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Book Review: Jean Vanier: Portrait of a Free Man by Anne-Sophie Constant

August 1st, 2019 | 8 min read

By Kevin Hargaden

Ed. Note: Six months after this review was published, several women came forward with serious accusations of sexual and spiritual abuse against Jean Vanier. We were unaware of these allegations at the time of publication because the report in which the accusations and supporting evidence were first made public had not yet been published.

In his commentary on the Gospel of John, Jean Vanier writes that:

[t]he threat of today’s world with its globalized economy is not just unfettered capitalism but overwhelming commercialization. Advertising and public relations try to shape our cultures, thoughts, imaginations and lives. … Money has become the focus of cultures worldwide. It is being used to cultivate an acute individualism: “wealth, all the signs of wealth, houses, cars, gadgets, for me and for my family and my group!”[1]

What is striking about these comments – written in 2004, four years before the global financial crisis which made such views common-sense – is how closely Vanier’s definition of individualism maps on to my definition of community. I am willing to tut-tut with the rest of the throng when spiritual leaders decry individualism.

But I imagine myself immune to such critique because I am such an excellent friend! Ask any of my wonderful friends and they’ll all vouch for me. I am a committed father and a faithful husband. I honor my parents and you can be sure I’ll exchange pleasant small-talk with you on a Sunday morning if you show up at my church. I don’t live an individualistic life. Compared to the poor dopes affected by advertising and public relations and who swallow the lie about wealth being so important, I’m positively communitarian.

Along comes Vanier and as he unpacks acute individualism, he precisely predicts my understanding of community – me, my clan, and my pals. This is an unwelcome diagnosis. But as I read Jean Vanier: Portrait of a Free Man, I had a growing realization that it is a conclusion with which I need to wrestle.

The outline of Vanier’s story is simple. In August 1964, Vanier bought a rundown house in a village north of Paris, and asked two men with learning disabilities to come and live with him. Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux had been living in an asylum, where Vanier had visited them. “Huge concrete walls, 80 men living in dormitories, and no work,” he wrote. “I was struck by the screams, and the atmosphere of sadness.”

His purpose for starting the household was simply to make it a good place to live, for all three men. To make it a home. To do the shopping, cooking, cleaning together. He did not think he was starting a movement.

He was wrong. Today, L’Arche (the Ark) has 150 communities, in 38 countries.

But the book is not about that movement. It is about the man. Written by a close friend of Vanier, Anne-Sophie Constant, and translated by Allen Page, it is rightfully categorized as biography, but it straddles hagiography. There is, of course, a place for such writing in the Christian tradition, but it is not a genre streamlined for page-turning. One finishes the book and is not entirely sure if Vanier had any faults whatsoever. Also, there are points where the translation is a touch clumsy. As an example: while I have never visited, I suspect that the Jesuit community in Montreal is not well described as a “monastery!” Yet for the most part, the writing is notably clear and accessible.

And the story is remarkable. Vanier was a man born into privilege, but forged by war. His father was Georges Vanier, a war hero and legendary Canadian diplomat. His mother, Pauline, was the Chancellor of the University of Ottawa. Through their rich social circle, he regularly found himself having dinner with figures such as Jacques Maritain and Angelo Roncalli (who is better known now as Pope John XXIII). Both of his parents had a profound Catholic faith, which they imparted to their five children.

At the age of 13, Vanier enrolled himself in the navy, traveling on his own to England to join the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth. He excelled in his training, being described in his graduating report as “a very promising young officer, extremely open and cheerful, yet serious and professional when in a position of responsibility, who seemed to be a natural leader with considerable influence.” He found himself in remarkable positions early on, including in one instance accompanying the soon to be Queen Elizabeth II and her sister Margaret on a tour of South Africa. There may be a poorer parallel universe where Vanier’s time on the dance floor with the monarchs of England led him on a different path.

The path he followed was radically different. Through childhood, Vanier had cultivated a rich spiritual life. When on shore leave, while his colleagues sought out night-life, he sought out churches. Under the influence of various 20th century Catholic initiatives, including Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker Movement, Catherine de Hueck Doherty’s Friendship House, and later Tony Walsh’s Benedict Labre House, Vanier sought to discern God’s call on his life by moving to the experiment in communal living known as Eau Vive. He immersed himself in study, eventually taking a PhD in Philosophy at the Institut Catholique in Paris. When the founder of that community, the Dominican priest Fr Thomas Philippe was removed from his office under sanction, Vanier was thrust into leadership at the age of 24.

The time the book spends recounting the details of his life before the founding of L’Arche, in 1964, is critically important. Vanier, who was captivated by de Hueck Doherty’s “certainty that her life was directed by God” is clear that at every step of the way, he sensed God’s guidance.

