Jean Vanier: Remembering an Icon, Not an Idol | Sojourners

Jean Vanier: Remembering an Icon, Not an Idol

Jean Vanier

Editors Note: Canadian spiritual leader and philosopher Jean Vanier died on May 7, 2019, in Paris, at age 90. He is best known as the founder of L’Arche, and Faith and Light, both communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities share their lives. L’Arche was founded in 1964 as a unique Christian community, then expanded nearly immediately to become first ecumenical and then interfaith. This reflection is by Carolyn Whitney-Brown, author of Jean Vanier: Essential Writings (2008), Sharing Life: Stories of L’Arche Founders (2019), and Tender to the World: Jean Vanier, L’Arche and the United Church of Canada (2019). She and her family lived at L’Arche Daybreak from 1990-1997.

When Jean Vanier died on May 7, I remembered that I first read his writing on the pages of Sojourners magazine in the 1970s. I was a teenager, searching for ways to live out my faith in Jesus with others in community in a more radical way. Jean’s combination of idealism combined with practical insights moved me. It was a time of discovery for many of my generation, as we tried to break down walls between evangelical and mainline churches, between denominations, between diverse economic and social communities. I started to volunteer at a Saturday day program with people with intellectual disabilities. I worked night shifts as a caregiver for women with physical disabilities. It would be nearly 15 years before I moved into L’Arche, the international federation of communities Jean founded where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together.

Reading the flood of obituaries and tributes to Jean over the past weeks, I have been struck by this insight: Jean’s central message about transforming structures of privilege to build community across every imaginable kind of difference makes sense without reference to Jesus — but his life doesn’t. His deepest desires and choices were all tied to his reading of the gospel stories of Jesus and his community.

In the late 1990s, I was asked to write an article about Jean for a Jesuit journal. I accepted eagerly, but I soon discovered something curious about Jean Vanier – it was like trying to write about an over-exposed photograph. There was all light and no shadow. Or perhaps, I wondered, he was a little like Peter Pan – wherever his shadow was, it certainly wasn’t attached to his own heels. It set me on a 20-year quest, not exactly to track down Jean’s personal “shadow,” but to understand the extraordinary power of Jean Vanier as a myth and a symbol, why people wanted to see Jean as utterly radiant. Why do so many people choose to call Jean a saint?

I asked Jean about it at the time, bluntly inquiring, “Are you a saint?” and he looked pained and put his head in his hands. “Nobody knows me,” he said.

In my own writing, he encouraged me to discern and respect the difference between the personal and the private. Jean was careful about what details he revealed about his own life, but he often referred to his own limitations to help readers accept their own. In the 1970s, he half-jokingly proposed writing a book titled The Right to be a Rotter, or, he explained, the right to be oneself. In his last book, a collection of autobiographical essays published in 2017, he begged readers to recognize that he was human like anyone else, and had made mistakes. Even the L’Arche International website page announcing his death made a point of asserting, “He knew he was no saint.”

Yet nearly every written piece over these past two weeks has called Jean a saint. And I would not disagree, because there was something compelling about Jean, that at its best called forth the best in those around him, whatever their capacities.

Jean and I revisited this “saint” question the last time we had several days of extended conversation in 2017. He quoted Dorothy Day, who said “don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” Jean was uncomfortable if a saint was a model of inaccessible perfection alone on a pedestal, but if the word was used as a member of the Christian community, he was happy to be part of the community of saints, living and dead. As he waved me off from the gate of his little house in Trosly, France, he shouted up the street after me, “Remember, the message not the messenger!” and I called back, “Sure, Jean, but the message is always embodied!” and we parted laughing.

Look, friends, here is what I want to say: Jean was not perfect and he hurt people and he knew it. If that reality crushes your opinion of Jean, then you might ask yourself why you want any human being to project perfection. Only the light itself has no shadows, and only God is the light. To turn a person into the light is to create an idol. Jean Vanier saw himself more like John the Baptist, pointing others toward the light. The one pointing to the light will have shadows and contrasts, areas that remain inarticulate, perhaps inaccessible. I suspect that the areas of Jean that remained mysterious even to himself are inextricably connected to his gifts. Let Jean be an icon not an idol, helping you, however imperfectly, to see something about God.

What stays with me about Jean’s message is his cheerful confidence in everyone’s gifts, our ability together to create something transformative. Jean said his companions with intellectual disabilities helped him slow down. He learned to “waste time together.” Meals, times of prayer, times of loss, sadness and grieving, or of deep “belly-laughing,” celebrations — all these were times of sharing life, of being together in solidarity through profound passages as well as simple day-to-day routines.

Jean’s message and life called people continually to expand beyond their own small circle and connect with those who are different. He explored how to get past our initial resistance to people and situations in which we might initially feel repulsion. Jean’s message was not fundamentally about how to be a better person, but rather how our own limited and wounded selves could build relationships with other imperfect people.

In those connections, he asserted, we would find a way of peace – and enjoy the journey with each other. He speculated cheerfully in 2006, “Maybe the world will be transformed when we learn to have fun together.”

Editor's Update: In 2020, L'Arche International released a report detailing an investigation that found 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. Sojourners president Jim Wallis responded to this news in a February 2020 column.