Today it was announced that Jean Vanier has won the 2015 Templeton Prize, the $1.7 million annual award given to a person who has done extraordinary work to advance, explore, or affirm the spiritual dimension of life.
It’s hard to think of anyone on the planet who deserves this prize more than Jean Vanier, a Catholic philosopher and founder of the L’Arche communities for the mentally disabled. Says Reuters:
Vanier, 86, founded the first L’Arche (“Ark”) community in 1964 when he invited two mentally disabled men to leave their large institution and live with him in a small house in Trosly-Breuil, a village 95 km (60 miles) north of Paris.
His followers copied the idea of creating supportive households with the mentally handicapped so often that there are now 147 L’Arche communities operating in 35 countries.
“People with (mental) disabilities have been among the most oppressed and humiliated. They were called idiots,” Vanier told Reuters at his home before the prize was announced. “But these are beautiful people, people of the heart. It’s great to be together. This is what L’Arche wants to be.”
Watch this short clip of Vanier talking about what it means to be human. It’s stunning, and nearly brought me to tears:
Here is a link to Krista Tippett’s interview with Vanier from her radio program On Being. From the transcript:
DR. VANIER: We are very fragile in front of the future. Accidents and sicknesses is the reality. We are born in extreme weakness and our life will end in extreme weakness. So this, people don’t want to hold on to that. They want to prove something. They want security. They want to have big bank accounts and all that sort of stuff. But then also, hold lots of fears within us.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes.
DR. VANIER: We are a frightened people. And, of course, the big question is, why are we so frightened of people with disabilities? Like a woman who said to me just recently, asked me where I — what I was doing. And I said that I had the privilege of living with people with disabilities. And she said, ‘Oh, but I could never work with people.’ And I said, ‘Why not?’ And she said, ‘Well, I am frightened of them.’ It touches very — and I believe we’re in front of a mystery of the human reality and people who are very deeply disfigured in their face, in their body. And so — and it’s the fault of nobody. It’s a reality that is there. And maybe we can work things out and discover what gene it is and so on. But the history of humanity is a history of people being born extremely fragile because sickness and death is part of our — of our reality.
MS. TIPPETT: And as you’ve also pointed out many times, we all have, what did you say–you called them our weaknesses, our limitations, our disfigurements. Um, they don’t all show on our bodily surface, right? But somehow that, we recoil when it shows.
DR. VANIER: You see, there’s such a need to be appreciated, such a need to be loved. With that sense somewhere that if they see what is broken in me, they’ll no longer love me. So somewhere there has to be a complete change. That we love people not because they’re beautiful or clever, because they’re a person.
MS. TIPPETT: You told a story, when I heard you speak at St. John’s University years ago, about very happy members of your community. Do you remember that story?
DR. VANIER: Oh, yes, yes. Yes, I was sitting and there was a man who was a bit glum like a lot of people, a bit glum. And but, and anyway, there was a knock on the door. And before I could say “Come in,” Jean Claude walked in and Jean Claude technically would be Down syndrome. And Jean Claude shook my hand and laughed, and shook the hand of the other fellow and laughed, and went out laughing. And the man that had been in my office looked at me and said, ‘Isn’t it sad, children like that?’ And I mean, he, what was sad was that he was totally blind. He didn’t see that Jean Claude was happy.
DR. VANIER: And that is all of what I’d call the whole educational system, is that we must educate people to become capable and to take their place in society. That has value, obviously. But it’s not quite the same thing as to educate people to relate, to listen, to help people to become themselves. So the equilibrium that people with disabilities could bring is precisely this equilibrium of the heart. Children. You see, maybe a father is a very strong man and businessman, and when he comes home, if he gets down on his hands and knees and plays with the children, it’s the child that is teaching the father something about tenderness, about love, about the father looking at the needs of the child, the face of the child, the hands of the child, relating to the child. And the children, the incredible thing about children is they’re unified in their body and in — whereas we, we can be very disunified. We can say one thing and feel another.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. VANIER: And so as a child can teach us about unity and about fidelity and about love, so it is people with disabilities. It’s the same sort of beauty and purity in some of these people — it is extraordinary — and say, ‘Our world is not just a world of competition, the weakest and the strongest. Everybody have their place.’
MS. TIPPETT: That’s — seems that you have developed quite an important theology of the body through your work with L’Arche. I mean, I think maybe you’re just, you’re edging towards it there, but it’s bigger than that also.
DR. VANIER: Yes, I, you see, L’Arche is not based first on the word. You’ll find lot of communities which are based on the word, thus to say we speak of an ideal together and we are committed to an ideal or to a vision and so on. But L’Arche is based on body and on suffering bodies. And so they are seen as useless, and so we welcome those who apparently are useless. And it’s a suffering body which brings us together. And it’s attention to the body. You see, when somebody comes to our community and is quite severely handicapped, what is important is to see that the body is well. Bathing, helping people dress, to eat. It’s to communicate to them through the body. And then, as the body can become comfortable, then the spirit can rise up. There’s a recognition. There’s a contact. There’s a relationship.
We see this with some of our people, like Françoise. Françoise came to our community in 1978, very severely handicap. She couldn’t speak, she could walk a bit, she couldn’t dress herself, she was incontinent, and she couldn’t eat by herself. And today, she is nearly 30 years older. She has become blind and a beautiful person.
There was somebody who came to our community not too long ago who was, saw Françoise and the reaction was, ‘Oh, what is the point of keeping Françoise alive?’ And the leader of the little house said, ‘But madam, I love her.” I mean, it’s as if you come in to a home and grandma is in the home and she has Alzheimer’s and you say, ‘What is — but she’s my grandmother.’ I mean, so it’s based on the body, and then from the body, relationship grows.
A living saint, this man. Congratulations to Dr. Vanier, and to the Templeton Prize committee for recognizing the greatness of the man and his gift to humanity.