Jean Vanier – Copernicus of Our Times

Few months ago Agnieszka was asked to write an article about Jean Vanier for a polish magazine. It finally has been published, and we also would like to share with you these few thoughts about the founder of L’Arche:


Copernican Revolution wasn’t connected with a new discovery, how it has been commonly believed, but it was a new attempt to prove the thesis known by some for eighteen centuries. Revolution was based on radical thinking and opposition against commonly agreed false statements. The same revolution made Jean in the area of ‘helping the poor’. One of the bishops told Jean Vanier that his L’Arche is responsible for Copernican revolution. It was always agreed that we should help the poor. You tell that the poor help us.

Usually helping the poor is seen as one way act of goodness from ‘a reach person’ towards ‘a poor one’. Very comfortable way for a busy Christian to deserve salvation and improve his image in the eyes of others and his own: give clothes and food to an anonymous poor.

Jean started in similar way: acting out of generosity of heart invited in August 1964 three people with intellectual disability to his home. He has chosen the unhappiest ones, as he pitted them the most. Dany hasn’t survived even one night in a new place – too many changes for him. Jean discovered that not always we know what is the best for others. Dany returned to the asylum he came from, but Philippe and Raphael stayed helping Jean to find the purpose of his life and to build the true home.

Jean has been searching for a purpose all his life. He was born in Geneva in the family of 19th Governor General of Canada. He must have work hard not to be seen only as a son of a great person. George Vanier was known and respected not only because of his role, but because of his character and charisma.

At the age of 13, Jean told his father that he would like to enter the Royal Naval College in England. Of course father wasn’t thrilled about the idea, but seeing Jean’s enthusiasm told him that if he felt about it so strongly, he should follow his heart. This conversation was one of the major moments of Jean’s life. First of all Jean felt that his father trusts him, secondary he has heard an important lesson: always follow your heart.

From the very beginning his naval career seemed to be very promising. But when he received his officer’s commission and began his service in Navy, he was more and more drown into prayer and reflection on what might be God’s call for him. Thanks to his mother he got in touch with an extraordinary man, who one day came to her asking for financial help with running his community called ‘Eau vive’ [Living waters]. In that time it was quite innovative project as theological studies and spiritual formation wasn’t accessible to lay people. Father Thomas Philippe made a big impression on Madame Vanier. She felt that he can help his son as well. She was right. Meeting father Thomas, joining his community and lifelong friendship marked strongly Jean.

In 1950 Jean resigned from the Navy to study philosophy and theology at the Institute Catholique in Paris. He joined Father Thomas Philippe’s community ‘Eau Vive’, where he met people from different cultures and even religions. Father Thomas’s spiritual formation was exceptional. He believed that what is human in us, not only is not separating us from God, but actually helps us to understand better His love to us. In some ways the more we understand what humanity is about, the closest we are to the divine. Of course it’s just simplifications of Father Thomas’s teaching, but this direction shaped Jean. Father Thomas’s approach helped Jean to be very rooted in reality and at the same to have his head in clouds. Jean felt in his heart that it’s a good direction.

Unfortunately not everyone understood and appreciated Father Thomas. It was the time just before the Second Vatican Council. Time of great changes in Catholic Church, but unfortunately for some people, the time of great politics. Father Thomas was caught in that politics and had to leave. He disappeared from social and church life for 10 years. Jean continued his study and even wanted to become a priest, but he was informed that to pursue this desire he has to cut the links with Father Thomas. Jean felt deeply in his heart that he cannot compromise this friendship and spiritual guidance. He remembered his father’s words about following his heart. He decided that he won’t become a priest, but he didn’t give up on studying theology. Time went by. In 1963, having published his doctoral thesis on Aristotle, he returned to Canada to teach at the University of Toronto. He followed Father’s Thomas line in teaching and he become a very successful teacher. Students crowded to listen to his lectures. Jean discovered his new gift of giving speeches and reaching people’s hearts.

