Jean Vanier, the French-Canadian Catholic philosopher, theologian, and humanitarian was born on September 10, 1928, and died in May of this year at the age of 90. He was the author of some 30 books, including Becoming Human, his bestseller.
Vanier, the Founder of L’Arche
According to britannica.com, Jean Vanier (pronounced van-YAY) was born in Switzerland but spent most of his early childhood in Canada. At the age of 14, though, he went to England where he entered the Britannia Royal Naval College and then served in the Royal Navy throughout World War II.
In 1950 Vanier resigned his naval commission and went to France, where in 1962 he earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from the Catholic University of Paris. Then after teaching briefly at the University of Toronto, he went back to France.
Influenced by a local Catholic priest, in 1964 Vanier invited two men with “profound disabilities” to live with him. That was the beginning of the first home dubbed L’Arche (French for the Ark) and the precursor of the now nearly 150 such homes on five continents.
That first home, about 50 miles northeast of Paris, and the subsequent ones have all been, and are, communities where “people with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities” live together “in faith and friendship.”
In addition to Vanier himself, the most widely known person to live in a L’Arche home was Henri Nouwen, the noted Dutch Catholic priest, professor, and theologian who lived in Daybreak L’Arche (in the suburbs of Toronto) from 1986 until his death in 1996.
Vanier, the Author
In 1998, Vanier gave the Massey Lectures, and those five lectures became the five chapters of Becoming Human, published that same year. When the 10th-anniversary edition was published in 2008 with a new introduction by Vanier (who was then 80), over 70,000 copies had been sold.
The titles of the chapters of Becoming Human are “Loneliness,” “Belonging,” “From Exclusion to Inclusion: A Path of Healing,” “The Path to Freedom,” and “Forgiveness.” (You can find my two pages of excerpts from Becoming Human here.)
In this, his best-known book, Vanier doesn’t say much about L’Arche, but he uses many of the developmentally challenged people he had known at L’Arche as illustrations of the various points he makes.
Among his nearly 30 other books are Community and Growth (1979), From Brokenness to Community (1992) and Befriending the Stranger (2005). With eminent Protestant ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, he also co-authored Living Gently in a Violent World (2008).
Vanier was highly ecumenical in the broadest sense. At the same time, he was a devout (Catholic) Christian. One of his books is I Meet Jesus (Eng. ed., 1987), a quick read with illustrations on every other page.
Vanier, the Man Who “Made Us All More Human”
Soon after Vanier’s death in May, pastor and author Bethany McKinney Fox posted a noteworthy Christianity Today article titled “Jean Vanier Made Us All More Human.” Her point is that Vanier “showed the church how disability, vulnerability, and weakness bring us closer to one another and closer to Jesus”—and how that makes us more human.
On the second page of the Introduction to his 1998 book, Vanier declared that “life together” in L’Arche “has helped me become more human.”
In “To Become Human,” a sub-section of his third chapter, Vanier asserts, “As the human heart opens up and becomes compassionate, we discover our fundamental unity, our common humanity” (p. 97). That is the key to becoming more human.
In 2015, Vanier was awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize, and here is the link to a related 4-minute video where he talks informally about the question ““What does it mean to be fully human?” It is well worth the time to watch.