Jean Vanier Is a Genius

I quoted extensively from Jean Vanier's Becoming Human for my book Deliver Us from Me-Ville. Vanier, the founder and voice of the L'arche communities, where disabled and abled people live together in mutual community, has a gentle grace to him that allows the cultural critique inherent in his life's work to penetrate the defensiveness and discomfort that would otherwise encounter his readers. Now I'm finally reading a book of his that came out thirty years ago, a book I rescued years ago from an apartment a group of us were cleaning out for the Jesus People in Chicago, a book that a friend of mine (and author of the recent Folly of Prayer) told me is the most important book available on community living: Community and Growth.

This book analyzes the state of communal living in the midst of the digital age, in the aftermath of the free-everything 1960s, in the wake of disco. Around the same time of this book's release came the seminal Culture of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch, but Vanier more pointedly calls out "the prisons of our egoism" and the consequent pervasive struggle against fear and self-assertion. Vanier watched idealism give way to hedonism and narcissism during the Age of Aquarius, and he anticipated the neglect that would heap on the developmentally disabled in such an age, and so he committed himself--and people have consistently committed themselves ever since--to not just serving the developmentally disabled in some patronizing way but to communing with them, learning from them, joining with them in covenantal community.

Vanier is a realist, which is, I think, what makes him both so gracious and so challenging. Here's a great example, from pages 74-75 of the Paulist edition:

If we are to grow in love, the prisons of our egoism must be unlocked. This implies suffering, constant effort and repeated choices. To reach maturity in love, to carry the cross of responsibility, we have to get beyond the enthusiasms, the utopias and the naivetes of adolescence.
It seems to me more and more that growth in the Holy Spirit brings us from a state of dreaming--and often illusion--to a state of realism. Each of has our own dreams and projects, which prevent us from seeing ourselves clearly and accepting ourselves and others as we are. Dreams throw up strong barriers. They hide the psychological, human and spiritual poverty which we find hard to bear in ourselves. . . . When we discover that God lives in us and carries us, our dreams can disappear without leaving us depressed. We are held by the gift of faith and hope, that fine thread which binds us to God.
People in community ask how they can know if they and it are growing. St. Paul gives a clear indication in his Epistle to the Corinthians: love is not heroic or extraordinary acts. . . . Perhaps the essential quality for anyone who lives in community is patience: a recognition that we, others and the whole community, take time to grow. Nothing is achieved in a day. If we are to live in community, we have to be friends of time.


I resonate with much of this. Community bringing about maturity through suffering and patience rings true. I'd love, however, to hear Vanier distinguish between illusory dreaming which deludes us and prophetic imagination which calls us to be more and to envision more. The realism bit is a bitter pill for this naieve non-realist ... maybe I should swallow it anyway.
inkless said…
I needed to hear this--especially the bit about dreams. It's so easy to cling to my own visions of reality and forget that the truth is often the greatest comfort.
I often think of what Lewis wrote in Surprised By Joy: "The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and his compulsion is our liberation."
Merry Present said…
The DD have always been self-absorbed. Like children, they can't see beyond themselves. Everything's about them and often the only things they can relate to are things about themselves. Therefore they can't love in the way you're talking about.

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