Jean Vanier - Arms Wide Open
August 2019
Your August Reflection and Discussion Guide

Click HERE to download this month's reflection.

Click HERE to download the guide.

Gather with prayer, then read:

Reflect on the Scripture above.
Share your personal word or phrase and what it means for you.
Now read the quote below, then read the reflection.

In the end, the most important thing is
not to do things for
people who are poor and in distress, but to
enter into relationship with them,
to be with them and help them find
confidence in themselves and
discover their own gifts.

Jean Vanier

Read the reflection

Jean Vanier : Arms Wide Open

Amended by Bev McDonald from Obituary: Jean Vanier 1928-2019 by Maggie Fergusson. UK Tablet May 2019

Jean Vanier, who founded the L’Arche communities, was born in Geneva in September 1928, and he died in Paris in May, 2019.

Vanier was a spiritual giant. Profoundly humble, he longed to help people know and live with Jesus - whom he spoke of as one might about a close friend - and to do so through encounters with the poorest and weakest in society, particularly those with mental disabilities.

Vanier was born in Geneva, where his father, Georges Vanier, a Canadian diplomat, was serving. He was the fourth of five children and his parents were both devout Roman Catholics. His father became the Canadian ambassador to Paris when WWII broke out and in June 1940, as France fell to Germany the family sailed home in a British merchant ship. In 1942, at the age of 13, George Vanier gave his son Jean permission to enter the British Royal Naval College at Dartmouth. Jean saw it as hugely significant in his life saying; “because my father trusted me, I could trust myself, and if my intuitions were true, then I could work with them.”

Jean Vanier believed that he owed his physical stamina, and extraordinary discipline, to that time in the Royal Navy. As the war came to an end, Jean wanted to work for peace, not war. “Something was growing within me,” he later reflected. “A deep attraction toward prayer, toward attending Mass, toward being with the poor.” In 1950, he tried his vocation as a priest, living in a Trappist monastery, and then in a community near Paris, where he combined prayer with manual work and the study of philosophy. He obtained a PhD in philosophy and taught at the University of Toronto.

In 1963 Jean visited an institution for around 30 men with mental disabilities in a village near Paris. Here he encountered a paradox: that places of suffering were often also places of great beauty. “Prisons, psychiatric wards, slums, leprosy colonies: there’s something frightening, but also something beautiful, a sense of wonderment. It’s mysterious. Maybe it’s the discovery that, amidst all the chaos, these people are human beings. I saw anger and pain in the faces of these men, but also great tenderness.”
In the summer of 1964, Vanier invited two men with mental disabilities, to make a home with him in a rustic stone cottage with no toilet, one tap and a wood-burning stove, and he called it L’Arche - the Ark. He had set out thinking he was doing something good for Raphael and Philippe, yet quickly realised that he was being transformed by them. He would later say they were his, “teachers of tenderness.”

L’Arche began to grow. Those who visited Vanier were inspired. Some stayed. In 1968 he gave a retreat in Canada, and the first L’Arche community opened there the following year. In 1971, Jean Vanier’s sister, Thérèse, opened the first L’Arche house in the UK. Gradually, the communities spread to countries including India, North America, the Ivory Coast, Honduras, Burkina Faso, Australia, Poland and Palestine.

In 1997 Vanier was honoured by Pope John Paul II. He took a group of men with mental disabilities to Rome with him. As the Pope was leaving, he turned back to address them, saying: “I want you to lead my church into the new millennium.” Vanier was passionately ecumenical. “My feet are rooted in my faith,” he would say, “but my arms are wide open.” From the start, L’Arche welcomed people of all faiths and none. Stephan Posner, the current head of L’Arche in France, is Jewish, while in Bangladesh and Palestine, Christians and Muslims live together, and in India many in L’Arche are Hindu. People with mental disabilities, Vanier would say, are a force for ecumenism: they have an instinct for communion, but they do not - indeed cannot - split hairs over questions of dogma and belief.

Vanier hated the praise lavished on him when he was introduced to audiences. “I feel that people are saying, ‘You’re doing a beautiful work;’ and that doesn’t interest me,” he would say, “because what they are really saying is, ‘I’m glad you’re doing it, not me.’”
Increasingly, the world came to Vanier. Always his fundamental desire was to help people believe that, no matter what they might have done, they were loved by Jesus “more than they dare believe.” Life in L’Arche, Jean said, had taught him “that everybody is beautiful. Everybody,” he would say.

It saddened Vanier that the Church seemed sometimes to present involvement with the poor as a vocation for just a few. He believed - “If you are blind to the poor, you become blind to God.” He urged people to start in small ways, by making space in their lives for somebody who was lonely, old, depressed, disabled.

In his ninetieth year, he was diagnosed with cancer, and forced to spend increasingly long periods in hospital. Speaking became difficult for him, but still he strove to communicate. In a round-robin letter to his friends he wrote, “I am living a time of peace. I would like to live every moment in love without any other project … I know that new weaknesses, new forms of poverty and new losses are waiting for me. It will be the descent into what is essential, that which is most hidden in me, deeper than all the parts of success and shadow inside me. That will be all that remains when the rest is gone: my naked person, a primal innocence which is awaiting its encounter with God.”

He died in Paris, on the 7th of May, and is deeply mourned by his communities around the world and by all those who recognised a man of great holiness.

God bless

Starters to help your sharing

“Something was growing within me.” Can you relate to a ‘deep attraction growing within you?’ When have you sensed a call from God like that?

What do you think Vanier means when he describes thinking he was doing something good for the men, but discovered he was being transformed by ‘teachers of tenderness?’

Who have been ‘teachers of tenderness’ for you and how?

“Start in small ways by making space for somebody lonely, old, depressed, disabled.” What small ways come to mind for you or your group?

What grace do you need from God to have ‘arms wide open?’

Pray for each other and the needs of the world then share this concluding prayer:

Loving God, You called us into being and gave us our mission.

Thank you for the gift of one another,

Thank you for the vulnerable who teach us tenderness.

Help us to listen to your voice within us, See you around us,

Delight in our gifts, Forgive one another our failings,

Trust in you, and Welcome each new day in Faith, Hope and Love.

Through Christ Our Lord, Amen. (Adapted from L’Arche Jubilee prayer)