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The miracle, the message, the story: Jean Vanier and l’Arche

30 November, 1999

Kathryn Spink describes the beginning, growth, vision and story of l’Arche, a special form of community where, for the past 40 years, people who are often rejected and despised by this world can help develop their potential of all to the full.

305 pp, Darton,Longman and Todd Ltd, 2005.

To purchase this book online,

go to www.darton-longman-todd.co.uk.



List of illustrations


Addresses of l’Arche Communities


In 1964 an extraordinary man started an extraordinary project. The man: Jean Vanier, the organization: l’Arche. In this book Kathryn Spink decribes the history of this a special form of community where people who are often rejected and despised by this world can develop their potential to the full. She looks at the vision of Jean Vanier himself his devout childhood, his education, his escape from war-torn France and his historic meeting with the priest who helped him find his true vocation. The l’Arche community message is that the poor and weak are potentially a source of life, hope and peace and relevance to the Church and the world today.


Jesus is in Jerusalem.
He does not go first to places of learning and power
But to the local asylum,
Where there was a multitude of people with disabilities: lame,
blind and paralyzed. (John 5:3)

Lying around, living in disgrace.
They were no doubt dirty and ugly,
According to the values of the world, shunned and despised:
Neither beauty nor comeliness in them.
Yet it is to them that Jesus goes first. (1)

In 1964, some 40 years prior to writing these words, in the scarcely definable but sure conviction that this was what Jesus wanted of him, Jean Vanier bought an unassuming stone house in Trosly-Breuil, an often cloud-hung village on the edge of the Compiègne forest just north of Paris. He then invited three broken, rejected people to leave the institution where they had been living ‘in dis-grace’ and make their home with him. This naive but irreversible step was one born, by his own account, of a desire to ‘be good’ and ‘do good’ to people with disabilities. He had no idea at that time that those people would ‘do good’ to him. Yet what began as an act of compassion towards the suffering that had profoundly moved him led to the very concrete discovery of the riches of the biblically poor. It was an invitation which enabled him and l’Arche (the Ark), the community that grew out of it, to touch in a special way upon the mystery of the person with disabilities and so to enter more deeply into relationship with Jesus.

The desire simply to live together, not as ‘educators’ and people with disabilities, but as sharers in a life of communion, highlighted by contrast the great gulf more often fixed in our divided world between the strong and the weak, the powerful and the vulnerable, the clever and the disabled, between those with a voice in human affairs and those with none. The ‘rich’ have work, possessions, status, Jean Vanier was to maintain, but often lack what is essential: the capacity to love, to live relationships of communion without fear, without hiding behind the many trappings of success, power and defence. They look upon the ‘poor’ and weak as problems to be resolved according to their own vision, refusing to enter into a dialogue of trust with those who are oppressed and in distress. They will not listen to them. Sometimes they even want to prevent their very existence. To them it is inconceivable that the despised and pitied might hold in their hearts the solutions to the very problems they allegedly represent. In each one of us there is a strong resistance to the change to which dialogue with the poor inevitably calls us. The cry of the person in need inconveniences those who are comfortable and satisfied with themselves and their lot. The anguish of people with disabilities reveals our own anguish, their shadows are our shadows, and so we turn away.

And yet the small community begun in 1964 in Trosly-Breuil soon increased in number, not only of people with disabilities but also of ‘assistants’ prepared not to turn away but to seek instead to share their lives. Other communities in France and elsewhere followed rapidly in its wake, all born of a desire to create homes not institutions but foyers, with all the associations of family life gathered about a shared hearth that the French word conveys where people with disabilities and assistants could experience together the joy and the difficulties of a community life inspired by the Beatitudes. Inevitably they varied in their outer expression. By 1995, in excess of 400 people were living together in the original community, made up of more than 20 houses scattered throughout Trosly-Breuil and its neighbouring villages, despite the fact that in 1981 the Compiegne community, originally for those less disabled, many of whom could work in local industry, had become a separate entity. L’ Arche ‘Trosly-Breuil’ had in fact become so large that the need was felt to split it into three. More recent communities may be composed of no more than a dozen people. By 2005 there were in excess of 125 l’Arche communities spread across the continents. As in France, l’ Arche in India, North America, Britain, the Ivory Coast, Honduras, Burkino Faso, Australia or Poland sought to integrate with and so express itself in terms of the local culture. Some communities were set in the heart of capital cities; others in rural areas. Some had their own workshops; in others the people with disabilities went out to work elsewhere. Some welcomed severely mentally disabled people; some welcomed children; some had not felt called or were not equipped to do so.

