Jean Vanier passed away May 7. In 1963 this learned man, who had held high positions in government, visited a French mental- health hospital, where people with disabilities were being ignored and isolated. He quit his job, bought a house, and invited two men with developmental disabilities to move in with him. This was in 1964. It would become the first of 149 L’Arche (the Ark) communities in 35 countries, where the profoundly disabled live together with their assistants in community.
Jean Vanier believed and taught that “the way of love is best learned by climbing down to the bottom, and living in solidarity with the excluded and rejected, who live there. These people in return, bring the gift of being truthful about what it means to be human.”
Vanier met Henri Nouwen at Harvard when Henri invited Vanier to give two lectures. Henri was himself a much- revered, world-renowned author and teacher, but in spite of all that, was feeling lonely. Vanier spoke with a “spirit of simplicity, a spirit of gratitude, a spirit of celebration fed by a deep love for the poor.” Vanier invited Henri to move to L’Arche, which Henri did in about 1986. Henri noted that the residents there didn’t care that he had written a bunch of books…they only wanted to know if he would be home today. It took him awhile to get used to people asking him where he was going, and when he would be back!
I met Henri at the Toronto L’Arche community in 1993, when I went there for a retreat on the spirituality of money. Watching the attendants lovingly bathe, feed and dress their fellow residents, before heading to Mass together each morning was a spiritual experience for me. I witnessed the same thing when visiting Mother Theresa’s home for the dying in Calcutta, India-something Vanier had noted earlier and incorporated.
When we started our servant leadership school in 1995, we used Henri’s book Life of the Beloved as an important anchor of our course. More than any other author, many years later, we still find ourselves returning to Nouwen for spiritual food and light. So many of his insights were born of his time as pastor at L’Arche.