I was saddened to hear of the death earlier this month of Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche Communities. I had the honour and privilege of meeting Jean Vanier once when I introduced him at an event he was speaking at. He was one of those people around whom there seemed to be a real and physical aura.
Jean Vanier began his journey when, on the suggestion of a Catholic Priest, he invited two men with disabilities, Raphael Simi and Phillipe Seux, to live with him in his house as an alternative to the institutions in which they were residents. He did this because he wanted, as he put it, to “do something for them” – but he realised this attitude needed to change to him finding out how to “be with” them, to authentically “be their friend”.
This attitudinal shift was one of consciousness not practicality. It was an inner journey. He had realised and seen through his two companions how strength is revealed through weakness and human vulnerability. In this space of human relationships trust, hope and community can grow. It was a manifestation of our deepest desire to love and be loved.
He described his discovery as such: “Our community life is beautiful and intense, a source of life for everyone. People with a disability experience a real transformation and discover confidence in themselves; they discover their capacity to make choices, and also find a certain liberty and above all their dignity as human beings.”
Principle 1 – All humans are sacred, whatever their culture, race, religion, whatever their capacities and incapacities, whatever their strengths and weaknesses may be. All of us need help in order to become all that we may be. For example, if we are going through a hard time in our life, we need all the help we can get in order to find ourselves. We are all sacred and shouldn’t be treated differently for anything about us.
Principle 2 – Our world and our individual lives are in the process of evolving – how we think about the way we looked at things in the past, and learning about how those things in the past live in the future. Things like peace, love, unity, and especially the necessity of forgiveness.
Principle 3 – Maturity comes through working with others – we have to belong and find each other.
Principle 4 – Humans need to be encouraged to make choices – we need to become responsible for ourselves and for the lives of others as well.
Principle 5 – In order to make choices, we need to reflect and to seek truth and meaning – we need to stay connected to our reality and what’s going on in our world. We need to accept ourselves and others as we and they are.
Literally thousands of lives have been changed by the principle-led communities of L’Arche. Living the simple act of being open to shared lives of respect, equity and hope; grappling with the power of forgiveness and the significance of loving and being loved. Jean Vanier himself continued to live in a L’Arche community right up until his death this month. He lived his principles right to the very end.
In Cyrenians we strive through our Cyrenians Way of Working Training to learn better how to live our values for the same reasons Jean Vanier put his principles at the heart of L’Arche; to take what we say we believe off the wall and out of books, beyond presentations and behind words on a website and into everything we do.
It’s hard at times. It doesn’t mean we don’t sometimes find ourselves in conflict or feeling we could have done things better. It’s not an escape from the reality of human frailty nor a denial of our emotional struggles. But it give us a frame work to deal with the crunchy moments we meet and a platform to do things in a way which focuses on the humanity of those we serve and each other first and foremost. It’s not an easy path nor one which many organisations seek to journey but I believe, inspired by people like Jean Vanier, it’s one well worth travelling.