“I am convinced that my joining the navy was an act of God,” he told Anne-Sophie; and of his first encounter with disabled people in Trosly, he said “I didn’t know where or how, but I had the feeling that something would come and that was enough to let myself be guided.”

This sense of guidance is persistent. “L’Arche helped me to be more attentive to God,” he said,“and allowed him to guide me from day to day. If I had a clear plan, I might have been less ready to welcome God’s plan.”

This impression was shared by others: “He seems to be guided by the Holy Spirit,” says Odile Ceyrac. “God dwells in him and leads him,” says Nadine Tokar, the founder of the L’Arche community in Honduras.

Constant successfully depicts Vanier as he was: not, as some obituaries portrayed him, as a sort of renegade entrepreneur of healthcare, but as a Christian mystic who understood that life spent with the marginalized in our societies is life spent with Jesus: we must “welcome Jesus’ invitation to eat at the table of the poor and lame and disabled and blind. In that way we will find God’s special blessing.”

A necessary consequence of Constant’s focus on Vanier is that L’Arche functions in the book as a set, the stage upon which this lovely life plays out. Little time is given to allow the reader to engage with the detail of life in these communities, which so profoundly overturn the carer/cared-for dynamic which dominates modern medicine. This is not a criticism, so much as a note that we need many more books about these movements. The glimpses we get of life lived in L’Arche come through Vanier, whose interviews for the biography provide many new perspectives on the joy of life lived with the disabled and the way that time moves differently when a community is consciously ordered around a commitment other than productivity.

And that is what this book left me with most powerfully. It reveals how the lives of the saints are often narrative expositions of Corinthians: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.”

Again and again, the decisions Vanier made were foolish in the eyes of the world. They always were directed towards those the world insists are weak. He was primed for a life of noble service in the military and diplomatic corps and squandered that to pray. He was primed for a life of virtuous study in the academy and squandered that to bathe people. In founding L’Arche, he did not intend to care for people with disabilities. He intended to live with them. The difference between those two positions is night and day.

Even within L’Arche – this movement for which he is now rightly lauded – his decision-making would fall short of the standards taught in business schools or in the leadership guides that evangelical Christianity loves to publish. He repeatedly trusted inexperienced and very young people in positions of huge responsibility and he retired from active leadership in 1980, just as the movement was beginning to spread around the world.

Vanier was not a man concerned with making the most impactful and strategic decisions. There was no “plan” behind L’Arche. He was not concerned with productivity or innovation. This is an element of the genius of L’Arche. It is a grand, global testimony to the value of committing to things that the market would insist are a waste of time. These are the things that are, often, simply wise investments in God’s economy.

I am a theologian. My wife is a prison chaplain. The discernment of both our vocations began by encountering a small book Vanier co-wrote with Stanley Hauerwas entitled Living Gently in a Violent World. There, Hauerwas writes of L’Arche that it “doesn’t pretend to be a solution. It is a sign of hope. And hope, of course, is the way time is shaped.”

The refusal to turn L’Arche into a strategy for policy or a template for social action is one of the great gifts that Vanier has left the church. The secret of L’Arche’s success is delight. In the midst of suffering, joy persists. In the lives of those who are abandoned by society, whose lives have no “productive value,” God remains near: he has his own purpose for these people, and they are his, not ours to evaluate and deem worthwhile. And community itself is not instrumentalized for some more abstract good: not even as a good “model of treatment.” It exists as a sign of hope. And that is more than enough.

Constant makes clear that in the founding of L’Arche, Vanier was committing to a life for which he was not qualified, which he could not map out. Her book is an excellent introduction to a teacher whose entire body of wisdom is based around greeting people we do not know. All he knew for certain in establishing L’Arche was that it would hold him captive. He could not pursue this project for just a season. He was committing to something he could not quite imagine, which would wrap him into relationships he could not forsake. It was in that commitment that he found freedom.

This is a counter-intuitive liberation, worthy of our sustained attention. If Vanier is indeed a free man, it challenges those of us who think that freedom from the pathological, consumptive “acute individualism” which plagues our society might be achieved by simply curating a slightly more stream-lined version of capitalist autonomy. Vanier’s witness is one more voice added to the growing suspicion that community which holds us in place, responsible, receptive, and demanding, is where we find our true freedom.

Jean Vanier: Portrait of a Free Man launches tomorrow, at an event at the Fox Hill Bruderhof an hour and a half north of New York City. The gathering will include a film about Vanier’s life, refreshments, and a chance to meet the community. Parking is available, and the community is also accessible by MetroNorth; contact Susannah Black to coordinate transportation. Go here for the book

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  1. Jean Vanier, Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John (London: Dartman, Longman and Todd, 2004), 65-66.

Kevin Hargaden

Kevin Hargaden is the team leader and social theologian at the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, in Dublin, Ireland.