Shepherd's Voice June 2019


Jean Vanierwas the founder of l’Arche communities and author of the almost classical work Community & Growth (St. Paul’s, Mumbai, Bandra, 1996). Born in Geneva on September 10, 1928 he died in Paris on May 7, 2019 at the ripe old age of 91. He had stint as a naval officer in the British Royal Navy during the World War II years, lived for sometime in a Trappist monastery, studied philosophy and taught philosophy at the University of Toronto; but nothing would satisfy him. Why did he become famous? Because in 1964, through his friendship with Fr. Thomas Philippe of the Dominican Order, he felt called by God to begin a home for mentally disabled people in Trosly-Breuil, France not on an ‘institutional’, client-centered, medical or social service model but a ‘community’ model, and that makes all the difference. L’Arche is the French word for “The Ark”, deliberately chosen to signify the life and hope for the human community and creation represented by ‘Noah’s Ark’ in the Holy Bible. In the l’Arche homes the inmates with disabilities and the people who assist them live together as one community irrespective of creed, race, caste etc. Very soon the l’Arche concept spread to different parts of the world including India where the homes are called Asha Niketan (Bangalore, Calcutta, Chennai, Kerala, West Bengal). Today l’Arche is an international organization operating 154 communities in 38 countries, and on five continents. What is a l’Arche community? It is a grouping of a number of homes and, in some cases, apartments and day programmes on a regional and national basis.

Jean Vanier was indeed a spiritual giant. In an obituary on him Maggie Fergusson writes: “Those who lived and worked with him spoke of his almost palpable holiness; many considered him a living saint. He was unmoved by such accolades. Profoundly humble, what he longed for was to help people to know and live with Jesus – whom he spoke of as one might of a close friend – and to do so through encounters with the poorest and weakest in society, in particular those with mental disabilities” (cf. Catholic News Update Asia Vol. XII – Issue: 156 – May 16th, 2019).

Here are just few of the precious spiritual gems found in his book “Community and Growth”:

A community is a place of belonging, a place where people are earthed and find their identity. (This is totally different from belonging to gangs, sects, clubs, militant groups and other organizations which are not communities). The very first community to which people belong is the family. When a child feels it does not belong to anyone, it suffers terrible loneliness and anguish which are manifested in adverse effects physically, mentally and spiritually. Loneliness is quickly transformed into terrible feelings of guilt. But when a child is loved, seen as precious, listened to, touched with reverence, then it is at peace. It knows it belongs. It is held, protected and safe. It opens up without fear. The deepest yearning in a child is to be in communion with its mother and father. This is the most fundamental need of every human being, the source of all other needs and desires. If that thirst to belong and to be in communion with another is not satisfied, the pain of anguish rises up and with it feelings of guilt, anger and hate leading to admiration-seeking, or deep depression and revolt or anti-social behaviour. The longer we journey on the road to inner healing and wholeness, the more the sense of belonging grows and deepens. The sense is not just of belonging to others and to a community. It is sense of belonging to the universe, to the earth, to the air, to the water, to everything that lives, to all humanity. If the community gives a sense of belonging, it also helps us to accept our aloneness in a personal meeting with God. Through this, the community is open to the universe and to humankind.

We all belong to the universe; we receive from it and give to it; we are all parts of a whole. The danger for people today is to forget that and to think that they are the centre; that everyone else is there for them. People must die to this form of destructive egoism and be reborn in love, where they learn to receive from others and to give to them.

A community is not simply a group of people who live together and love each other. It is a place of resurrection, a current of life; one heart, one soul, one spirit. It is people, very different one from another, who love each other and who are all reaching towards the same hope of celebrating the same love. This is what brings the special atmosphere of joy and welcome which characterizes the true community (cf. Acts 4:32; Phil. 2:1-2). This atmosphere of joy comes from the fact that everyone feels free to be themselves in the deepest sense. They have no need to play a role, to pretend to be better than the others, to demonstrate prowess in order to be loved. They do not have to hide a whole part of themselves behind barriers and masks. They have to become vulnerable to God. They have discovered that they are loved for themselves, not for their intellectual or manual skills.

The difference between community and a group of friends is that in a community we verbalise our mutual belonging and bonding. We announce the goals and the spirit that unites us. We recognize together that we are responsible for one another. We recognize also that this bonding comes from God; it is a gift from God. It is he who has chosen us and called us together in a covenant of love and mutual caring.

