The excellent National Public Radio program, On Being, had a replay of an interview with Canadian philosopher and Catholic social entrepreneur Jean Vanier. I had heard this interview before and if anything, it was even more moving listening to it again. Vanier combines the best of Catholic teaching: a deep intellectual heritage, a strong prayer life and active social engagement.
Considered by some to be a living saint, Jean Vanier created L’Arche. This model of community for people with mental disabilities celebrates power in smallness and light in the darkness of human existence. The French Canadian philosopher and Catholic social innovator speaks about his understanding of humanity and God that has been shaped by Aristotle, Mother Teresa, and people who would once have been locked away from society.
Ms. Tippett (Interviewer): The story of L’Arche, which is French for “the ark,” began in 1963. Jean Vanier was a professor of philosophy at St. Michael’s College in Toronto. He had done his doctoral work on happiness in the ethics of Aristotle. At Christmas time that year, he went to visit a friend in France who was working as a chaplain for men with mental handicaps. Vanier found himself drawn to these human beings shut away from society. He was especially moved by a vast asylum south of Paris in which all day, 80 adult men did nothing but walk around in circles and take a two-hour compulsory nap. He bought a small house nearby and invited two men from that asylum to share life with him.
This was not a linear move. Jean Vanier had entered the British Royal Naval College as a teenager and commanded an aircraft carrier in his 20s. At well over six feet tall with a head of white hair, he still has the bearing of a naval officer. He exudes an intriguing mix of intellectual intensity and extreme gentleness. When Vanier left the military, before he studied philosophy, he spent a year in a contemplative community in a poor area near Paris. L’Eau Vive, as it was called, “water of life,” was dedicated to serving the poor, praying, and studying metaphysics. I sat down with Jean Vanier in 2007, when he was 79 years old, to hear more about the life he’s lived and its lessons for our world today.
Mr. Vanier: That community near Paris had been founded by a French Dominican priest, and he was very, very deeply a man of God. I think I had a very open intelligence, you know? Since the age of 13, I had been in the world of the navy, I hadn’t done philosophy, I hadn’t done any particular reading. I mean, I was geared for the military. But here was somebody who opened up new visions, new vistas. I remember once following his courses — and he was so up in it — and he was saying, he was talking about something [unintelligible]. And he said, “You know, take a very concrete example, the angels, for example.”
And everybody laughed and he couldn’t understand, you know, why people are laughing, because it was, to him, a very concrete example. So he was a metaphysician. He was a thinker. He was really a man of God. And he was the one who encouraged me to do studies and encouraged me particularly to work on Aristotle. And the big thing with Aristotle is the primacy of experience over idea. A lot of people don’t know that. The worst thing that can happen is for Aristotelians to become Aristotelians, because then they start reading Aristotle, but they’re no longer in linked with reality — to touch reality, to listen to people, to see the world evolving and so on.
Ms. Tippett: I know you’ve written that, from the point of view of faith, those who are marginalized and considered failures can restore balance to our world. Talk to me about that.
Mr. Vanier: The balance of our world frequently is seen as a question of power. That if I have more power and more knowledge, more capacity, then I can do more. But does this tension between the doing and the being — and when you have power, we can very quickly push people down. I’m the one that knows and you don’t know, and I’m strong and I’m powerful, I have the knowledge. And this is the history of humanity.
Ms. Tippett: Yes.
Mr. Vanier: And that is all of what I’d call the whole educational system, is that we must educate people to become capable and to take their place in society. That has value, obviously. But it’s not quite the same thing as to educate people to relate, to listen, to help people to become themselves. So the equilibrium that people with disabilities could bring is precisely this equilibrium of the heart. Children. You see, maybe a father is a very strong man and businessman, and when he comes home, if he gets down on his hands and knees and plays with the children, it’s the child that is teaching the father something about tenderness, about love, about the father looking at the needs of the child, the face of the child, the hands of the child, relating to the child. And the children, the incredible thing about children is they’re unified in their body and in — whereas we, we can be very disunified. We can say one thing and feel another. [Editor’s note: This is so true. As a father, I see this in my children. They are very authentic in their feelings and actions. They do not have a need to hide behind a false self. That is why Jesus says we should act like children.]
Ms. Tippett: Right.
Mr. Vanier: And so as a child can teach us about unity and about fidelity and about love, so it is people with disabilities. It’s the same sort of beauty and purity in some of these people — it is extraordinary — and say, ‘Our world is not just a world of competition, the weakest and the strongest. Everybody has their place.’