Jean Vanier

Photo credit: John Morrisson

Jean Vanier is a...

Philosopher, writer, religious and moral leader

Jean Vanier is a philosopher, writer, religious and moral leader and the founder of two major international community-based organizations, L’Arche, and Faith & Light, that exist for people with intellectual disabilities. The 147 L’Arche communities in 35 countries and 1,500 Faith & Light communities in 82 countries are living laboratories of human transformation. In and outside of these organizations, he has spent more than four decades as a deeply radical advocate for the poor and the weak in our society.

While the progressive disability movement speaks mainly about tolerance, rights and normalization, Jean Vanier has shaped a distinct way of thinking that builds on those minimum standards of a civil society while inspiring us to transcend them. He invites us to recognize the profound gifts and lessons that people who have been rejected by society can offer when they are properly supported and included.

Being with and for others

Jean Vanier’s leadership, writing and practical works cross religious and cultural boundaries. He is a theologian and philosopher who is fully engaged with the ordinariness of everyday life and from whom people from all cultures sense a deep and honest empathy for how hard it is to be, and to do, good in a complicated world. As a practitioner he is a witness to the transforming qualities of love, vulnerability, forgiveness and simplicity: spiritual qualities that are seldom heralded today.

Where modernity calls us to privilege personal mastery, progress and doing big things, Vanier’s experience of living with people with profound impairment and his spiritual reflection on this experience, lead him to focus on being with and for others, especially disadvantaged others: to cultivating sincere presence to others’ desires, being attentive to the beauty in all of our ordinariness, and being of meaningful service to others. The growth of L’Arche and Faith & Light show how powerful these insights are when executed well.

Childhood and Spiritual Search

Jean Vanier was born Canadian in 1928, the fourth of five children.  His father, Georges Vanier, Governor General of Canada from 1959 to 1967, had a diplomatic career that took the family to France and England where Jean spent his childhood.  In 1942 he entered the Royal Navy College in Dartmouth at the age of 13.  In the middle of the Second World War, the young man embarked on an 8 year career in both the British navy and later the Canadian navy, an experience that formed him for a lifetime.  However he felt a call to another form of life, and so began his spiritual quest.  In 1950 he chose to leave the Canadian navy where a promising career awaited him.  The following years were for Jean years of searching for meaning, and deepening of his faith.  He reflected during those years on ways he could live the gospels more fully in his daily life.

He joined Eau Vive, a centre for theological and spiritual formation for lay people.  This center had members from many different countries and was headed by the Dominican Father Thomas Philippe.  Jean Vanier began his doctorate, on the ethics of Aristotle, which he defended in 1962.  It would become his first published work, in 1966, and was entitled “Happiness as Principle and End of Aristotelian Ethics”.  In 2000, he published “A Taste of Happiness” to make the wisdom of Aristotle widely accessible, in clear, straightforward language.

L’Arche:  History of an Encounter

At the end of 1963, Vanier lent a hand to Father Thomas, who had just been made chaplain of the Val Fleuri in Trosly-Breuil, a little village situated on the edge of the forest of Compiegne, in the Oise.  The Val Fleuri was a small institution that welcomed about 30 men with intellectual disabilities.  Later he returned to Canada where he taught a term at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto, his classes in Ethics quickly drawing a lot of student interest.  When the term ended, Jean returned to Trosly and began to learn about the situation of people with intellectual disabilities.  He visited the psychiatric hospital at Saint-Jean-les-Deux-Jumeaux in a southern suburb of Paris.  Living conditions there were very difficult.  There he met Raphael Simi et Philippe Seux, and was deeply touched by their distress.  He decided to buy a little house near the Val Fleuri, to welcome and live with his new companions.  They were not a couple of “retards” whom Jean welcomed, but Raphael and Philippe; it was not an institution which he created, but a commitment he made to those two men whose cry for friendship had touched him.  This personal commitment would prove to be extremely fertile.

For all three, it was the beginning of a new life, radically different than anything they had known before.   Thus it was, after some months of adjustments and guesswork, that a very human and extraordinary adventure began.  Jean recalled: “Essentially, they wanted a friend.  They were not very interested in my knowledge or my ability to do things, but rather they needed my heart and my being.”   Within a couple of years, other homes were born, and Jean Vanier sent out the call for people of good will to help him.  Young people began to join him from France, Canada, England and Germany, and became assistants who made the choice to live with people with intellectual disabilities.

Assistants live the same experience of the encounter that Jean did.  What makes sense to young people and what anchors them in the daily reality of L’Arche, is the experience of community living which deeply affects their understanding of  human beings and of disabilities. 

Today, L’Arche is made up of 151 communities spread over 5 continents.  There are more than 5000 members.  There are always new projects being started in response to the needs of people with intellectual disabilities, people so often vulnerable, and too often rejected, in spite of the important lessons about friendship and  becoming human that they have to offer us.

Faith and Light

In parallel, Jean Vanier cofounded Faith and Light, with Marie-Helene Mathieu, “communities of encounter” which are woven around people, adult or children, living with an intellectual disability.  These people, accompanied by their families and friends, are invited to participate in monthly meetings during which time they share friendship, prayer and celebration.  Faith and Light has nearly 1500 such communities in 81 countries on 5 continents.