Communities are truly communities when they are open to others, when they remain vulnerable and humble; when the members are growing in love, in compassion and in humility. Communities cease to be such when members close in upon themselves with the certitude that they alone have wisdom and truth and expect everyone to be like them and learn from them.

The fundamental attitudes of true community, where there is true belonging, are openness, welcome, and listening to God, to the universe, to each other and to other communities. Community life is inspired by the universal and is open to the universal. It is based on forgiveness and openness to those who are different, to the poor and the weak. Sects put up walls and barriers out of fear, out of a need to prove themselves and to create a false security. Community is the breaking down of barriers to welcome difference. If community is belonging and openness, it is also loving concern for each person. In other words we could say it is caring, bonding and mission. These three elements define it.

In a community, people are called always to become more. A community comes about when people are no longer hiding from one another, no longer pretending or proving their value to one another. Barriers have come down and they can live together anexperience of communion. This is the ‘miracle’ of community.

In a community, collaboration must find its source in communion. Communion is based on some common inner experience of love; it is the recognition of being one body, one people, called by God to be source of love and peace. Its fulfillment is more in silence than in words, more in celebration than in work. It is an experience of openness and trust that flows from what is innermost in a person; it is a gift of the Holy Spirit.

John of the Cross says that the love of God and the love of people have the same source and the same goal. If people grow in love for others, then they grow in love for God and vice-versa. If they close their hearts to others, then they close their hearts to God. Therefore community life with all its difficulties is a special place for growth.

In every human being there is such a thirst for communion with another, a cry to be loved and understood – not judged or condemned; there is a yearning to be called forth as special and unique. But to have this communion with another involves demands: to come out of one’s shell of protection, to become vulnerable in order to love and understand others, to call them forth as special and unique, to share and to give space and nourishment to them. Community is the place where people grow in love and in peace-making.

The two great dangers of community are ‘friends’ and ‘enemies’. People very quickly get together with those who are like themselves; we all like to be with someone who pleases us, who shares our ideas, ways of looking at life and sense of humour. Such friendship is no longer a spur to grow, to go further, to be of greater service to our brothers and sisters, to be more faithful to the gifts we have been given, more attentive to the Spirit, and to continue walking across the desert to the land of liberation. In community we are called to discover that the ‘enemy’ is a person in pain and that through the ‘enemy’ we are being asked to become aware of our weakness, lack of maturity and inner poverty. Perhaps it is this we refuse to look at. The faults we criticize in others are often those we refuse to face in ourselves.

Love is neither sentimental nor a passing emotion. It is the recognition of a covenant, of a mutual belonging. It is listening to others, being concerned for them and feeling empathy with them. It is to see their beauty and to reveal it to them. It means answering their call and their deepest needs. It means feeling and suffering with them – weeping when they weep, rejoicing when they rejoice. Loving people means being happy when they are there, sad when they are not. It is living in each other, taking refuge in each other. Love is power for unity.

These reflections wereborn out of his experience of living for over twenty-five years in the l’Arche community he founded in 1964 and of visiting the l’Arche communities across the world and of listening to others who live in other sorts of communities. The l’Arche communities are special because they are communities of people who are mentally challenged. The purpose is to help the mentally challenged to grow and reach the greatest independence possible, but before ‘doing something for them’ we have to ‘be with them’. The particular suffering of the person, who is mentally challenged, as of all marginal people, is a feeling of being excluded, worthless and unloved. It is through everyday life in community and the love that must be incarnate in this, that handicapped people can begin to discover that they have a value, that they are loved and so are lovable.

The l’Arche community came to birth in the desire to live the Gospel and to follow Jesus Christ more closely. For Vanier, each day was a lesson on how much Christian life must grow in commitment to life in community, and how much that life needs faith, the love of Jesus and the presence of the Holy Spirit if it is to deepen. It certainly does not mean that there is no community outside Christianity but the message of Jesus invites his disciples to love one another and to live in community in a special way. He emphasized that involvement with the poor is not a vocation for a few. “If you are blind to the poor” he believed, “you become blind to God”. He urged people to start in small ways, by making space in their lives for somebody who is lonely, old, depressed, disabled.

In his ninetieth year, diagnosed with cancer, he wrote, “I am living a time of peace. I would like to live every moment in love without any other project…”

May the life and reflections of Jean Vanier inspire us to build true communities based on the Gospel and which reflect our Trinitarian communion and the presence of God’s kingdom in our midst.

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