Paying Attention: Remembering Jean Vanier, 1928-2019

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We have just finished celebrating Mother’s Day and for many of us, it is mothers who most embody loving care and gentle nurturing. In the Bible, God is often referred to as a mother so that we understand the nature and depth of the divine love for each of us.

In the twentieth century, there were many living embodiments of the tenderness of God; some were famous and others obscure. Jean Vanier, who passed away only last week, gained notoriety for having opened his home to people with disabilities, thereby launching a worldwide movement in which “communities” of persons who live side by side with each other, sharing each other’s lives with all the joys and pains and challenges that may come along.

“The most important thing is not to do things for people who are poor or in distress, but to enter into relationship with them, to be with them and help them find confidence in themselves and discover their own gifts.”

– Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche and Faith and Light

At the start, Jean Vanier had simply offered a home to two men with disabilities because he was horrified at the inhumane way the so-called institutions were treating disabled people. As he later told it, he initially saw this as an act of charity but then very soon came to understand that it was really he himself who was receiving healing and a gift of community.

Until then, Vanier had not grasped the depth of the riches which are present in the “least of these” and these friendships became transformative. In a real, daily and practical way, he lived his years basking in the  Gospel truth that Jesus expresses tenderness toward us through the presence of the weakest and humblest among us. God reaches out in love to us using the hands and hearts of others and we become whole and obtain healing through our encounter with them.

As it became clear a couple of weeks ago that he was nearing his final days, Pope Francis is said to have reached out to Jean Vanier for a final farewell. It was reported that the Holy Father thanked him for living “a life of witness.” Jean’s accomplishments—as a founder of L’Arche and “Faith and Light” are truly impressive. The impact he had on innumerable people is undisputed. But it is significant that it was his way of life, his “witness” which remains as his legacy.

I took this away from the Pope’s remarks: that it is worth paying attention to people who have devoted their lives to Jesus by serving His Poor and His Little Ones. The way Jean Vanier lived his life, the spiritual principles he was able to articulate in his spoken and written words are an echo of that Word which was spoken by God in the person of Jesus. May we also learn to live, to love and to listen as he did.

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