Jean Vanier: A Prophet for the 21st Century | Sojourners

Jean Vanier: A Prophet for the 21st Century

Photo via Christopher Bremrose / Flickr
Jean Vanier and a resident of L'Arche named Kathy in L'Arche Bognor in Trosly, France. Photo via Christopher Bremrose / Flickr

Editor’s update: In February 2020, L'Arche International released a report detailing an investigation that found Jean Vanier "engaged in manipulative sexual relationships with at least 6 adult (not disabled) women," and was aware of sexual abuses against women committed by his mentor, Fr. Thomas Philippe. For additional reporting and commentary on this news, visit

With all that is happening in the world today, it can seem like there is no hope and everything is going down the tubes with no way to stop the flow.

Human suffering and despair are present in all corners of the globe.

Natural disasters strike indiscriminately, taking away shelter, safety, and lives. People become targets of brutality for any number of reasons: religion, skin color, the person they love, and other divisions that have been created to divide humanity into “us” and “them” categories. There are a plethora of voices shouting for our attention, claiming to know the cause for such human suffering. Few, though, offer a solution that does not involve vengeance or violence.

One person who has been making a difference in this troubled 21st century is Jean Vanier, a man who started a movement by simply inviting mentally disabled friends to share his home. Vanier was recently awarded the 2015 Templeton Prize for what began as a simple gesture of welcome.

The Templeton Prize is given to a living individual who has made an important contribution toward the spiritual dimension of life. As the founder of L’Arche, a network of 147 communities around the world in which persons of differing intellectual abilities live and work together, Vanier has made his life work about creating inclusive communities that honor the divine in each person.

He reminds us that people with intellectual disabilities should be treated with dignity and can teach others important lessons about love and vulnerability. Beyond L’Arche, Vanier has played an important role in encouraging interfaith dialogue and unity. After witnessing the horrifying treatment of people with intellectual disabilities in Britain, Vanier heard the call of Divine and responded to that call with: “Here I am. Send me!”

In today’s fast-paced world of information overload and constant noise, how does one hear the voice of the Holy calling us to respond? People who say that “God spoke” to them are usually viewed with skepticism. Visions of divine beings and thunderous sounds are not the stuff that people living in a 21st century post-modern society accept as “real.” They are the labeled as fantasy or illusion.

However, in the world of those who heard and recorded the words of Isaiah, such experiences were accepted, and often gave credence to one’s claim to be speaking on behalf God. Being a prophet in the ancient world was no easy task, but it was often the call that ordinary people received from the Holy. While some mistakenly think that a prophet’s role was to predict the future, the true role of a prophet was to tell the people what they needed to hear, even if it was not what they wanted to hear.

Our text, Isaiah 6:1-8, is attributed to Isaiah, the eighth century prophet, who spoke in Jerusalem. Isaiah addressed a nation that was facing certain attack and conquer by a foreign enemy. It was a time of insecurity and despair. Within this turmoil, Isaiah’s was to interpret the current events through a theological lens, giving meaning to the experiences of the people and reminding them that the Holy required that their lives be marked by justice and love.

In some ways, the confusion and fear of the ancient audience parallels our world today. The prophet spoke to the question of how the people would handle the situation: with a relationship with God or without one?

Isaiah’s call takes place during an experience that can only be described as an encounter with the Divine. While Isaiah does see some sort of a figure, it is not clear exactly what he saw except that this being is wearing a robe with a very large hem or skirt. Yet, it is more valuable in this encounter to describe the holy otherness and majesty of the Divine: “on a high and lofty throne.” The scene also includes “seraphs,” who are attending to the Divine and described as having 6 wings: 2 covering their faces, 2 covering their feet, and 2 used for flying. These strange creatures also seem to be heralds, announcing the presence of the LORD, with an earth-rattling chorus of “Holy, holy, holy ...”

When Isaiah stands in the presence of the Holy, he is painfully aware of his shortcomings and sins. The seraph’s gesture of touching his lips with the coal symbolizes how this divine encounter transforms perceived human inadequacies into gifts to be used in responding to the call of God. The words of Jean Vanier affirm this potential: “Our humanity is so beautiful, but it needs to be transformed.” Both prophets acknowledge that we do not do this work alone. We are in a constant encounter with God as we work for healing and justice, community and welcome, whether in the 8th or 21st century.

With this new level of confidence, Isaiah is ready to respond to the Divine’s call: “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us” (v 8)? Isaiah’s answer consists of two short sentences: “Here am I. Send me.” This response initiates a prophetic career that would consistently and passionately tell the people the words they needed to hear from God, even when they refused to heed them.

Jean Vanier’s prophetic critique of how society treated people with intellectual abilities, often putting them in jail or exiling them from human community, was an unwelcome message. Vanier persisted to speak on behalf of the vulnerable and embodied his prophetic words, first by inviting two men with intellectual disabilities to live in his home and later by creating the inclusive communities of L’Arche.

While we may not have a face to face meeting with God like the one described in Isaiah 6, we can still experience the call of God today. As was the experience of Jean Vanier, the thunderous voices of the seraphim in Isaiah’s vision are heard today in the cries of human need. The earthquake and aftershocks in Nepal have resulted in great losses: 8,622 killed and 16, 808 wounded (UNRCO). Do we hear the call of the Holy in the voices of those left without hope? Who will go? The continuing cancer of racism extinguishes the future of the black community at an alarmingly high rate. Do we hear the Divine call in the silent tears and loud voices of protest? Who will go? Millions of children suffer from hunger and malnutrition. In their soft cries and rumbling stomachs, do we hear that call? Who will go? Persons with intellectual disabilities live in inhumane situations, often homeless and forgotten. In their whispered wishes to be treated with dignity and love, do we hear the voice of the Holy? Who will go?

The problems of the world can overwhelm us. When we are confronted by the Divine in the cries of human need, we may, like Isaiah, feel unworthy and ill-equipped to respond. However, if we allow this Divine experience to transform our human weakness, we can find the courage and strength to answer that call, as Jean Vanier has, with a bold, “Here I am!” What follows may be more difficult than we can imagine, but we can be confident in the knowledge that the work we do is Holy work.

Rev. Dr. Lisa W. Davison is the Johnnie Eargle Cadieux Professor of Hebrew Bible at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, OK. Via ON Scripture.

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