Jean Vanier – Personal Memories and Reflections

Jean Vanier – Personal Memories and Reflections

David Ford

What a person! I cannot think of anyone who has rung so true. Hearing of his death, in that stillness of trying to take it in, one memory and reflection after another came up. Here are a few of them, and all relate to my growing conviction that Jean has given us what is probably the most important single insight for the twenty-first century, together with an example that embodies it. I will conclude by trying to identify that insight.

Lyn’s House

The first, because it was central for me on the day he died, was about Lyn’s House. In 1992 Jean visited Cambridge, and I wanted to introduce him to my wife, Deborah. I had got to know him through a group of theologians that had begun meeting with him and other L’Arche members in Trosly-Breuil. He came to our front door, and Deborah has described what happened next:

‘The doorbell rang; I scooped our son, Daniel (an infant), into my arms and opened the door: the precise moment at which Daniel decided to produce a very smelly nappy.

“Hello! It’s so good to meet you… please come in and make yourself at home: I’m afraid I’m just going to have to go and change Daniel’s nappy,” I explained. “Oh, I’ll change him for you!” replied Jean; “I’d be happy to,” lifting Daniel into his arms – before I’d even finished my sentence. And off they went up the stairs. I couldn’t quite believe it: it was wonderfully ‘upside down’. No man (apart from David) had ever offered to change any of my children’s nappies. And, what’s more, there was not even a murmur from Daniel (who would usually protest vociferously if a stranger tried to pick him up). But that’s the sort of person Jean Vanier is: he has the knack of seeing what really matters. And he looks and sees very attentively and tenderly. The result is that you want to open up and talk to him: he invites it in you.

We talked about a lot of things, including what I might be being called to in this next chapter of my life. Jean suddenly gripped me by the arm: “You should start a L’Arche in Cambridge!” As soon as he said it, I knew he was right. In a place where people rely so heavily on their intellectual abilities (and are often very fearful of their ‘weakness’ and fragility), there needed to be a way to discover the ‘upside down’ secret & mystery of L’Arche – a way for people to discover the gentleness and joy of loving and being loved whoever they are and whatever their abilities/disabilities.’

About twenty years later Deborah, James and Judith Gardom, and others founded Lyn’s House, which is now in its seventh year. After consultation with Jean and others in L’Arche, it was decided to make it a home where four people (some students, some with jobs in Cambridge) live as an intentional Christian household and, with the help of volunteers, offer hospitality and friendship to those with and without learning disabilities who live ‘in the community’. We do evening meals, a monthly large tea party, celebrations, and other events, and we have a wonderful group of over a dozen core friends, some of whom have been coming since the beginning. The most important thing is the indefinable sense of that L’Arche reality: a community of friendship across all sorts of differences.

On the day Jean died I was meeting with the head of a Cambridge body exploring together the possibility of a major new development for Lyn’s House, a fresh phase of its life. And now it seems as if that might actually happen…


That group of theologians which met during the 1990s eventually produced a book, Encountering the Mystery, and then developed into a much smaller group that Jean gathered for a few days every year for more than a decade in Trosly, Cambridge, or Birmingham. The regular members were Christine McGrievy and Jean-Christophe Pascal, who were the international coordinators of L’Arche for thirteen years, Frances Young, myself, and later Deborah. Our intensive conversations ranged far beyond L’Arche. But, looking back now, there was one core concern to which we returned every time: how might L’Arche International develop a vision, mission, ethos and constitution that could enable succession and flourishing beyond its charismatic founder?

During those years Christine and Jean-Christophe organised major consultations across all the communities around the world, and it was fascinating to see what emerged. But just as fascinating and inspiring was seeing the way Jean encouraged and self-effacingly helped to shape the whole process. He was acutely aware that the commitment of L’Arche to its core members is permanent, and so there must be continuity. The text that occurs to me is what Jesus said in his Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John, ‘It is to your advantage that I go away…’ (16:7). Now Jean has gone away, and he has left an organization that has learned, far better than many I know, how to sustain and develop its life and work for the sake of coming generations.

Jean and John

I sometimes think that part of the reason Jean spent so much time in his later years writing his extraordinary commentary on the Gospel of John, Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John, writing other books on John, doing a TV series on it, and giving regular retreats on it, was in order to leave L’Arche, and everyone else, with his own Farewell Discourses. For me, that commentary is his greatest writing, distilling the wisdom of love and faith that he longed to share. It interweaves what he has learned from following Jesus with his experience in L’Arche, but it goes even further: it offers a whole way of living – thinking, praying and acting – for the twenty-first century.

