Jean Vanier, a French-Canadian former naval officer and academic, is the founder of L’Arche, a worldwide organisation of small, homely communities where men and women with a learning disability live alongside –- he would rather say “in communion with” — their carers. This is a new edition of a book that was first published in 1985. Having found it an inspiration when I first came across it, I am glad that it is again seeing the light of day –- the more so because the dignity of a human being and right relations between the sexes are under relentless and increasing assault in our secular society. In an age where everyone is entitled to a sexual relationship and where disabled people, when not aborted before birth, are often vulnerable to the well-meaning abuse of those who care for them, Vanier’s is a prophetic voice.
Seen from this perspective, society has an elementary choice: to walk alongside those who are dispossessed of brains and beauty –- or to walk over them.
He describes this book as a meditation and this is precisely what it is: a discursive (occasionally rambling), prayerful and heartfelt reflection on the nature of humanness, particularly in relation to those who cannot speak for themselves. Yet his words, he suggests, are applicable to everyone, for we all need bonds of affection with others and yearn for a “gift relationship” that is the antithesis of selfishness and possessiveness. The mentally handicapped (a useful if politically incorrect expression nowadays) often suffer acutely from the anguish of rejection and the loneliness this entails. The answer, as Vanier sees it, is to create communities where authentic relationships can flourish. “It is possible”, he believes, “to open ourselves to one another, to create bonds with one another, to enter the world of love, communion and gift…only as we are gradually liberated from the powers of egoism that keep us closed up in ourselves.”
The key, he emphasises, is spiritual friendship. Where genuine, long-lasting friendship occurs, the demand for sexual expression divorced from love is mitigated. Unlike those who would dispense contraceptives to fragile people and then let them flounder as best they may under this supposedly liberated dispensation, L’Arche homes practise loving care and support in a milieu of acceptance, welcome and celebration. Occasionally, although rarely, the possibility of marriage between two residents arises; in such cases Vanier suggests a careful discernment to discover if the appropriate degree of emotional maturity and the capacity to exercise “responsibility and fidelity towards another” are present.
Unlike religious communities, which are vowed to celibacy, L’Arche is a looser, lay organisation, made up of many short-term volunteers and some long-term assistants. Jean Vanier himself has chosen a life of celibacy, in service to the marginalised and rejected. He would like more L’Arche assistants to make a similar commitment, pointing out that it is hard for those with a learning disability, who have no choice in the matter, to watch their carers –- to whom they become emotionally attached –- leave to get married.
As others who care for their disabled loved ones would testify, Vanier affirms that the residents he has known have taught him “the discovery of my own humanity”. So often society patronises the poor of mind, or pushes them aside in its emphasis on worldly success. In contrast, Vanier confesses that he feels “far from those who are strong, virtuous and self-willed. I feel more at home with weak and vulnerable people like myself.” Seen from this perspective, society has an elementary choice: to walk alongside those who are dispossessed of brains and beauty –- or to walk over them. Writers like Mary Shelley and her creation of Frankenstein, or Victor Hugo with his Quasimodo, the hunchback of Notre Dame, provide an imaginative and dramatic representation of “the outsider”, someone rejected by the world as frightening and ugly. In real life these outsiders are often neglected or forgotten. Vanier would bring them into the heart of society –- in order that their unique “spiritual fecundity” as he describes it, might enrich and humanise it.
He asks one question very pertinent for today: “Is there a link between sterilization and death?” adding “I am deeply disturbed by the number of parents who seek sterilization for their child with a disability. Isn’t it a serious injustice to mutilate someone [without their consent]?” Although he does not refer to them, the question Vanier raises here has poignant relevance to two recent cases that have attracted widespread media attention and predictable controversy: those of Ashley X in the United States, who underwent invasive and radical surgery to keep her body childlike, and Katie Thorpe in the UK, whose mother has applied for her daughter to be given a hysterectomy. Many voices have been raised in clamorous and emotional support for the families of these two severely disabled girls; too few have articulated the prayerful and eloquent views of Jean Vanier, with his conviction that men and women already traumatised by their afflicted circumstances, require tenderness, loving friendship and respect for their bodily integrity, rather than medical mutilation done for the convenience of others.
Francis Phillips writes from Bucks in the UK.