Beloved and Precious: Honoring Jean Vanier’s Life

Earlier this week, theologian and writer Jean Vanier died.

In reading the many obituaries written about him, I’m struck by how many journalists and faith leaders are calling Vanier a “spiritual giant” who “taught us a new way to love.”

I can’t help but think that Mr. Vanier would smile gently and correct them, saying that he was an ordinary man who just helped reveal the gifts and humanity that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities bring to the world.

Vanier grew up in a prominent Canadian family, served in the British and Canadian Navy and had every advantage available to him. In 1950, Vanier left the navy and a promising future to study theology

Later on, he bought a house in suburban Paris and invited Raphaël Simi and Philippe Seux – two men with intellectual and developmental disabilities he met at a French psychiatric institute – to share it with him. Others would soon form communities like the one Vanier, Simi and Seux lived in, and L’Arche was born.

“Our role in L’Arche is to say to those who have been put aside, the outcast and the marginalized: You are precious. You are beautiful, and you are loved by God. Stand up, rise up, and trust the Lord, our God,” he wrote.

While many thought that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities were either incapable of bringing value into the world or needing protection from others, Vanier insisted that they were important and necessary for the heart of humanity.

“Every child, every person needs to know that they are a source of joy; every child, every person, needs to be celebrated. Only when all of our weaknesses are accepted as part of our humanity can our negative, broken self-images be transformed,” he said.

His core message of vulnerability, compassion and commitment to people on the margins, were more than counter-cultural – they were a direct call for Christians to live as Jesus lived.

In his last book, We Need Each Other, he wrote:

“In this world where there is corruption, division, and injustice, where there is a great divide between the rich and the poor and where there are armed conflicts, Jesus is sending his messengers. We are all his messengers, empowered to bring peace to our world and to discover that, through love and wisdom, we can build communities of love, signs of peace for our world.”

I hope that Jean is resting well, reunited with Raphaël and Philippe, the first men he shared a home with in France.

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