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"Jean Vanier founded the L’Arche communities, which have continued this work worldwide." Rev Dr Sam Wells 19/05/15

Thought for the Day

Good morning. Last night hundreds of people gathered at St Martin-in-the-Fields in London to witness Jean Vanier being awarded the Templeton Prize for his work reconciling people with and without developmental disabilities.

Jean Vanier grew up as a member of the Canadian aristocracy: his father was the 19th Governor General of Canada. But an encounter with an emaciated Holocaust survivor in 1945 opened his heart to the face of God in the oppressed. On completing his studies as a Catholic philosopher he began to share his life in France with two men with developmental disabilities. He founded the L’Arche communities, which have continued this work worldwide.

Jean Vanier sees in the world ‘a huge gap of injustice and pain.’ He calls this ‘the gap between the so-called “normal” world and people who’ve been pushed aside.’ But he doesn’t believe injustice can simply be rectified by fixing a disability or outlawing discrimination. The first time he entered an institution for developmentally-disabled people he heard their simple cry: ‘Do you love me?’ Straightaway he realised – ‘That’s my cry too.’

He discovered his need of these people – for they could help him grow in ‘the wisdom of love.’ They showed him the emptiness of contemporary values, like autonomy. He calls autonomy the ability to ‘live alone, watch television and drink beer.’ What these people needed wasn’t autonomy, because autonomy doesn’t grasp the importance of belonging. What he was offering was a place of compassion and acceptance, of welcome and friendship – bound together by sharing food, prayer and celebration. His name for such a community is ‘church.’

He talks about Janine. Janine came to L’Arche aged 40 with a paralysed arm and leg, severe epilepsy and difficulties understanding and learning. She was angry with her body, with her siblings, and with God. At L’Arche she discovered she could dance; and she could be loved. She would sit down next to Jean Vanier, rest his tired head on her shoulder, and say, ‘Poor old man.’ This is a mode of life in which the so-called needy or victim becomes the teacher.

Many people look upon a developmentally-disabled person and see a shame to be shunned, a tragedy to be avoided or a predicament to be fixed. But Jean Vanier, now for 50 years, has shown us a better way. He calls such people teachers of a way of love, heralds of a world of understanding, hosts of an ethic of solidarity.

We’re all disabled. It’s just that, for some of us, our disabilities are invisible. Life isn’t about overcoming disability: it’s about making disability not a cause of isolation but an invitation to friendship – with one another, and with God.

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3 minutes