I come back to the reality of pleasure and to the reality of what is my deepest desire and what is your deepest desire? Somewhere, the deepest desire for us all is to be appreciated, to be loved, to be seen as somebody of value. But not just seen … Aristotle makes a difference between being admired and being loved. When you admire people, you put them on pedestals. When you love people, you want to be together. So really, the first meeting I had with people with disabilities, what touched me was their cry for relationship. Some of them had been in a psychiatric hospital. All of them had lived pain and the pain of rejection. One of the words of Jesus to Peter, Do you love me?; so the cry of God saying, Do you love me? And the cry of people who have been wounded, put aside, who have lost trust in themselves: Do you love me? It’s these two cries that come together.

Not just in the context of disabilities, you’ve said the whole question is, how do we stand before pain? All kinds of pain and weakness are difficult for us as human beings. Why is that so excruciating? Why do we do such a bad job with it?

I think there are so many elements. First of all, we don’t know what to do with our own pain, so what to do with the pain of others? We don’t know what to do with our own weakness except hide it or pretend it doesn’t exist. So how can we welcome fully the weakness of another if we haven’t welcomed our own weakness? There are very strong words of Martin Luther King. His question was always, how is it that one group — the white group — can despise another group, which is the black group? And will it always be like this? Will we always be having an elite condemning or pushing down others that they consider not worthy? And he says something I find extremely beautiful and strong, that we will continue to despise people until we have recognized, loved, and accepted what is despicable in ourselves. There are some elements despicable in ourselves, which we don’t want to look at, but which are part of our natures. We are mortal.

And as you’ve also pointed out many times, we all have – you’ve called them our weaknesses, our limitations, our disfigurements. They don’t all show on our bodily surface, right? We recoil when, on a person with disabilities, it shows. You’ve written that, from the point of view of faith, those who are marginalized and considered failures can restore balance to our world. Talk to me about that.

The balance of our world frequently is seen as a question of power. If I have more power and more knowledge, more capacity, then I can do more. And when we have power, we can very quickly push people down. I’m the one that knows and you don’t know, and I’m strong and I’m powerful, I have the knowledge. This is the history of humanity. And it is in the whole educational system, that we must educate people to become capable and to take their place in society. That has value, obviously. But it’s not quite the same thing as to educate people to relate, to listen, to help people to become themselves. The equilibrium that people with disabilities bring is precisely this equilibrium of the heart. Think about what happens in families, with children. Maybe a father is very strong. But when he comes home, he gets down on his hands and knees and plays with the children. It’s the child teaching the father something about tenderness, about love, about the father looking at the needs of the child, the face of the child, the hands of the child, relating to the child. The incredible thing about children is they’re unified in their body, whereas we can be very disunified. We can say one thing and feel another.

And so as a child can teach us about unity and about fidelity and about love, so it is people with disabilities. It’s the same sort of beauty and purity in some of these people — it is extraordinary. Our world is not just a world of competition, the weakest and the strongest. Everybody can have their place.

I ask Jean Vanier how he thinks about success. L’Arche is not a solution, he says, but a sign. It’s the transmission of a vision and a culture. We don’t know how to measure such transmission, moment to moment and life to life. But its reality — to claim that word as Jean Vanier does — is undeniable.

People ask me about the common denominators of the wisest people I’ve encountered. Alongside all the virtues that accompany and anchor wisdom, there is a characteristic physical presence which Jean Vanier epitomizes with others I’ve met like Desmond Tutu, Wangari Maathai, Thich Nhat Hanh. Here’s what it feels like, what I can report: an embodied capacity to hold power and tenderness in a surprising, creative interplay. This way of being is palpable, and refreshing, and in its way jarring, hard to figure out. Among other things, it transmutes my sense of what power feels like and is there for. This is the closest I can come to describing the sense I have, at this point, of wisdom incarnate, and it is an experience of physical presence as much as consciousness and spirit.

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