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Jean Vanier Wins Templeton Prize

Today it was announced that Jean Vanier has won the 2015 Templeton Prize [1], 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 [2] 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 [3] 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.

More:

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 [4] committee for recognizing the greatness of the man and his gift to humanity.

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10 Comments To "Jean Vanier Wins Templeton Prize"

#1 Comment By ratnerstar On March 11, 2015 @ 10:00 am

Sounds like a worthy recipient!

It also reminded me of [5] from a while back.

#2 Comment By TJ On March 11, 2015 @ 11:34 am

What great news. I spent 8 weeks at one of the L’Arche homes during a summer in college. Among the most formative 8 weeks of my life, to be sure.

#3 Comment By Pilgrim On March 11, 2015 @ 11:41 am

Best news this week. Thank you for posting.

#4 Comment By Sam M On March 11, 2015 @ 11:48 am

That’s a heck of a guy, there. As a parent of someone with Down Syndrome, I felt compelled to look up his foundation to support it. It only took a few clicks to realize that the oldest and largest L’Arche community in the US is in Erie. That’s less than two hours away from us, and it’s in our diocese.

Thanks for pointing us in their direction.

#5 Comment By James C. On March 11, 2015 @ 12:03 pm

Whatever the horrible stretch my Church is going through, let me just say how thankful I am to God that She still produces such great saints as these!

And don’t forget that he provided (through l’Arche) a healing vocation for that restless, troubled, gentle soul, the late Fr Henri Nouwen. L’Arche doesn’t just save the mentally handicapped, it helps save the people who care for them.

[NFR: Yes, and because Vanier helped heal Fr. Nouwen, and prompted Nouwen to write “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” which helped me to heal from my own troubles, Vanier touched my life too. — RD]

#6 Comment By grendel On March 11, 2015 @ 12:14 pm

Another great Canadian 🙂

Today’s Globe and Mail: “Canadian disability advocate Jean Vanier wins Templeton Prize”

[6]

#7 Comment By panda On March 11, 2015 @ 1:02 pm

To my shame, I have never heard of Vanier,and am immensely enriched having learned of him. Thank you!

#8 Comment By Fran Macadam On March 11, 2015 @ 3:42 pm

Very prescient, considering the Silicon Valley Mordor article that agonized over the elites’ conundrum of what to do with all the increasingly “useless” – and therefore, commercially and thus intrinsically worthless people.

#9 Comment By Keith On March 11, 2015 @ 5:39 pm

Thanks, Rod, for highlighting the work of Jean Vanier here.

There is an excellent documentary on him and the history of L’Arche here:

[7]

One very interesting point is that those who come to work and live in L’Arche communities come away feeling they have received far more than they have given. Living with people so obviously “broken” reveals to those volunteers their own interior brokenness, and they find healing.

In the video above, Jean Vanier says:
“They can discover that through their eyes, through their hand, and through their flesh, they can give life to people … they discover that compassion for the person who is broken, screaming, and all the rest …. this is changing them, they are discovering who they are”

As the father of a girl with Down Syndrome, I can attest to this phenomenon in my own life as well.

#10 Comment By Clare Krishan On March 11, 2015 @ 6:05 pm

He spoke via ‣video-link “In Search of the Human Face: Identity and the Challenge of Disability” [scroll to bottom page, click 3rd ‣video clip from left
[8]
at January’s NewYorkEncounter

re: Nouwen ‘healing’ Vanier’s on record as having struggled with disordered affections. There’s evidence in psychology of an ‘on-the-spectrum’ aspect to human experience of libido, a precocious intellect’s accelerated ability for factual/rational wisdom may result through atrophy of certain key parts of the brain in childhood, in the opposite physical manifestation: a disabled/retarded capacity for rhetorical/physical-relational wisdom known as empathy.

“IcommunicateWhocommune” is the acting person’s grammar that crosses the chasm of imperfection in logic/rhetoric, ie that bridges all human intercourse coherent or incoherent. Those who “see the face of God” in their neighbor reciprocate true love, a mutual gift in triplicate {having first experienced being loved, ie seen as imperfect yet desired, by Eros, the heart of God) they can see value in purifying libidinous appetites via a reflective conscience that mirrors what their loving does -in developmental terms- to the beloved: IloveWholovewell [a willing transparency, intact-virgin, feminine-welfaring receptivity, a faithful patiently-trusting Marian “be still and know that I am God” Magnificat-ion of eternalsoul-in-limitedbody means] to love’s incarnate agency [penetrating chastening, foreskin-circumcised, masculine-virtuous reasonableness, a purposeful coherently-questing JohntheForerunner “love for our fathers is fulfilled” Benedict-ion eternalsoul-in-resurrectedbodyofChrist end].

Vanier is a living eikon of the developmental journey in the Divine pedagogy. We become more fully human when we seek the end/purpose for our lives/times OUTSIDE our selves/life-times. The irony? Those closest to heavenly perfection we may encounter but not know it are often those incapacitated souls who pass thru life free of the entangling temptations of access to temporal power, worldly success is denied them as ‘lebensunwertesleben’ (just as Christ was denied his life as ‘unworthy’ by his contemporaries). Their ‘hidden’ life of the soul precious in the eyes of God perhaps an example of the treasure without price, a pearl the wiseman will give up all to secure for himself?

“My ways are not your ways” says the Lord.

Indeed.

Wisdom gently chastens us, stilling ‘clanging cymbals’ of our mind and allow our heart-strings to resonate with an imperceptible breeze.