Religious belief was not an obligatory part of life in l’ Arche. Some communities did not set aside a specific place in which to pray. L’Arche in Trosly-Breuil had an oratory and two chapels, one of which was a converted barn, the stone walls and beams of which were still exposed. Chapels in communities elsewhere might be even simpler and more improvised; a tiny room with rush matting on the floor, a candle, an icon, a tabernacle where the Blessed Sacrament was reserved, an unoccupied bedroom or the corner of an attic. The prayer room in I’Arche or ‘Asha Niketan’ (Home of Hope) in Kolkata preserved in a series of niches in the wall seven books representing the seven major religions in India. The books were rotated so that no one religion was given precedence. In countries where the local people were not Christian the communities were not necessarily Christian. Where people were Christian they might be of different denominations. There were also those in l’ Arche who would not lay claim to any particular belief, though most assistants who stayed for any length of time, because of the very quality of relationship the life entailed, acknowledged the call to some form of prayer. Attempts at tidy definition tended therefore to crumble. At the heart of every community, however, be it in Belfast or Haiti, the aim to constitute a family in which people with mental disabilities could find security and peace in which to grow remained the same, as did the spirit – that of a special sensitivity to both the needs and the prophetic role of the poor.

L’ Arche was lived on many levels, on a level so inexpressible that even to attempt to put the experience into words was, as one assistant put it, in some way to set fire to it; but on a level also which was very tangible and physical. Those levels were intimately linked. There was a stillness about the chapels and the oratory at Trosly, which was yet not separated from the reality of brokenness that is so much a part of our world. Mass there bore daily witness to a profound relationship between the broken bread upon the altar and the broken but life-giving presence of the people with disabilities who might shuffle their feet, comb their hair or even cry out their anguish, but whom no one could judge to be irreverent.

L’ Arche, as distinct from many other communities, was founded not on the word but in a very particular way on the body. People with mental disabilities tended to be people of few words but people for whom the body with its pains, its pleasures and its capacity for expression and relationship featured prominently. ‘God reveals himself to people first of all by the word which is very close to the spirit, filled with light and touches our intelligence and our hearts,’ claimed Jean Vanier:

And then there is the revelation of God through the body which seems to be the opposite of creativity, the power, the beauty, and the wisdom of the word: the littleness of the body, the fragility of the body, the ugliness, the dirt, the smell as it dies. With our people here there are little words and a lot of body.

Yet because of the mysterious relationship between the Word and the flesh, those whose bodies were broken, minds were disabled and hearts were open had the gift of revelation, and the capacity to lead others into the communion that is the life of God:

In the beginning, before all things communion was: communion between God and the ‘Logos’ – the ‘Word, (2) … The Word became flesh and dwelt among us John 1:14) … God, the eternal God, Creator of the heavens and the earth became like us, a vulnerable, mortal human being… He became part of history revealing to us a way to God and to universal peace . .. He came to lead us all into this communion, which is the very life of God. (3)

The mysterious re-enactment of this reality was, moreover, sometimes best understood in the experience of ‘living with’. To recognise the presence of Jesus in the poor and to talk about it was one thing; actually to be confronted by the poor person salivating, irritating, sometimes violent, uninhibited, intuitive, disconcertingly discerning and craving real attention was quite another. As one l’Arche assistant put it, ‘You have to find out what it is to share a bathroom with these people.’ Before a humanly speaking deformed face could be seen as extraordinarily beautiful, before the Word could be discerned in the flesh, there were often many barriers to be surmounted; there was a great deal of ‘living with’ to be done. The rich man of St Matthew’s Gospel (22: 1-14), present in all of us, found every possible excuse not to go to the wedding feast. Committing oneself to the poor person crying out for love meant in some way dying to oneself: to one’s comforts, wealth, leisure, reputation, success, and possibly even one’s family and friends. It meant becoming poor oneself, not externally but internally. It meant feeling oneself poor in the presence of the poor and so being ‘reduced’ to prayer. In the understanding of Jean Vanier God had a way of calling people to go forward into the double world of the poverty outside and the poverty within:

For me the macrocosm and the microcosm are intimately connected, so that the whole vision of Jesus is the gradual discovery that the poor are not people whom we have to change from our pedestal and make them like us but people from whom we can drink. That means that the outside poverty and the inside poverty is the same reality to drink from. The presence of God is in our own littleness and poverty, in our need for love and recognition.

