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Jean Vanier and L’Arche

30 November, 1999

Bernard Allon, a diocesan priest and pastor of the L’Arche community in Kilkenny, describes Jean Vanier’s ‘life-long pilgrimage of grace’ as founder of L’Arche.

Jean Vanier was born in Geneva, Switzerland, September 1928, the fourth child of Pauline and Georges Vanier of Montreal, Canada. It was during his father’s period as a military adviser to the Canadian delegation at the League of Nations, Geneva, his wife gave birth to Jean. During his years in the diplomatic service, Georges was to become ambassador to France in 1944, and at a later date, 1959, Governor General of Canada. At the age of eighteen, Jean joined the British Royal Navy. It was during his early years that the Vanier family were to meet someone whose influence was to change the course of Jean’s life, the Dominican friar, Fr Thomas Philippe.

Spiritual vitality
Fr Thomas ran an international Christian Centre for lay students outside Paris. The centre was alive with spiritual vitality engendered by the prayerful presence and insightful priest – but a centre materially poor. The friar was seeking financial help. At a later stage Fr Thomas was to become a providential voice in guiding Jean’s own spiritual quest. Jean had risen to the rank of a lieutenant, having transferred to the Canadian Navy. His brother Benedict’s entry into the Cistercian Order had an unsettling effect upon the young lieutenant. He experienced a profound spiritual restlessness and believed the time had come to make a change. Resigning his commission he began preparatory studies for the priesthood. But not certain that he was called to the priesthood, he set aside a year to pray and reflect upon his calling. Divine providence brought him into contact with Fr Thomas, whom he had met through his mother.

The French Dominican invited him to join him and his centre of spirituality. Under Fr Thomas’ tutorship, Jean set out on a course of philosophy which was grounded in the realities of the heart and spirit, the friar continuing to be his spiritual director. Jean worked on a doctoral thesis in philosophy at the Institute Catholique. Upon completion he successfully defended his thesis in 1962. His thesis – on Aristotle’s ‘Idea of Happiness’ – was accorded the distinction maxima cum laude. In January 1964, Jean accepted a post teaching moral philosophy at St Michael’s College, Toronto. ‘I loved teaching but at the same time did not feel Jesus wanted me to stay there.’

In the spring of 1964 Jean Vanier was 35 years of age. He was tall with an infectious laugh, expressive hands, his hair close-cropped. In the years to follow his big smile grew bigger, the laugh more infectious, his hands ever open in a welcoming gesture, his graying hair becoming white. At the end of the winter term at St Michael’s College in 1964, Jean returned to France. His spiritual director and friend, Fr Thomas, chaplain to the Institution Val Fleuri, in Trosly, France, had invited him for a visit. That visit called the teacher and scholar into a gospel vision of life. For many years previously, he had been seeking and searching to follow Jesus in evangelical poverty, simplicity of heart and prayer. As Jean gazed into the faces of those men of the Val Fleuri institute – faces whose intellectual abilities were completely opposite from his own – many who had been abandoned and rejected – and struck by their child-likeness and desire for love and friendship – Jean anchored in his heart the words of Jesus, ‘whoever welcomes this child in my home welcomes me.’

Communion of hearts
It was here in Trosly and among those ‘first disciples’ Jean discovered his call from God – a call to welcome, to offer hospitality and in one of his favourite phrases, ‘to climb down the ladder.’ It was among them that Jean Vanier was to find an experience of humanness in all its pain and beauty – with its fragility and grace. And in discovering theirs and his own humanness, Jean recognised in faith a ‘communion of hearts.’ He was a prophetic witness to the human and divine love of Jesus.

‘L’Arche began in 1964 when Jean Vanier and Father Thomas Philippe, in response to a call from God, invited Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux, two men with mental handicap, to come and share their life in the spirit of the gospel and of the Beatitudes that Jesus preached.

‘From this first community, born in France and in the Roman Catholic tradition, many other communities have developed in various cultural and religious traditions. The communities, called into being by God, are united by the same vision and the same spirit of welcome, of sharing and simplicity.’

