An Ode to Jean Vanier
What to do when too many people might come to your funeral?
As you may already know, on April 29 we are releasing a film in cinemas called Summer in the Forest. It’s a documentary about the L’Arche organisation and its founder Jean Vanier. As part of our preparation to support and champion this film (and L’Arche), we at Heritage spent the day with Eileen Glass, a vivacious lady who is in charge of Fundraising and Development for L’Arche in Australia.
As part of our day together, Eileen shared with us about the extraordinary life of Jean Vanier. It was clear from her personal stories about Jean, whom she has known for many years, and from the film Summer in the Forest itself, that Jean is deeply beloved and cherished within his organisation, if not positively revered. In fact, Eileen confided to us that the international leaders of L’Arche had realised recently that they must prepare well for Jean’s death (he is over 90), because if there is not a very clear strategy in place, then thousands upon thousands of people will come from around the world and converge upon his small home of Trosly-Breuil in France. And the village, tiny as it is, will not cope.
I found this fact to be profoundly impacting—the logistical need to stem an outpouring of love because it would be too big. Because Jean Vanier is not a fashionable superstar. This is not a Kardashian. This is not a world leader. This is a gentle, unhurried, quietly spoken man who lives out of sight in a very small place and who has done nothing truly news-breaking or globally attention grabbing—he’s barely even famous.
All he has done, essentially, is to love people.
He did not invent a new kind of life-saving technology. He doesn't run a billion dollar company. What he does is live a very quiet life, and love people. It's what he's always done. And now his board members have to convene meetings so that they can figure out how to get hundreds of thousands of people not to come and pay their respects to him if he dies.
Turns out that the simple act of love is more impacting than any social media campaign, celebrity status, or even radical world-saving political policy could ever be.
Sure, he has written books. He is a theologian and philosopher, and he has done a lot of speaking engagements during his life. And much more. He has received numerous awards. But many others through the ages have done as much (or more), and I truly wonder if any of them were as beloved as Jean Vanier.
Of course, he also founded an international organisation made up of 151 communities spread over 5 continents, with more than 5000 members.
But you get the impression that he didn’t really mean to. All he did was to simply invite two men with disabilities out of the horrific institution they were in, and into his home.
"For all three men it was the beginning of a new life, radically different than anything they had known before. It was, after some months of trial and error, the beginning of an extraordinary human adventure. Jean recalled: “Essentially, they wanted a friend. They were not very interested in my knowledge or my ability to do things, but rather they needed my heart and my being.” Within a short time, other homes were founded, and Jean Vanier sent out a call for help with this work. Young people from France, Canada, England and Germany answered the call to become “assistants” living with people with intellectual disabilities.”
And so L’Arche was born, a place where people with and without disabilities lived together as equals. And as a consequence, society’s views on the value of disabled people were radically reshaped. What we see as normal now—where people with disabilities are cared for in homes or assisted to live independently—is only normal because Jean Vanier made it so.
To love people is to reveal to them that they have value.
It's that simple. And like Jesus, it completely rocks the world.
Forget success, forget fame. There's only one way to truly make waves. Thank you Jean, for showing us how it's done.
With thanks to: