Communities built on love

Providing affection for the mentally deprived is a rich experience of living from the heart

JEAN VANIER December 31 1990

Communities built on love

Providing affection for the mentally deprived is a rich experience of living from the heart

JEAN VANIER December 31 1990

Communities built on love

Providing affection for the mentally deprived is a rich experience of living from the heart

JEAN VANIER

In June, 1989, Jean Vanier went to Rideau Hall in Ottawa to accept the Order of Canada from then-Gov. Gen. Jeanne Sauvé. Vanier was made a companion of the order for his quarter-century of work with mentally handicapped people, and he turned the event into something quite different from the usual formal awards ceremony. He brought with him 150 people from homes affiliated with L’Arche, the international network of communities for the mentally handicapped that he founded in 1964. “The people with disabilities were thrilled,” Vanier recalled with a grin. “We drank champagne and celebrated. It was all free.” But beneath the party-like atmosphere was a serious intent that is at the heart of Vanier’s mission: sweeping away barriers between handicapped people and the rest of the world.

Vanier, now 62, discovered that mission comparatively late in life. The son of Georges Vanier, the former governor general who died in 1967, he joined the Royal Navy at 13. After he left nine years later, he spent more than a decade studying philosophy and theology and exploring his deep Roman Catholic faith. Then, in August, 1964, at 35, Vanier bought a 200-year-old stone house in the tiny French village of Trosly, 90 km northeast of Paris, and arranged for two mentally handicapped men to come and live with him. The beginnings were modest—the first house had just a woodbuming stove and no toilet—but the community grew quickly. About 200 handicapped people now five in 21 houses in Trosly and nearby villages, along with a similar number of “assistants” who live with them and care for them. Worldwide, L’Arche (the Ark) has 95 such communities in 22 countries as diverse as Haiti, India and the Ivory Coast. There are 24 in Canada.

Vanier has had no official role in the movement since 1980, when he stepped down as director of the L’Arche community in Trosly. But he continues to live in the village, and his vision remains at the heart of the movement. Key to it is his conviction that mentally handicapped people are often closer to spiritual values like kindness and love than are others. “They are the weakest and the most fragile, and they have so much to teach us,” he says. Many of those who volunteer as assistants in L’Arche communities share Vanier’s religious beliefs and join as a lifelong commitment. Some, like him, also remain celibate in order, as they explain, to deepen their relationship with God.

While he holds no formal office with L’Arche, Vanier still spends about half his time travelling on its behalf—visiting L’Arche communities and leading spiritual retreats. A new focus is the Soviet Union and post-Communist Eastern Europe; Vanier expects to open a home in Budapest next spring and plans to conduct retreats in Czechoslovakia.

In Trosly, he lives simply. He takes no salary from L’Arche, but has a sparsely furnished room, which also serves as his office, in one of the community’s houses. He eats with a group of handicapped people and shares the work—“I’m the dishwasher,” he said. He has few possessions. When he was invited to lunch with the Queen at Buckingham Palace in 1983, he had to have one of his late father’s old suits altered to fit his six-foot, four-inch frame. But his commitment remains firm. “I see people coming here from institutions crushed and broken, and then, two or three years later, I see them standing up and laughing,” he said. “Every day, I am confirmed in the truth of what we are living here.”