The Globe and Mail has chosen Canada’s 2008 nation builder: Jean Vanier.
M. Vanier was instrumental in changing the way that mentally handicapped people are cared for. In L’Arche communities, founded by M. Vanier, volunteers live round the clock with the mentally handicapped people they serve.
M. Vanier is a devout Roman Catholic. It seems to me that L’Arche (= “the ark”) follows a monastic model of ministry: devoting one’s entire life to carrying out God’s work in a community set apart from the way people ordinarily live.
The L’Arche model is certainly rooted in the Gospels: specifically, in Jesus’ admonition to serve “the least of these, my brethren“. Vanier tells the Globe and Mail that he wants to announce a message:
That people who are weak have something to bring us, that they are important people and it’s important to listen to them. In some mysterious way, they change us. Being in a world of the strong and powerful, you collect attitudes of power and hardness and invulnerability. [… But] it is vulnerability that brings us together.”
Vanier maintains that we need to redefine success:
Recently, a couple came to him with their one-and-a-half-year-old son, who had an undiagnosed disorder and screamed incessantly. Mr. Vanier asked the mother how she was, and she muttered, “Okay.” He asked the father, a military man, the same question. “Sometimes,” the father said, “I want to throw him out the window.”
Mr. Vanier leans forward in his chair. “And I said to him, ‘I understand. I’ve lived the same thing.'”
He is referring to Lucien, a severely handicapped man who used to live with him and whose endless shrieking began with his mother’s death and rarely stopped. Mr. Vanier often returns to Lucien in his writing: Suffering through that noise helped him understand not only his own limitations but what the families of disabled people must go through, isolated as they often are.
“It obviously penetrated through all my protective systems and awoke anguish, and I could see violence within me,” he says. “If I hadn’t been in a community, I don’t know what I would have done.”
Lucien died a few years ago; his screaming never ceased entirely. It is easy, when hearing this story, to understand why L’Arche is always facing a shortage of volunteers. Most people would find such a life too taxing to endure.
What Mr. Vanier finds surprising is that very often it’s the volunteers’ parents who don’t want them to work at L’Arche.
“Parents will say, ‘We gave you education, university, and now you want to live with these people?'” […]
This leads to one of the cornerstones of Mr. Vanier’s philosophy, which is essentially that we’ve lost track of the different ways to measure a successful life. [… Vanier muses,] “How to find a world where the essential thing is to work for peace, to work to build something together?” […]
One of those who came and stayed was Cariosa Kilcommons. Disillusioned with her pre-med studies, Ms. Kilcommons dropped out of St. Francis Xavier University more than 20 years ago to live at the L’Arche home in Cape Breton. Four years later, she came to stay in Trosly; now, she returns to her family home in Pincher Creek, Alta., only for the occasional holiday.
“It was pretty radical,” she says of her decision to make L’Arche her life. “But I was filled with inner certitude. It’s true that a lot is asked of us here, but we get a lot back. The hours are long, but the experience is so rich.”
Certain public figures maintain that the world would be a better place without religion. And it’s true that religion does a lot of harm in the world. Some of the most prominent religious leaders stand for intolerance, division, and violence (whether overt or covert).
Maybe those religious leaders have absorbed the wrong definition of success. They pursue publicity, glory, money, deference, and access to the corridors of power. Perhaps they also mobilize people for ministry. But it’s difficult to keep one’s motives pure when those things begin to blend together.
How many of those leaders would show the same dedication to ministry if God called them to toil anonymously in a L’Arche community?
Jean Vanier hasn’t sought the public spotlight. Nor has he developed a personal fiefdom, where he can reign as a little pope. Instead, he has poured out his life in service to people who might otherwise be forgotten by the world.
If that’s true of M. Vanier, it’s even more true of people like Cariosa Kilcommons — the L’Arche volunteers who toil without public recognition.
The work is its own reward, they might say. And maybe it is. But only because they have redefined success in profoundly Christian terms:
He said to his disciples, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” […]
And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.”
(Luke 20:45-47; 22:25-27, ESV)
Tens of thousands of Christians — i.e., little Christs — are out there in the shadows of society, toiling in anonymity. Like Jean Vanier, they have absorbed the values of their Lord.
Is M. Vanier a nation builder? Perhaps; we can certainly laud him as an exemplary Canadian. But I suspect Vanier would prefer the title, kingdom builder. (Referring to the kingdom of God, not a kingdom of Jean Vaner.)