July 11, 2019

Five truths Jean Vanier learned living in community with the mentally disabled


A few months ago, we lost a living saint in Jean Vanier, but we know that his message of love will live on—a message OneLife LA will continue to spread throughout Los Angeles.


Pope Francis called Vanier a “great witness,” and we agree. Vanier, a French-Canadian philosopher, lived with the mentally disabled. He welcomed them into homes (known as L’Arche) to live in community. In turn, Vanier says, they taught him what it means to be human. 


Here are five truths that Jean Vanier learned from working with the marginalized.


  1. “As we enter into dialogue with a beggar, we risk entering into an adventure.”


Jean Vanier’s earliest experience with the mentally ill occurred when he was an academic in Toronto, Canada. He was rushing to his next appointment, when a woman on the street demanded money, telling him that she had been released from a psychiatric hospital. 


Vanier had yet to discover his calling to minister to the disabled. His response was to quickly give the woman some money and go on his way. He later regretted his haste, writing, “I was frightened of being swallowed up by her pain and her need.”


He says this fear is part of the reason we seek to exclude those who are different. We are afraid of being changed by an encounter with the homeless, the sick, the dying, the young, the old, the weak, the disabled, the stranger, the immigrant, those with AIDS.


  1. “If we start to include the disadvantaged in our lives and enter into heartfelt relationships with them, they will change things in us.” 


Jean Vanier wrote about Antonio, a member of the L’Arche community in Trosly, France, “He could not walk, speak, or use his hands; he needed oxygen to breathe.” Still, he was joyful, Vanier says, because Antonio accepted himself just the way he was. 


This had a life-changing effect on the other community members at L’Arche, especially those that cared for Antonio. They told Vanier that Antonio had changed their hearts, leading them out of a world that forced them to constantly prove their own worth. Instead they began to focus on relationships with others without trying to hide their own weaknesses. 


  1. “Even now, at the age of 70, my desire to be free is growing. It is never too late!” 


Although Vanier had lived many decades in service to the disabled, he recognized that life was about continual growth. He always looked to better understand his weaknesses in order to grow in freedom. 


He learned that freedom is found in the wisdom that comes from unexpected events, which could be “the death of a friend, sickness, an accident that creates a severe disability, or an apparent misfortune that breaks the pattern of our life and obliges us to reevaluate our lives, to find new values.” 


Many parents, he wrote, told him of the wisdom and freedom that comes from accepting the birth of their child with mental disabilities. “They discovered that their child was leading them from a world of power and competition into a world of tenderness and compassion.” 


  1. “We are all fundamentally the same, no matter what our age, gender, race, culture, religion, limits, or disabilities may be. We all have vulnerable hearts and need to be loved and appreciated.” 


We hide behind the walls of prejudice, judgment and disdain when we fail to realize that we belong to a common humanity. We are linked by our need to be loved and appreciated simply as people, without any consideration for accomplishments or weaknesses. It is in listening to each other’s stories that we begin to change, he wrote.


  1. “So it is that the people with intellectual disabilities led me from a serious world into a world of celebration, presence, and laughter: the world of the heart.”


Jean Vanier found the beauty in those with mental disability, and it transformed him into a doctor of the heart. May we also undergo this transformation and spread this message to those we meet. 


 (These excerpts are drawn from Jean Vanier’s national bestseller, “Becoming Human”)

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