Jean’s parents finally felt relieved. They really worried about him. His siblings settled down ages ago and only Jean regardless his 35 years still couldn’t find his place in life. Finally they have seen the chance for his stabilization. He was good at what he did and he enjoyed it. It was true, but only at the beginning. The better he prepared his lectures, the deeper he analysed what he was saying, the more he realised that he was not really living what he was talking about. He shared this with his old friend who invited him to Trosly, little village north of Paris where Father Thomas become a chaplain of a small institution for men with intellectual disabilities. Father Thomas said to Jean that he has discovered ‘something’ there and he hoped that Jean discovers ‘something’ for himself as well.

Jean came and got terrified by what he discovered: enormous pain, railed windows, life or rather vegetation without hope, aggression as the only way of communication or a way of showing that ‘I exist’. A bit too much for a first visit especially that he had his own problems. But Jean quickly understood that there is not much difference between him and the people he met in institution. They all are searching for hope. But Jean didn’t feel competent to do anything. He didn’t know why father invited him here, neither did father Thomas. Father Thomas only knew that those forgotten by the world people helped him to get rid of his depression, that they helped him to understood better his own thoughts written ages ago and that they motivated him to return to writing, return to life. Jean left thinking what all this could mean for him…

He returned after one year with a clear mission to welcome a few ‘unprivileged’ people under his roof.  There was 60ties, so the community grew in no time. Young people interested in this kind of a community life were coming from all over the world. Beginnings weren’t obvious. Cooking wasn’t their strong point, but neighbours helped from time to time. One day the house received chops in the post. Jean called his community L’Arche [French for Noah’s Ark]. This name captured his attention straight away as L’Arche is floating on living waters; the ark provides security, but is far from the inflexible stabilisation. The most important is that the ark is a symbol of hope, as God made the first Covenant with Humanity at that time. Covenant is an important world in L’Arche. It means ‘being together’ and even more ‘being one’ if we understand that God not only gave us His Son, who is one of us, humans, but He give us as well His Spirit, who is a part of us.

Jean discovered that living with ‘unprivileged’ transformed his life. The transformation was possible because he allowed be known not as a son of a great person, famous theologian and Christian writer, but as Jean, who has a problem with cooking, uses difficult worlds and has difficulty with showing his emotions.

Initial pity on people he welcomed has transformed into real brotherhood. They build the relations based on what units them, not what divides. Paradoxically what united them was their vulnerability, their imperfections, things we usually hide and are ashamed of. But they made us unique and fully human. The unprivileged, the poor are able to show us our greatness and our vulnerability, they have the ability to accept us the way we are, they help us to discover the truth about ourselves and to accept it. We need them! And they need us for the same reasons: to help them discover their beauty and the truth about themselves. Usually they are conscious about their vulnerability, but not aware of their strengths. We can help them to build their self-esteem as because of us they can see that they have the ability to help others. And it’s not just the babbling or flattering – community is the place, where interdependence is our reality. In the centre of the community are those, who are the most in need and the true is that EVERY member of L’Arche sooner or later is in the centre.

Simple truth, like the one that Earth is not in the centre of the Universe. Maybe it is difficult to accept this truth; maybe sometimes it is inconvenient truth. And of course Jean Vanier is not the first one who discovered it. We know many people who worked with the poor. They told us that this kind of work transforms them; that they are not heroes, but the heroes are the ones who allow them to touch their wounds. But we didn’t listen. We made them examples of heroism, sacrifice and humility instead of listening to the truth they have discovered.

Copernicus had special kind of power. As a bishop and a scientist Copernicus had a chance to change the order of the world and to confront common, but false way of thinking. Jean has a special kind of power as well. He comes from the world of ‘the reach and powerful ones’, he lives and understands ‘the world of the poor and insignificant ones’. As famous and respected writer, philosopher, theologian and thinker he knows how to name things. And he named his discovery well. Now it’s up to us. We can believe in his discovery or we can just admire him for his great heart, sacrifice and humility.

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