A few days after Jean Vanier’s death, our oldest son David called, saying: “Hey, I heard Jean Vanier died. Didn’t you guys have some connection with this dude?” While we have told our kids about the beginnings of our marriage, for some reason Jean’s passing caused this piece of his parents’ life to appear on David’s radar in a new way. So here’s what we told David on the phone:
Jim: Well, it was 1971. I was travelling in Europe and went to the Canadian Embassy in Paris to read the Canadian newspapers. A Canadian couple was there who told me they were staying at a l’Arche community some 100km north of Paris. Noting my interest, they suggested I come for a visit. By the time I arrived in Trosly, several months later, the couple in question had left, but I stayed the weekend. I was warmly welcomed and included in the life of a little l’Arche household. A year later I went back to spend more time. I had arranged to come for a few months; I stayed four years. The experience marked me profoundly and deepened my Christian commitment in a permanent way.
Marie-Louise: It was 1976. I was a young adult searching for meaning and an authentic expression of Christian discipleship. I had paid many visits to the ecumenical monastic Taizé-community in Burgundy, France, including an entire summer, as part of the army of volunteers assisting the Brothers with the welcome and organizing of the thousands of young people who visited the hill (where I got to speak all four languages I learned in high school!). One of the Dutch Brothers had become like a spiritual director, and he told me about l’Arche (the two organizations had already enjoyed a deep and long friendship). Trusting Brother Leonard’s suggestion, I decided to go and spend a year, sight unseen. Scary really, as I had never even said hello to a person with developmental disabilities. The experience marked me profoundly and sealed my Christian commitment in a permanent way.
Both Jim and I lived in the community where Jean lived (and, by the way, his mother Pauline Vanier lived there as well after her husband George passed away) — we met Jean at prayer and at Mass, we met in house meetings and large community events, we met at work and play, we shared meals and celebrations. While both Jim and I lived in the l’Arche community where Jean Vanier began, centered in Trosly-Breuil but extending to Cuise-la-Motte and the nearby city of Compiègne, we are not aware that we actually met each other there. That happened a few years later when I, with another girl from the Netherlands, traveled through Canada to visit friends made at l’Arche in France (there were indeed lots of Canadians there) and to visit several l’Arche communities in Canada. My friend had one contact in Saskatchewan and had arranged that we spend a week on his farm — never let a Dutch girl loose on the Canadian prairies where bachelor farmers are looking for a wife! Jim and I will have been married forty years this year, and are the proud parents of three amazing kids and grandparents to three beautiful girls.
What was it in our l’Arche experience that remained such a vital part of our spiritual lifeblood? Each of us was deeply touched by the authentic humanity and practical Christian discipleship that was lived at l’Arche, in all its simplicity and complexity of human relations. This Christian faith business wasn’t just some lofty unattainable idea after all. Not that it was smooth sailing to live in community with “the least of these” — far from it. I learnt the hard way that, while arriving with the intent to “help” the handicapped, I had handicaps of my own less visible but equally debilitating for my heart’s capacity to love unconditionally. In a humbling reversal of roles, I ended up being taught and helped and supported by those “less fortunate” than myself. The stubborn intent to see the image of God in the other, however disabled or bruised by social stigma, and to raise up the simple beauty of the other in his/her humanity, including my own broken and inadequate self, was life-changing, causing a joy and peace to spring up from the inside in ways the world cannot possible deliver.
Our marriage drew its courage and inspiration from the l’Arche experience and vision we shared — something we desperately needed to reconcile our very different temperaments, interests and relational styles. For most of the 25 years on the farm, our l’Arche experience drove us to seek community, but we never quite succeeded in creating it in the same way. The closest we got was the group of Christian families who met regularly to share food and kids, prayer and support, joy and tears. We discovered that authentic Christ-centered communion was hard to duplicate. And yet, the memory of having lived it so fully at l’Arche turned out to be enough; the memory that it can happen shaped our faith and guided our engagement with others both locally and globally.
Jim took his stewardship of the earth seriously as a farmer/gardener and seed-producer, a legacy now carried on by our daughter. He kept abreast of social challenges from a faith perspective informed by years of reading and absorbing the teachings of the Gospel through the Catholic Worker newspaper, to which he was introduced at l’Arche in France. We remained part of the global l’Arche family (once at l’Arche, always family!) through Faith and Light, hosting l’Arche friends on our family farm, and now through our support and friendship with the nearby l’Arche community in Saskatoon, now marking ten years of existence. We were both heavily involved in the local parish and on a diocesan level, through liturgical roles and social projects — all of which came with its own set of joys and sorrows. Jim now gardens at St. Peter’s Abbey, feeling a closeness to the monks, with all their graces and quirks, akin to his bonds with l’Arche. I worked in a group home, in a shelter for abused women and children, in pastoral parish and diocesan ministry, in retreat and faith formation ministry. I managed a community center, joined a local soup kitchen, and finally now, I serve as an ordained Anglican priest in one of our prairie towns. Yep, downward mobility all the way with little material and monetary value, but our freedom and fulfillment was literally out of this world.
As our phone visit progressed, David was mesmerized, his synapses forging connections not made before. Maybe for the first time, he saw the spiritual connections with the life-choices his parents had made. Maybe for the first time he tapped into this joyful mystery of communion with someone he himself had never met directly. He was “blown away” (as young people say these days) that his parents had been so close to, and so influenced by, this man who changed so many lives, who is recognized all over the world (little did we know in the 1970’s how big Jean’s influence would become), and was considered a living saint (although Jean objected to anyone who would refer to him as such) and who was in fact responsible for bringing his parents together. Having listened intently, with new questions popping into his head, David finally had an aha-moment: “So, in other words, Jean Vanier is responsible for the fact that I exist!”
For a man who was never married or ordained, and never had his own biological off-spring, Jean Vanier has left a spiritual legacy of enormous proportion and a delightful biological off-spring of sorts, too numerous to count, such as our kids, off-spring which may only be vaguely aware of who has brought their parents together and gave them life. But as for our son, he’s claiming this remarkable man as one of his new heroes and a spiritual Grandpa. And my heart sings in gratitude for Jean Vanier who remains forever a part of our and God’s family of saints.
Well done, good and faithful servant of God. May you rest in peace, and may your witness continue to disturb and inspire generations to come.
For more on Jean Vanier, listen to CBC Ideas program The Rabbit and the Giraffe, Part I and Part II here. At the bottom of the CBC page there are more links to programs and articles featuring Jean Vanier. Jean’s funeral took place on May 16 in the village of Trosly and was live-streamed, beginning at 6:00am SK time.
The Beauty of Compassion is a 30-minute interview with Jean Vanier, introducing a 14-part video-series filmed in the Holy Land.