An extraordinary presence

Jean is a humble role model, mentor and friend who inspires through his respectfully loving each person as they are, with their strengths and their weaknesses, and reveals to each his or her own capacity to love.

By Martha Bala

Martha Bala is a retired Family Physician and married mother of four children. She lives in Kingston, Canada. Martha lived at L’Arche in Trosly-Breuil, France (1973-4) and then in Kolkata (1974-8), and was a member of the L’Arche International Board (2009 – 12). The friendships she made at L’Arche have deeply marked her life.

A humble friend

How to convey the essence of this physically and metaphorically giant of a man, who reaches out directly and without ceremony, to touch each of us in the place we feel most vulnerable, with acceptance and love? How is he able to do this, without our fragile selves closing up in fear, panic and rejection of his approach? How is it that people of all sizes, shapes, colours, races, origins, nationalities and beliefs are touched by him, and drawn to him, and feel understood by and close to him?

Vanier touches others at the level of the heart, disarmed of force, with tenderness and humility. His ability to be present to the wound within each of us is the fruit of a lifetime of fidelity to prayer. This gift has been further honed through hours of attentive and faithful listening – to the cry of the rejected and voiceless, to the pain of others’ lives, to the yearnings of his own heart and to the tenderness of Jesus, his beloved.

Jean takes Jesus seriously. Not the Jesus of dogma and church rules, but the living breathing Jesus with whom he walks, whose invitation he accepted and encourages all to accept, to “Come, and see.” This invitation is open to each person, of whatever faith, to walk to together towards God, however God may be conceived. Jean senses and longs to reveal and nourish the divine spark within each person.

One can sense the presence of God in and through Jean. One senses it in his voice as he calls one’s name, in the touch of his hand, in the penetrating and meditative gaze he offers to whoever he is with, and one senses it in Jean’s fidelity to prayer. Practical and down to earth, he is disciplined in his personal times of study, reflection, prayer, writing and as he ages, rest. One senses the authenticity of this man, whose life is lived in harmony with his words and his faith. This congruence and authenticity is part of the enormous draw Vanier has with young people, tired of hollow role models.

A faithful friend

Jean’s primarily fidelity is to the men and women welcomed at l’Arche, especially those with whom his shares his home and his meals. He is passionately engaged in the struggle for the dignity and rights of people with disabilities around the world. This commitment is lived out each day, in his encounters, his engagements, his work and his play, as it has been for more than fifty years.

A faithful friend, once he has contact with someone, Jean rarely forgets their name or their story. His agenda is filled with names, some of whom he has been corresponding with for decades. His personal “letters”, carefully scripted on tiny pieces of paper, though often illegible, always cherish the reader. Particularly when things are difficult in the life of a friend, he is present to them.

Presence is key. In a group Jean actively seeks ways to connect with others, from a stance of humility. He will easily ask someone a question which he already knows the answer to, in an attempt to connect, to let the other “teach” him. He often asks for help, in an attempt to draw another closer. At meals he continually seeks to include those around him who are participating less, perhaps by asking for more water, by requesting another serving, or through gentle inquiry about their day. Jean is keenly aware of the delights of laughter and celebration, and cultivates opportunity for both. Whether with a stranger in a line after a talk, or a companion of many years, to be alone in his presence is to be the focus of his undivided attention.

A peacemaker

Ever a realist, Jean’s openness allows himself be deeply shaped by his lived experience. Vanier welcomes his own strengths and weaknesses with clarity, and encourages others to do the same. Working from a position of what can be done, rather than getting stuck in the difficulties, he calls people to go where they dare not go alone. He trusts others and asks easily for collaboration and input from others.

Jean is a pacifist to the core. He has had experiences of being attacked, either verbally or physically, and has taken the unusual and inspiring stance of “offering the other cheek”. When verbally assaulted, for instance by a prisoner after a talk in the prison, who screamed at Jean that he was just another do-gooder Christian who had no idea what the lives of the prisoners had been, Jean’s response was so respectful, that the man came up to him after to thank him. Jean asked about his wife, and the prisoner burst into tears.

To those who live with him, Jean is a brother. Like everyone he too can become tired or impatient. When asked by one interviewer what he would say to those who would call him a saint, his response was simple: “They don’t know me”.

Jean is a humble role model, mentor and friend who inspires through his respectfully loving each person as they are, with their strengths and their weaknesses, and reveals to each his or her own capacity to love.

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