A Road to Freedom

Jean Vanier has not sought to be “original,” however he has created something truly original, in giving meaning—through his life and his work—to the suffering of men, women and children

By Jacques Dufresne

Jacques Dufresne is publisher of the Internet Encyclopédie de l'Agora and of the Appartenance-Belonging website, and author of numerous works including La démocratie athénienne, miroir de la nôtre, Thomas More, l'expérience de Dieu, and Après l'homme, le cyborg. He led the Philia reflection group, whose goal was to create social policy founded on the inclusion of the most vulnerable people.

This suffering, denounced long ago by Dostoevsky as “absurd,” has had a determinative influence on contemporary thought. “While there is still time,” writes Dostoevsky in the person of Ivan Karamazov, “I hasten to protect myself and so I renounce the higher harmony altogether. It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child ... it’s not worth it because those tears are unatoned for” ... and the very fact that this tear cannot be blotted out from this world destroys this harmony.

I am not saying that Jean Vanier deliberately set out to refute Dostoevsky. To have done so would have been to make an instrument or tool of love, and that would destroy its meaning as something offered freely. This is indeed one of the signs by which we may recognize him: Jean Vanier has never fallen into the trap of instrumental reason. What I am saying is that he has found joy and inner freedom through contact with those suffering women and men who suffer most of all—those affected by twin handicaps: physical and intellectual.

Jean Vanier writes: “I once visited a psychiatric hospital that was a kind of warehouse of human misery. Hundreds of children with severe disabilities were lying, neglected, on their cots. There was a deadly silence. Not one of them was crying. When they realize that nobody cares, that nobody will answer them, children no longer cry. It takes too much energy. We cry out only when there is hope that someone may hear us.”

To stop crying, not because we are no longer suffering, but because we are suffering too much—Dostoevsky himself did not go that far in his evocation of the suffering of the child. But in this idea lie two of the major themes of Jean Vanier’s thought and action: belonging and anguish.

Belonging is the living connection to an environment that is itself living. It is the gift of tears reclaimed in the joy of being understood: even L’Arche homes themselves can only encourage and foster the feeling of belonging to the extent that they belong to a large, living network. “The longer we journey on the road to inner healing and wholeness, the more the sense of belonging grows and deepens. The sense is not just one of belonging to others and to a community. It is a sense of belonging to the universe, to the earth, to the air, to the water, to everything that lives, to all humanity.”

Angustus: Latin for narrow, constricted. Anguish is the pain of a soul confined and constricted. Jean Vanier writes: “When I began to welcome people from broken families and from psychiatric hospitals into L’Arche, I became aware of the intensity of the suffering and inner chaos engendered by an acute sense of isolation. Certainly, one can smother the feeling by throwing oneself into activities and by seeking after success. Being young, that’s what I did. That’s what we all do. Generally, we have the energy needed to do things that give us a sense of importance and the feeling that we are alive. But when we can’t do these things anymore, when we can no longer be active or creative, we become conscious once again of this inner suffering. This suffering is a fundamental element of human nature; we can try to forget it, to hide it in a thousand different ways—it’s still there. This anguish is inherent in the human being, because nothing in existence can completely satisfy the needs of the human heart.”

This anguish is more obvious, more visible among those who suffer most and are the most isolated; however, to enter into communion with them is to become conscious of the same vulnerability and frailty in ourselves, generally kept secret at the very root of our being. In entering into communion we can achieve the philosophical act par excellence—i.e., to know ourselves—but through a compassion that calls to mind that of the Good Samaritan rather than through some exclusively intellectual act.

Jean Vanier’s path crosses that of Kierkegaard at the doorway to anguish (or “dread,” as Kierkegaard’s vocabulary is usually translated), but also on the road to freedom. “The Path to Freedom” is the title of one of the Massey Lectures that Jean Vanier gave in 1998 for the CBC and Radio-Canada. The lectures were subsequently published in a book titled Becoming Human. Jean-Paul Sartre had named one of his novels Les chemins de la liberté (Paths to Freedom). Surely aware that he was using the same title, was Jean Vanier hinting that we might move beyond Sartre by reviving a Christian existentialism whose ancestor was Kierkegaard?

The resemblance between Kierkegaard’s and Jean Vanier’s notions of anguish or dread is striking. For the one as for the other, anguish, or dread, is the fundamental condition, and the goal of freedom is achieved only when its limits have been surpassed in and by faith. Kierkegaard writes that dread is the only possible response to the reality of human freedom, and that only this dread can, through faith, truly form the human being, by devouring all limits, by unmasking all deceptions. Jean Vanier writes: “In effect, the human heart is uneasy, thirsty for fulfillment and for the infinite. It cannot be satisfied with the limited, the finite. From its creation, humanity has sought to go further, higher, deeper, in pursuit of the hidden meaning of the universe.” This meaning reveals itself as we detach ourselves from that which gives us power and importance in society, in order that we might more truly belong to the universe. To be in dialogue with the universe, with the other, with oneself—all three are inseparable relationships in the eyes of Jean Vanier. On this very point, his connection with Martin Buber, one of the few authors he cites, seems even stronger than his connection with Kierkegaard. For Buber, “the beginning is relationship.” He starts from the principle that the human being is, in essence, homo dialogus, i.e., that a person cannot know himself or herself apart from communion with humanity, creation, and the Creator. This “buberian” being might equally define himself or herself as homo religiosus, because love of humanity leads to love for God and vice versa. The divine Presence participates in every authentic encounter between and among human beings and remains with those who establish true dialogue: “The celestial and the terrestrial, are linked to one another. The words of one who wishes to speak to people without speaking to God will fail, but the words of one who wants to talk with God without talking to human beings are lost.” To understand Buber is to have understood Jean Vanier.

Jean Vanier, who has equally made room for pleasure in his notion of happiness, is thus armed against a complacency toward suffering of which one must always be wary in a life such as his. In the wake of Aristotle, he also knew how to avoid another trap, that of the idea of a dualism of body and spirit. To listen to people, to touch reality—first, the body—this is his primary concern. The substantial union of the spirit and body is at the heart of the notion of human beings for Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. Given how much incarnation means to him, Jean Vanier could not but adhere, without reservation, to such ideas as this one: “There is nothing in the mind that has not previously passed through the senses.” He further insists on the importance of the senses to the point of speaking of the body as if it includes the soul. He does this to such a degree that, listening to him or reading his words, one begins to ask if he has not fallen under the influence of Nietzsche on this matter. Not the Nietzsche who was contemptuous of the weak and from whom no one could be further than Jean Vanier, but the Nietzsche who eulogized the wisdom of the body, the Nietzsche who said “There is more sagacity in thy body than in thy best wisdom'” and who wrote: “... would that [your love] were sympathy for suffering and veiled gods!”

“There is nothing human about hardness, about insensitivity,“ writes Jean Vanier in relation to the idea of stoicism. Such a remark might seem banal in another context, but in our current environment, marked by indifference to the isolation of the other, it becomes a precious affirmation: “The person who takes no pleasure in doing good is not really a good person.”

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