Jean Vanier died last week. You may not know his name or what he committed his life to but you should.
More than 50 years ago, he started the L’Arche movement of care for the mentally handicapped. Before Vanier came along, these people most likely would have lived in sanitariums and treated more like animals than human beings. Vanier decided to take a few into his home and treat them with tenderness, with love, and with a sense of openness to learn from them as much as they might learn from him. Today, L’Arche is all over the world and is a reminder of our need to love people that we find different, that annoy us, that might even disgust us.
Vanier never wanted L’Arche to be a franchise of facilities. Instead, he referred to L’Arche as a “sign not a solution.” I love that. Why must we constantly find methods, programs, and solutions when reality shows us that quick fixes rarely come and the true value is in the present, where God is and does his work.
Vanier says about L’Arche, “I don’t want to change the world, but I can change myself. We can be little lights of love. L’Arche can be little places where people love each other and never hit the headlines but that is okay.”
Vanier loved the word “little.” In an interview with Krista Tippitt, he stated that, “What is important is to become a little friend of Jesus.” What I think that means is to find a simplicity in Jesus and his approach to his life and ministry. To find friendship in Jesus’ presence and guidance and ways of living. If you have ever worked with the mentally handicapped, you know this kind of little friendship of big hugs, warm smiles, words of endearment, and pats on the head.
It is also important to lessen our drive to understand everything. Vanier would say that we are not intended to know everything and, in fact, our knowledge could be a detriment to us doing what we truly need to do. “If we know too much, it might cut us away from being present and available,” Vanier said.
Vanier has taught us to accept what we can’t understand and to not miss an opportunity to love what is right in front of us:
“We should love reality and not live in the imagination of what could have been and what should have been. God is present in reality and we can live that reality with the needs we have. We can trust God in that reality.”
If you want to hear more from Vanier, I couldn’t recommend this interview highly enough. I have listened to this three or four times in the last few weeks. He expounds on the equilibrium that handicapped people bring to society, the need for tenderness, and the vulnerability of God. Listen to it now.