Book Notes: "Jean Vanier: Portrait of a Free Man"

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Jean Vanier, a devout Catholic from Quebec who founded L’Arche, an organization to shelter the developmentally disabled in 38 countries, died this May in Paris at age 90. One of his parting messages was, “My deepest love to each one of you.”

Jean Vanier: Portrait of a Free Man reveals the roots of Jean’s love. Anne-Sophie Constant introduces Jean Vanier’s life and spirituality. His smile on the cover seeps through the pages. Readers discover treasure hidden in those who are intellectually disabled. These are friends who gifted Jean with freedom and peace. They are the light he knew to place on a lamp stand. Vanier founded L’Arche in the same way a man finds a treasure hidden in the field. In his joy, he goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field. (cf. Matthew 13:44-46)

This is one of the rare books that I used for meditation during my Hour of Adoration. The author has known L’Arche for decades. I was caught up in the story of a unique journey which led to answers about loneliness, disabilities, the unwanted, and the way to live without fear as a free person.

“Not all who wander are lost.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings)

“On this journey, when you get lost, that is when you are finally on the way,” writes John of the Cross. Anne-Sophie Constant reminds us that L’Arche was not an idea that emerged from a plan. In Jean’s life, circuitous paths took him in so many directions. He grew up in a faith-filled Catholic family with socially renowned parents. Most of the time he had clarity when he felt called to do something, then he experienced eight years of wandering.

“He knew only one thing for sure: he wanted to follow Jesus,” writes Constant, “And so, little by little, through twists and turns, the various elements that would lead to the creation of L’Arche came together like the pieces of a puzzle.”

Two Pillars: Suffering and Joy 

“L’Arche leans on two apparently contradictory pillars: suffering and joy.” Jean learned that “buried deep within each of us in the member of a time of humiliation and rejection, a fragile point from which anguish is born. We strive to conceal this moment, persistently hiding from it in order to survive.” Constant sums up his vocation to L’Arche:

He  dedicated his life to those who are of no account, those whom the world considers to have no usefulness or value, who are shut away from public view and are sometimes even denied the status of human beings. He tries in every way to restore their dignity and honor them.

A very important highlight: Jean did not take care of people with intellectual disabilities; he lived with them.

The Message is the Messenger

One of the future leaders of L’Arche was an atheist before he met Jean. He explained that there was something Jean said, “perhaps especially in the way it was said, without empty words … When you listen to him it rings true, … With him the message is the messenger.”

This book is filled with stories.  Jean’s own message is rooted in stories: “his story, the stories of the people he lives with, and the stories of the thousands so people he has met.” Because of this, his words never feel disembodied.

Vanier knew that stories reveal the language of the body. He encourages us to understand the language of the body, a language of tenderness and frailty:

The body, which is exalted in athletics and fashion and despised in sickness, aging, and disability – this same body is, the apostle Paul writes, a temple of the Holy Spirit. The broken body, then, is a broken temple that lets the light of God pass through more easily. Jean Vanier knows that the Gospel is the story of a God who chose to be born in human form with all in brokenness and frailty.

Sacrament of the Poor

The heart of the poor is also a sacrament, said Jean, “that is to say a dwelling place of the presence of God.” He said that the path to unity between peoples and religions passes through receiving the poor who represent Jesus who in turn represents the Father “hidden in the broken bodies of … those who suffer.”

“Spirituality then is about getting close to people who have been rejected, breaking down the wall that separates the rich and the poor,” says Jean Vanier. He announced good news, as he told his audience at UNESCO, “God is near to each one of us, a loving nearness.” For Jean, the Gospel is an encounter on the journey with the one who said “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”

After Reading Jean Vanier: Portrait of a Free Man

Throughout this book Jean’s own books are noted and quoted from. I would have liked a list of his books that I could check off as I read them. So I checked online and found his official site, Jean-Vanier.org, including a printable PDF listing his books.

His writing is serene prose. It reminds me of Jean’s own realization that “God leads so gently, so slowly and so our hearts become peaceful.”

To learn more about Jean Vanier’s work, visit the global website for L’Arche.

Jean Vanier explains how up L’Arche began in 1964:

Pray with Jean Vanier’s funeral Mass:

Summer in the Forest was filmed on location at L’Arche when Jean Vanier was 80 years old. Learn about renting or screening this movie at SummerInTheForest.com.

Visit our Book Notes archive.


Copyright 2019 Sr. Margaret Kerry, FSP

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About Author

A Daughter of St. Paul for 40 years Sr. Margaret continues to pursue new ways to proclaim the Gospel: sharing the Pauline Charism with the laity, writing books (St. Anthony of Padua: Fire & Light; Strength in Darkness: John of the Cross; Prayers for the New Evangelization), & through direct evangelization. She is available for workshops on the Vocation & Mission of the Laity, Media Literacy, and The New Evangelization. mkerry@paulinemedia.com

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