The parable of Lazarus and the rich man, between whom there was a great gulf fixed (Luke 16:20-31) applied to both the outer and the inner world. ‘There is the gulf between the rich and the poor and there is the gulf of our own consciousness, and everything in life is the passage through that divide.’

My own first invitation to visit l’ Arche came in 1988. It was accepted with what I would subsequently discover was a far from uncommon sense of being mysteriously drawn and yet afraid. I had little previous experience of people with mental disabilities and was acutely aware of my own overdeveloped if unwarranted sensibilities when it came to such superficial considerations as table manners and hygiene. I was given a gentle introduction. At table in the various houses to which I was invited I was tactfully placed next to people who were not too likely to deposit food in my lap. They were frequently gifted with the ability to allay my apprehension with the most beguiling of smiles. They accepted my silences and, because of their own speech difficulties, listened with exceptional patience and understanding to my halting French.

I had gone to Trosly-Breuil to gather material for a biography of the founder of the l’Arche communities. At Jean Vanier’s suggestion, and almost without realising what was happening, I found myself next visiting not only l’ Arche in England but also the communities of Daybreak in Canada, Erie in the United States, Tegucigalpa and Choluteca in Honduras, and some time
later Asha Niketan, Kolkata. I journeyed from the snow of Toronto to the dusty heat of a Honduran barrio in an attempt to see how the initial vision of Trosly-Breuil expressed itself in different cultures, and in the course of those travels, the voice of the poor gained, as Jean Vanier had doubtless known it would, a special resonance.

I saw something of what it meant to welcome the poor in the relative material affuence of Canada and the United States, where government funding could not only provide but actually require a certain standard of living but where the struggle for a sense of community and simplicity of life was possibly all the harder for it. I saw a little of the many faces of poverty, of what it meant to be poor in Honduras, for example, where disabled children could be an intolerable burden on mothers with large families and no husbands to help care for them, but where the spirit of materially impoverished people spontaneously recognised the tiny symbols of hope that the l’ Arche communities were. I took part in a Sariswati puja at Asha Niketan and witnessed the ongoing search for living models of inter-faith spirituality in l’ Arche as the Hindu brahmin explained the meaning of a ceremony in celebration of and thanksgiving for the goddess of learning and inspiration. I lived moments gentle and not so gentle but often stripped of the barriers which the attempts to cover vulnerability more usually erect, and I learned something of the maturity and understanding of people with disabilities. Beyond the cultural differences it became possible to discern what it was that Randy with his television set, his readily available shower water at a prescribed temperature, his lunch box and his exercise bike had in common with Felipe, who had been left to fend for himself on the dirt tracks of the barrio, whose only means of getting about was an improvised wooden cart which someone else must pull for him, and whose poverty had brought him close to death. I discovered, not for the first time, what it was to be touched by the poor and to be sustained by them. It was not that the assistants were not welcoming. Far from it – they were extraordinary in their gifts, their acceptance of their own and others’ disabilities and their generosity of heart, but in each community I learned to trust that it would be the ‘disabled’ people who would most astutely sense my weariness, feelings of strangeness or inadequacy, my own poverty and, in an intuitive, subtle way, effect some healing. For two days in Choluteca I found myself’ disabled’ by my very limited knowledge of Spanish and of the Honduran way of carrying out the simplest daily tasks. I struggled ineptly to make tortillas and cook them over a wood fire and stammered inappropriate responses to well intentioned questions, only to find myself tacitly supported by Vilma, a Honduran girl, herself only barely able to speak. She could not know that I, like her, was virtually blind in my left eye – my handicap was less visible than hers – but she took me by the hand in moments of confusion and showed me where to go and what to do.

