Jean Vanier (Profile)

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on November 30, 1998. Partner content is not updated.

In a windowless conference room high in a Toronto office building, Jean Vanier is talking to a reporter about walls. "The whole pain of our world is the pain of walls," he says in a softly insistent voice.
This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on November 30, 1998. Partner content is not updated. In a windowless conference room high in a Toronto office building, Jean Vanier is talking to a reporter about walls. "The whole pain of our world is the pain of walls," he says in a softly insistent voice.

Vanier, Jean

In a windowless conference room high in a Toronto office building, Jean Vanier is talking to a reporter about walls. "The whole pain of our world is the pain of walls," he says in a softly insistent voice. "I mean the kind of walls erected between rich and poor, between Israelis and Palestinians, between the Pentagon and its enemies, between the heart and its own feelings." It is a melancholy topic, but there is a sparkle in the grey-blue eyes. The 70-year-old Canadian founder of L'Arche - a French-based, international organization that looks after the needs of the intellectually handicapped - leans forward intently as he speaks. Suffering from a cold, he has not removed the flimsy nylon jacket and worn scarf that seem poor protection from the harsh November weather. But his craggy face shines with a quality at once contented and impassioned.

Vanier has spent more than three decades breaking down the walls that separate society from the mentally disabled. The son of former governor general Georges Vanier, he lives at L'Arche's headquarters north of Paris, in a village of handicapped people and their helpers that is the prototype for more than 100 communities around the world, 25 of them in Canada. A tireless publicist and fund-raiser for their cause, he was in Canada this month to deliver the Massey lectures, sponsored by CBC Radio's Ideas program to promote the thinking of prominent intellectuals. They were broadcast last week. In the past, the lectures have featured such figures as Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye and American linguist Noam Chomsky. Vanier is the first religious thinker to join that distinguished group, and although his lectures - published in book form under the title Becoming Human (Anansi, 163 pages, $16.95) - in many ways repeat standard Christian teaching, Vanier's passion and emphasis give them a radical edge.

Becoming Human traces a possible path of spiritual evolution from loneliness and alienation towards joy and fulfilment. This is the same route, of course, proferred by countless self-help books. But Vanier takes a view of human nature fundamentally different from many of those popular studies, which tend to treat people as relatively isolated and autonomous - thus reflecting the individualistic bias of the society around them. Vanier, on the other hand, stresses that the loneliness and pain experienced by so many is actually created and stimulated by individualism and the competition it implies. "In order to succeed and win, people have to make themselves hard," he comments, "which means they create defence mechanisms that cut them off from their own feelings and from others."

For Vanier, the resulting hard-heartedness goes a long way to explaining contemporary problems, from the widespread failure of marriages to the greed and lack of care that is destroying the environment. His analysis owes obvious debts to such psychological writers as Freud, Jung and Alice Miller. But Vanier is a devout Roman Catholic, and so it is not surprising that, when it comes to offering an antidote to a hard-hearted, wall-benighted world, he ultimately arrives at the Christian concept of brotherly (or sisterly) love.

Many readers, getting a first whiff of traditional Christian teaching in Becoming Human (there is, for example, a heavy emphasis on forgiveness) might well put the book aside. But while it often reads like an extended homily, there is something revolutionary and moving at its core. Like many religious and nonreligious writers, Vanier believes that successful and well-off people have a moral obligation to help the poor and the marginalized. But he is not referring primarily to the kind of charity that involves sending off a cheque. Rather, he means that people should make an effort to create a caring relationship with people whom, under normal circumstances, they might well ignore or even be repulsed by: the sick, the handicapped, the old, the culturally alien.

"I'm not saying you have to take a beggar into your house: of course you can't. He probably wouldn't want to go," Vanier says with a laugh, adding: "But you can visit the old lady down the street. You can visit people in the hospital. Don't try to do the impossible. Do the possible. And once you've entered into the reality of the possible, you'll find that you will be changed: your priority is no longer to be the best, or the richest or the most powerful, but to become more human."