These sparse, but inspired words, are from the charter of the communities of L’Arche, May 1993. Behind these initial paragraphs lie the vision and story of Jean Vanier’s ‘founding’ of our worldwide L’Arche communities. Other people and friends, among them the Dominican Thomas Philippe, are as much a part of that founding story.

Father Thomas was a chaplain of the Val Fleuri, an institution housing 32 men with mental handicaps in Trosly, France. Having previously come into contact with Fr Thomas through his mother, Jean visited him around Christmas 1963. Jean was impressed deeply by the bond of friendship between the priest-chaplain and the men.

Planting the seed
The Dominican had intuitively sensed the spiritual openness and human desire for friendship of those 32 men, above all, their precious place in God’s heart. Jean felt and believed that, ‘Jesus wanted me to do something… I was open and available. I wanted to follow Jesus and live the way of the gospel.’ Gently hinting that maybe Jean might begin ‘something’, Fr Thomas planted the seed of God’s call in his heart. ‘At the beginning of it all God’s call was revealed to me through Fr Thomas. L’Arche was not my project but God’s.’

Now confirmed in his decision to do ‘something’ by Dr Preaut, psychiatrist and chairman of the board of directors of the men’s institute, Jean set about visiting various institutes for people with mental handicap. He was overwhelmed and distressed by what he saw and experienced in a south Parisian asylum. Huge cement block walls surrounded the institute. And within, 80 men lived in dormitories without any form of work. Their day was passed walking around in circles. From 2-4 pm a compulsory siesta was followed by a walk together. ‘There I was struck by the screams and atmosphere of sadness, but also by the mysterious presence of God. In that asylum I met Philippe Seux and Raphael Simi for the first time. Both had been placed there following the deaths of their parents.’

So began Jean’s life-long pilgrimage of grace. Aided financially by parents and friends he was able to buy a small house in Trosly, France. The house was in need of many repairs. Second-hand furniture was bought from Abbé Pierre’s Emmaus community. After a festive meal with Fr Thomas, Dr Preaut and his wife, Jean opened his community house on the feast of St Dominic, 4 August, 1964.

‘Simplicity and poverty characterised L’Arche beginnings. The house was poor and had no toilets (we set up a pail in the garden!). There was one tap and one wood-burning stove… Raphael and Philippe helped as well as they could with the different tasks in the house and garden. We began to get to know each other and do things together. We were learning how to live together, care for one another, listen to one another, have fun and pray together.’

Covenant and community
Left alone with Rafael and Philippe, Jean knew by welcoming permanently both men into his life there was no point of return. ‘I was conscious of a covenant between us. All I wanted was to create a community of which they would be the centre and give them a family, a place of belonging where all aspects of their being could grow and discover the good news of Jesus.’ The first L’Arche community, Jean, Philippe, Raphael, ‘community of hearts’ – ‘a trinity of hearts’ – was seeded. Inspired by God, invited by Fr Thomas, Jean Vanier, now 35 years of age, did not yet grasp fully the irreversible meaning of welcoming into the ‘small house’ at Trosly, those two men. Along with his Dominican friend and spiritual director, he shared the deep conviction that ‘Jesus had called us together to accomplish something. The fundamental unity between us was never shaken: it as L’Arche’s foundation.’

The name L’Arche was providentially given because of its rich biblical symbolism. Noah’s ark built at God’s command is ‘the ark of salvation.’ The ark reminds us of the first covenant between God and humanity confirmed by the bow in the clouds: ‘I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.’ (Genesis 9:12-15). Each rainbow affirms God’s loving communion with the whole of creation. The rainbow is held as a special and celebratory sign of God’s caring and love of our rArche communities. A beautiful, hope-filled and grace-filled image.

Three weeks after he had set up his first L’Arche community, Jean Vanier wrote a circular letter to his friends: ‘We want to love one another as Christ taught us: gently, humbly and mercifully. Love is the distinctive feature of the message of the gospels. . .’

There are approximately 110 L’Arche communities worldwide, among them, communities in Kilkenny (Ireland’s founding community), Cork and Dublin. A project for a community in Belfast has commenced.


This article first appeared in Spirituality (May-June 2000), a publication of the Irish Dominicans.