Overwhelmed with gratitude for the very people I had feared, for Johnny whose twisted smile was so infectious, for Lita whose uncontrollable dribbling I no longer noticed, for Dave who, with his pipe between his lips, would solemnly entertain me with stories of his early life that were so flagrantly but absorbingly Untrue, for Peggy who concealed her disappointment so graciously when I and not, as she had expected, Princess Diana, arrived for dinner, and for the multitude of others I met along the way, Jean Vanier’s vision of the poor as people from whom we might drink was rendered flesh. I had been borne along by the it of celebration which invariably greeted my presence as a guest, by the messages of welcome, the crayoned pictures on my , the flowers pressed into my hand on arrival, the prayers for journey. Only in Miami airport as I re-entered a more sophisticated and individualistic world after my visit to l’ Arche in central America, did the profound suffering of those rejected for strangeness of their bodies and disregarded for having something missing from their minds really strike me. The tears flowed  quietly but embarrassingly persistently for some hours, and with them came a fuller appreciation of the gifts and strengths beyond suffering, and an inkling of the extent to which the story of person with disabilities at the heart of l’ Arche was potentially the story of Everyman.

In 1989, when first we worked together on a book on l’ Arche, Jean Vanier was at pains to disclaim the title of founder. Growth in community meant the progression from ‘my work’ to ‘our work’ to ‘God’s work’. More specifically, the foundation of “lArche was as attributable to the inspiration of Pere Thomas Philippe – the Dominican priest who had been the younger man’s spiritual father – and to the disabled people who despite, or rather because of their physical and psychic wounds, were the source of the community’s life. L’ Arche, Jean Vanier insisted then, begun as a response to the cry of the poor, had brought with it increased understanding of poverty, a sense of personal poverty the part of those who set out to ‘help’ the poor, and ultimately the recognition that the cry was not only the expression of the need of the world but also of its hope. There had been the poverty, which Jean Vanier was quick to point out: his own. There had n the poverty of Pere Thomas, who had known acute rejection and anguish; of the assistants; of the community; of those who did not know how to respond to the disabled person’s call love and relationship; and through all this poverty, there had n extraordinary grace and growth.

In 2004 Jean Vanier stood by that insistence. Some 15 years had elapsed since first I sat down in a pool of water on a bench outside the chapel at Trosly-Breuil, simply because Jean, oblivious to dampness, had motioned me to do so. This time he had recently had a birthday, and the assistants and people with disabilities from the foyer to which he belonged, together with a few honoured guests required to wear festive hats, gathered for a belated celebration, a dinner of his favourite dish: roast lamb with mint sauce. At the age of 76 he was aware, with a certain sadness, some of the simplicity and spontaneity had gone from his relationships with the younger assistants, that for some he had become the ‘venerable founder’, but he had lost none of his sense Humour and the childlike ‘nonsense’ quality that had long led him to take gleeful delight in water fights over the washup, feigning exclusive possession of a box of chocolates or manoeuvring his 6ft 4in angular frame to the front of queues. After guitar strumming and general tomfoolery, a text from St Luke’s Gospel (14:13) was read quietly to the assembled com’: ‘When you have a party invite the poor, the cripples, the deaf and the blind’ – “and even an English author in a comical hat” some generous soul appended.

Over 40 years of ‘inviting the poor’ and of ‘living together’ people with mental disabilities, those afflicted with a very particular form of poverty, had reinforced rather than altered the conviction that God had chosen the weak, the’ crazy’ and the despised to confound the strong, the clever and the respected. L’Arche had become more internationally famous, as had the man who was so reluctant to be revered and remained so wary of seduction of being powerful even in order to do good. Insouciant about his appearance – he spent most of his life in a anorak and admitted to once having turned up to give a talk wearing one brown shoe and one black – he was as concerned as ever about his inner struggle ‘between the desire to live simple relationships of communion with others and the need for power, control others’. As he grew older he professed to being more afraid of his own fears and blockages, of his difficulty in relation ships and of the need for the love of God to transform his ‘heart of stone into a heart of flesh, a vulnerable heart open to others.’

He was still slim and charismatic, a man of apparent strength authority of body and mind. Hearing aids had recently resolved the problem of deafness and he was quick to emphasise the com pensatIons of old age. He could now unreservedly enjoy being helped out of his chair or taking people’s arms when he walked. Words still came quietly but with great fluency, delivered in a ompelling voice and often emphasised with gestures of both hands. He remained by his own admission ‘contained’, not sharing his innermost thoughts and feelings easily. He struggled to do so in an atmosphere of trust but still spoke most readily of spiritual truths touching one upon another in a network of relationships which became ever more subtle with deepening understanding, and of others. Ask him to talk about l’ Arche or about St John and he was fine, but take him to a dinner party and he would find that he had nothing to say.

