Requiem for a ‘little one’: in thanksgiving for the life and legacy of Jean Vanier

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The Rev’d Dr Jo Inkpin and The Rev’d Penny Jones reflect on the life and legacy of L’Arche founder Jean Vanier, who passed away recently:Operating on a not-for-profit ‘community model’ of care, people with disabilities remain at the core of L’Arche, affirming the centrality of relationships, the dignity of the image of God in everyone, and the values of compassion, inclusion and diversity”

“I am struck by how sharing our weakness and difficulties is more nourishing to others than sharing our qualities and successes.”

– so said theologian and disability advocate Jean Vanier, who died recently at the age of 90. This, for him, was at the heart of the gospel.  Jean himself not only proclaimed this in his words, but lived it.

Son of a Canadian Governor-General, a naval veteran, a successful priest in a worldly sense, and a brilliant intellectual, his life’s turning point came in 1964, when he met Raphael Simi and Phillipe Seux, two men with intellectual disabilities, trapped in a large institution. Giving up his old life, Jean set up a home named L’Arche, meaning ‘Ark’, with them in a small French village, thereby discovering a deeper way of the heart and living into the beatitudes of Jesus. By following Jesus, in placing relationship with the ‘little ones’ at the centre of life, Jean embraced radical hospitality and encountered a profound transformation to which others responded.

Indeed, from these simple beginnings, L’Arche has grown into an international federation of 147 communities in 37 countries, including Australia (with a community locally in Brisbane). Operating on a not-for-profit ‘community model’ of care, people with disabilities remain at the core of L’Arche, affirming the centrality of relationships, the dignity of the image of God in everyone, and the values of compassion, inclusion and diversity.

Such spirituality and practically embodied communion are not for us to merely admire, but to welcome in our own lives and church communities. We ourselves were hugely blessed in our ministries in both Gosford and Toowoomba parishes by our L’Arche friends and involvements, including during parish camps, by the transformative leadership effects of L’Arche core members with intellectual disabilities, by the musical gifts of L’Arche Australia leaders such as John Coleman and Cindy Treanor, and the writings of Jean Vanier himself. Placing Christ’s ‘little ones’ at the centre, the oft perceived ‘wounds’ and weaknesses of our parish members instead became sources of grace, not embarrassments to be hidden.

For as Jean Vanier learned and shared, true life and healing come with hospitality to imperfection and difference. This profound joy can only be found by losing power: in relationships not above or below others, but in communion where no one is regarded as less than another.

As Jean put it:

“When I discover that I am accepted and loved as a person, with my strengths and weaknesses, when I discover that I carry within myself a secret, the secret of my uniqueness, then I can begin to open up to others and respect their secret. Each human being, however small or weak, has something to bring to humanity. As we start to really get to know others, as we begin to listen to each other’s stories, things begin to change. We begin the movement from exclusion to inclusion, from fear to trust, from closedness to openness, from judgment and prejudice to forgiveness and understanding. It is a movement of the heart.”

To find out more about Jean Vanier and L’Arche, visit:

L’Arche Australia

John Coleman music

YouTube: How to LOSE power

YouTube: Eradicate the seeds of fear, the seeds of hate

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