I have been especially moved by how he discovers a triple deepening of love through John’s Farewell Discourses. In John 13 there is love through service, when Jesus sets the example by washing his disciples’ feet. Foot-washing has now become the distinctive ritual of L’Arche.

In John 15 there is love between friends, as Jesus prepares to lays down his life for his friends. One of the most striking marks of the testimonies given by Jean and by others who have lived in L’Arche communities is how often they speak of surprising and life-changing friendships with people with learning disabilities.

Then in John 17 comes what Jean calls ‘the summit of love’ – utter unity in love with God and with other people for the sake of the whole world. I see that chapter, the final prayer of Jesus, as the deepest and most challenging in the whole Bible. In his commentary on it Jean plumbs those depths and helps readers meet the challenge, and in the process he reveals, perhaps more than anywhere else, the deepest secret of his own life of faith and love.

Jean and Aref

I once accompanied a close Libyan friend, Aref Ali Nayed, to Trosly and introduced him to Jean. The three of us, together with Nadya, a Muslim assistant in L’Arche, sat talking for a whole afternoon. I have no quotations from the conversation, just an overwhelming memory of experiencing two Muslims and two Christians in communion. In particular, Aref and Jean shared thoughts and experiences on one topic after another, above all on disability and God. There were the seeds for a l’Arche in Libya that will, I hope, in due course be planted and grow.

That afternoon has for me become a paradigm for a healthily plural world. The pluralism we most need is one of multiple depths that can enter into full conversation with each other, and then, where possible, comes collaboration – and even, I dare to hope, long term covenantal relationships can develop.

Jean in Heaven

Last year Baylor University Press published the most remarkable twenty-first century poem that I have read. It is The Five Quintets by Micheal O’Siadhail – five long poems, in various forms, on each of five themes, taking them from the Renaissance into our century: Making on the arts; Dealing on economists and the economy; Steering on politicians and politics; Finding on scientists and the sciences; and Meaning on philosophy and theology. The five cantos of that final quintet culminate in an evocation of heaven, with six women and four men. And one of those men is Jean Vanier.

Jean is portrayed in reflective conversation with Hannah Arendt, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Pope John XXXIII, and Said Nursi. Here is just a taste of it, as Jean enters the conversation:

Is that
Jean Vanier, in love with all the least,

that tall and gentle presence laughing at
whatever Dietrich Bonhoeffer just said?
They’re bubbling in an ease of trust and chat….

Jean Vanier joins in. ‘I think I yearned
to soothe a human wound of loneliness
which each of us alone has slowly learned

‘to heal in yielding to a greater yes
that bends to wash the bruised and unloved feet,
to tend with water and the towel’s caress,

‘to live by folly winning in defeat.
What if the weak become our first concern,
what if such love decides our balance sheet?

‘And God so loved the world. We each in turn
knew wounds and gains we had to reconcile…’ (pp.327ff.)

Jean wrote the following endorsement of the book, which is printed at the front of it: ‘This is not an ordinary book of poems. It brings a vision of hope, an understanding about the evolution of our society in words of grace. Micheal leads us on to a road of peace.’

Jean on Earth

That brings us back to earth, and Jean’s own passionate longing for peace in the fullest sense, with love, abundant life, joy, and celebration, yet with utter realism about all that can go terribly wrong, not least within ourselves. My final thought is about Jean’s prophetic message and example for our century. I find it best expressed in his short book (how good that most of his books are short!), Signs of the Times: Seven Paths of Hope for a Troubled World.

But what is his essential insight? In November 2018 I was with some others who had been invited to spend time with him during a week in Trosly. His health was already failing, but he spent afternoons with us. Among the gems that I noted down were the following:

‘In L’Arche everything came out of friendship. This happened as a gift. Something so deep. We have received the mystery.’
‘The advantage of L’Arche is fifty-four years of experience. An evolution has happened. It is evolving to something deeper.’
‘All I know is there is a story of L’Arche that began: to follow Jesus to be with the poor. Where will it lead? I don’t know. The whole vision needs to go further.’
Trust in the Spirit!’
‘I believe there is a treasure of peacemaking. A vision where the weakest and the most excluded change us.’

Perhaps that last one best sums up his most distinctive insight, which he himself exemplified most beautifully.

Leaders’ Blog