Not long previously a bishop had told him, ‘You in L’Arche are responsible for a Copernican revolution: until now we used to say that we should do good to the poor but you are saying that the poor are doing good to you!’ In his seventies Jean Vanier seemed to be more aware of the wider implications of that ‘Copernican revolution’: that I’Arche had a message about liberation and morality, conscience and law that was relevant to the Church and to society at large. He was more aware that people with disabilities, both in and outside I’Arche, were not only the mystery of the hidden, vulnerable God, the littleness of God waiting, but simultaneously a revelation of the glory of God. More than ever he was conscious of the role of the suffering poor person, with whom Jesus had specifically identified himself at the heart of the Gospels, being also at the heart of the Church, most obviously and potently represented in the suffering servant figure of Pope John Paul II; and of the potential of this presence for the transformation, unity and healing of broken humanity. Gradually the network of relationships emerged with greater profundity and clarity: at the heart of l’ Arche was the ‘person with disabilities’ who was not only the person obviously ‘disabled’. Moreover, at the heart of l’ Arche, as at the heart of the Gospel, as at the heart of the Church, that broken body which for all its dreadful frailty nonetheless maintained the two essential realities – the Word of God and the real presence in the Eucharist – was the mystery of poverty and pain that was yet life-giving.

Jean Vanier had just completed a book on St John’s Gospel, the fruit of many years of reflection, study, prayer and living in community. Having written it, he claimed he had a feeling that there was nothing else to be done, although almost with the next breath he was modifying, as he frequently did, his own assertion. The book spoke of what was in his heart:

These insights that I share in this book come from the life of Jesus in me, what Jesus teaches me in prayer and study,
They also flow from my life with people who are weak and who have taught me to welcome Jesus
From the place of poverty in me,
This interpretation of the Gospel of John cannot be separated
from who I am, with all that is broken in me
And from the ways Jesus has guided my life, (4)

It was not difficult to discern in it the manner in which his understanding of St John’s Gospel had been fed by his experience of l’Arche and his own life’s journey, and how St John’s Gospel had simultaneously influenced his vision of l’Arche and life:

Jesus calls his disciples to follow him as he goes towards the most rejected of people, He is revealing that he comes to heal the paralysis of our hearts and to lead us into life (John 5)…
Jesus reveals that our final destiny is love and that we are called to a wonderful sacred wedding feast. But to live this celebration the waters of our humanity have to be transformed into the new wine of divine love (John 2:1-12).

The subtle relationship between the revelation of the gospels, particularly that of St John, l’ Arche and his personal story was one which Jean Vanier was readily prepared to acknowledge. In the same book he had written: ‘People reach greater maturity as they find the freedom to be themselves and to claim, accept and love their own personal story, with all its brokenness and its beauty.’ At the conscious level at least, he had reached such a stage: ‘What I would say of my own life is that it has been an Immense change from enthusiasm to self-knowledge.’ He was aware with the passage of the years of a growth in his understanding of truth, of a growth in his relationship with Jesus and readier
Now perhaps to speak of the mystical element: ‘the call of Jesus for his followers to become one with him and to live with him as a beloved friend’

From this vantage point he could look back upon his own life and charism and on the founding story of l’ Arche with greater clarity and possibly even understanding: What I very conscious of is that there is a mission, a miracle, which is somewhere in the retreats that I give, in the book on St John, in l’ Arche. I am conscious of the mystery and conscious that I am an instrument” Today, it seemed to him, so many people were not conscious of those experiences of God that they actually had. If there was a justification for writing about his role in the story of l’ Arche it was in order that people might see that in his errors, weakness and brokenness, Jesus had used him to be part of the ‘folly’ of the San of God, that they might discover that they too were called intimacy with Jesus, to undertake a work of love, to be filled with God and so become a fountain of life for others; that they might read the miracle of their own lives.

Notes: Chapter 1: Reading the Miracle
1. Jean Vanier, Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John (Darton, Longman and Todd, 2004/Paulist Press, 2004/Novalis, 2004).
2. For Jean Vanier ‘Logos’ has a much wider meaning than the ‘Word’, referring not only to the spoken word, but also to the idea and thought behind the spoken word, the vision, the plan and the wisdom that inspire it.
3. Vanier, Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus.
4. Vanier, Drawn into the Mystery oj Jesus.

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