This is the essence of Vanier's message: that in helping the so-called have-nots, the so-called haves will find that walls will fall, and their own lives will be transformed. In fact, he argues, they will become more human, by which he means more meaningfully integrated into the lives of others. Of course, this integration helps the have-nots as well, so that a kind of joyful communion is born between the two groups, and the division between them is dissolved. Insists Vanier: "To be human is to look after each other, to celebrate each other, to share a glass of wine or a good story."

A cynic might counter that it is also human to drop bombs and pollute the seas; after all, humans do those things, too. But if Vanier seems to be idealizing outrageously - at times he makes the solution to the world's problems sound almost naïvely simple - he can point to the experience of L'Arche to back him up. Vanier founded the organization in 1964 - though this became clear only in retrospect. At the time, he was simply looking for a better, more Christian way to live. He had already enjoyed successful careers as a naval officer and a teacher of philosophy at St. Michael's College at the University of Toronto. Then, under the influence of his friend and mentor, a French priest called Father Thomas, he moved to France and began to visit the mentally handicapped. In one institution he found two severely mentally and physically disabled men, Raphael and Philippe, in whom he sensed a deep, undeniable need for love and human contact. It was a transformative moment for Vanier. In the village of Trosly-Breuil, 70 km northeast of Paris, he bought an old stone house that he called L'Arche (the ark), and invited the two men to move in with him.

Gradually, the venture grew, and Vanier took in more of the disabled. More people arrived to help - called, as he had been, to look after the residents. Today, a typical L'Arche community contains roughly as many helpers as handicapped people. All household tasks are shared, according to abilities, and the handicapped also practise productive skills such as bookbinding or gardening. L'Arche is supported by governments and private donations, but is hardly a rich organization. Its staff of helpers receive food, board and a small stipend: the main reward seems to be the work itself.

In Becoming Human, Vanier attests that his experiences with Raphael, Philippe and others at L'Arche changed him from the hurried, goal-oriented person he was and "brought me into the world of simple relationships, of fun and laughter. It has brought me back into my body, because people with disabilities do not delight in intellectual or abstract conversation." Such relationships opened his heart, continues Vanier, who is unmarried and has no children of his own. With the disabled, he says, he discovered his own needs and weaknesses as well as theirs. "In this communion," he writes, "we discover the deepest part of our being: the need to be loved and to have someone who trusts and appreciates us, and who cares least of all about our capacity to work or to be clever and interesting."

Although Becoming Human sometimes strays into hazy generalizations and truism, some of its most compelling passages tell the specific stories of handicapped people at L'Arche whose loving responsiveness changed the lives of those who worked with them. Of course, such communion is not for everyone: Vanier does not tell any stories about people who came to work at L'Arche and went away disappointed, though he admits that such people exist. He is the sort of man who prefers to stress the positive, and he believes that in L'Arche - which welcomes people of all religions and beliefs - there is a model for the future. Vanier argues that the world will be changed for the better not primarily by politicians or massive social programs, but by a whole new kind of human community, springing up at a grassroots level: thousands of communities in which the needy and the marginalized have their fully human place.

Vanier's emphasis on community leads him to make some arresting observations about crises in contemporary life. When asked about Robert Latimer, the Saskatchewan farmer who in 1993 killed his severely handicapped daughter because he could not bear to see her in pain, he says he can understand it, though he does not condone it. Vanier says he, too, has been driven to desperation by the demands and agonies of the people in his care, but was kept from extreme solutions by knowing there was a community there to help him. In the Latimer case, he wonders: "What support did those people have? What did the parish do about it?" The central problem, he adds, "is not just killing or not killing. It's that we've broken down the network of community, of concern and love for each other. In a world of high individualism, it's too much for people to come to each other's aid."

Ultimately, the most persuasive proponent of Vanier's views is not his books (he has written several others) but himself. He is charismatic in the best sense, radiant with a warmth and happiness that seem an entirely genuine result of his experiences at l'Arche. "Coming out from behind our walls," Vanier says, warning gently of the difficulties involved, "means moving into insecurity. We have to walk in unchartered land, but gradually this land will become the centre of our common humanity."

Maclean's November 30, 1998