One of the most influential spiritual writers in the post-Vatican II Catholic world was Fr. Henri Nouwen. Nouwen’s academic career lasted from 1966 to 1985 when he resigned from his professorship at the Harvard Divinity School. Why would anyone whose credentials included teaching in some of the world’s most prestigious theology departments, writing some of the most popular books ever written in the realm of spirituality and psychology, and receiving the Thomas Merton Award decide at the peak of his career to walk away from it all?
Two words: Jean Vanier.
In his Foreword to Vanier’s book From Brokenness to Community Nouwen recounts the time when Vanier was a guest lecturer in one of his courses at Harvard. Nouwen admits that “It was that tall, self-confident, poorly dressed, but aristocratic-looking man who had made me wonder whether Harvard was the best place for me. I loved teaching there…But Harvard didn’t feel like home for me…When I met Jean Vanier for the first time, I immediately sensed that he not only understood the desire of my soul, but also knew how to respond to it.”
Vanier invited Nouwen to visit him at his home in Trosly-Breuil, France, and that visit to the first L’Arche community for those with physical and intellectual disabilities changed Nouwen’s life forever. Vanier, the son of the Canadian Governor General, was already living the life of “downward mobility” of which Nouwen would later write with such immense beauty and conviction, and it led the Dutch priest to find not only his true vocation, but to find his true self.
Without Jean Vanier and his vision of the Gospel – the Gospel of the Poor – Henri Nouwen would have remained an excellent, yet unfulfilled, professor. Vanier opened Nouwen up to a life of authenticity, cognizant of all of his wounds and frailties, bound to a community of the poor and invisible at the Daybreak L’Arche community in Toronto.
Last week, at the age of ninety, Jean Vanier died in Paris, leaving behind an incredible legacy of 154 L’Arche communities in 38 countries comprised of over 10,000 souls, all poor and wounded – many with physical and intellectual disabilities, but many without.
When in 1964 Vanier, troubled by the plight of those with disabilities, invited Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux to leave their institutional residence and join him in the first L’Arche home he could never have imagined that so many would join him on “the Ark”. Nor could anyone at Saint Ignatius at that time have imagined that down the road Jim Skerl ’74 would make L’Arche a part of the work of the Christian Action Team. “Friends with L’Arche” has outlived both Skerl and Vanier, and under the present leadership of Amy Carroll our young men continue to build community with the core members of L’Arche Cleveland.
Because of his many writings, even those who have never been near a L’Arche community have had the opportunity to apply the principles of Vanier’s mission to their lives and relationships. Essential to Vanier’s philosophy is the belief that we are all wounded, we are all poor, and that Jesus came only for the wounded and poor. Neither true relationships nor true community can exist without this realization.
This vision of life is laid out in the aforementioned From Brokenness to Community, a set of two lectures given in 1988 at Harvard. It is both brief (under 60 pages) and profound. Hardly a paragraph goes by without a quote worthy of lengthy reflection, and Vanier over and over again describes what is essential to the human condition as he discusses his life with the disabled and poor. This work can be read in under an hour, and yet it teaches lessons that can only be fulfilled in the Kingdom of God, where all of our wounds will be healed.
Other than the Gospels, I cannot imagine a work – or an author – more highly to be recommended. But be forewarned, Vanier will lead you to Jesus along a path you may never have imagined, and in doing so will call you to look at yourself and all those around you in a way both unsettling and compelling.
Jean Vanier, Requiescat in pace.
Postscript. At the beginning of Lent I wrote about my family’s desire to raise funds for the missionary efforts of both the Society of Jesus and the Congregation of Holy Cross. Many people responded with great generosity and we were able to send around $9,000 to each order. So many people who are the poor and forgotten will be helped by those efforts and we offer our sincere thanks to all who donated. Because the poor we will have with us always, we will continue to accept any gifts on behalf of the least of our sisters and brothers.