Jean Vanier: Man of the margins

Jean Vanier with Raphael Simi, who were together at the beginning of L’Arche

Jean Vanier, the philosopher, humanitarian and theologian died this week. He founded L’Arche and Faith and Light and inspired many other ventures including my own work on the spirit of the margins.

In their obituary, the New York Times described him as a Saviour of people on the margins. He was also a man of the margins himself.

He had deep relationships with many people, and yet was essentially a solitary person. Much as he liked travel and leading retreats, he was happiest back home, in his small, simple, house. He avoided formal dinner parties and other social gatherings, though he felt comfortable with people with learning disabilities around the table. After his birth his mother struggled with post-natal depression, as a result of which he was distanced from her at a young and crucial stage. He suggested that this had a significant impact on his later life. He never married.

Later, as a young man in the navy he was swept into the sea and thought he was going to drown. For a time, we can imagine that he felt his time on earth was at an end – the ultimate margin. He was rescued and he later said that this whole experience gave him a sense that his life had been saved for some purpose – even if at the time he did not know what it was to be.

He came from an establishment background – his father was Governor General of Canada – and by the age of 35 he had explored several mainstream options. He had shown exceptional leadership qualities in the Navy, considered the priesthood and also pursued academia, the latter with a position as a University lecturer and a PhD on Aristotle. Instead, he moved to the margins, choosing – much to the initial dismay of his mother and others – to share his life with two men with learning disabilities.

He discovered his life’s work – revealing the gifts of people with learning disabilities – when he first came across them and felt they were asking him ‘will you be my friend?’ The extent to which this resonated with him suggests, to me at least, that there was also an echoing cry in his heart of whether they would be his friend.

He told me he felt marginal in times of conflict, or when he didn’t quite know what to do. He had profound differences of opinion with his long-time friend and spiritual guide, Pere Thomas, notably as to whether L’Arche should be a purely Catholic Community or more ecumenical. Pere Thomas favoured the former, Jean the latter. Later, he had the agony of discovering that Pere Thomas had abused women within L’Arche, finding it hard to reconcile the two sides of his personality.

Jean was welcomed and lauded by leaders of many Churches – Pope Francis sought to speak to him during his last week of life. Nonetheless, Jean often felt that the message of L’Arche was not really understood or appreciated by the Church as a whole. He often spoke of L’Arche as a sign, not a solution: a sign that society, to be truly human, must be founded on welcome and respect for the weak and the downtrodden. This makes L’Arche an essentially marginal, often hidden, nearly always mundane, but potentially prophetic work.

Jean used to say that ‘everyone needs a Saviour and that a Saviour is someone who has need of them’. Jean was, in his life, a form of saviour to many, not just those on the margins, but to those who served those on the margins. It is good to imagine that in passing beyond the margins of this world, he has now come to the true centre.

A personal tribute to Jean Vanier is given at http://www.chrisbemrose.org/jean-vanier/

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