Jean Vanier and friends 

One of the world’s spiritual giants, Jean Vanier, died in Paris on May 7 of thyroid cancer. Vanier, the son of a Governor-General of Canada, served in the British Navy during World War II, and later in the Canadian Navy. But feeling that he was being called to something different, he resigned his commission and embarked upon a PhD in Aristotelian philosophy.

He taught philosophy at St Michael's College, University of Toronto, until 1964, when he left academia to work with the disabled.

Eventually his work grew into two world-wide networks of communities for the disabled, L’Arche and Faith and Light. He became a spokesman for the disabled and marginalized. “We are all frightened of the ugly, the dirty,” he once said. “We all want to turn away from anything that reveals the failure, the pain, sickness and death beneath the brightly painted surface of our ordered lives. Civilization is, at least in part, about pretending that things are better than they are.” 

Vanier received many awards for his work with the disabled. Pope Francis is one of his many admirers. A week before Vanier died, the Pope rang him to thank him for his life of ministry and service.

Below we have republished a review by Margaret Somerville of Our Life Together, a collection of his letters.

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As we move through Jean Vanier’s letters to his and L’Arche’s friends and supporters, increasingly he signs off with just “….. Love, Jean” — the most simple and profound salutation. This book is a love story of a different kind. It shows the extraordinary flourishing of the human spirit that can occur when a certain kind of love – a truly unselfish, non-self-centred love – is made central to ordinary daily life. 

Jean Vanier’s radical, counter-contemporary-culture message is that we “non-disabled” people are the losers in refusing to accept disabled people and rejecting the unique gifts they have to offer us as individuals and societies. He writes: “It’s not a question of going out and doing good to them; rather receiving the gift of their presence transforms us”. This unfashionable belief in the enormous value of what disabled people can contribute was summed up for me by a L’Arche assistant (a non-disabled person living in a L’Arche community) who said: “You have to understand, Margo, we’re not martyrs, saints or heroes; we do this because of the fullness of life it brings us.”

Jean Vanier’s letters gently show that among the many gifts disabled people can offer us are lessons in hope, optimism, kindness, empathy, compassion, generosity and hospitality, a sense of humour (balance), trust and courage.  But, as Jean Vanier recognizes, to do that they must be treated justly; given every person’s right to the freedom to be themselves; and respected as members of our community. That requires us to accept the suffering, weakness and fragility we see in them, which means, as Jean Vanier emphasizes, we must first accept those realities in relation to ourselves. Most of us find that an enormous challenge and flee.

The ethical tone of a society is not set by how it treats its strongest, most powerful members, but by how it treats those who are weakest, most vulnerable and in need. This book is testament to an amazing example in the latter respect and, as such, deserves to be widely read and deeply contemplated.

Jean Vanier’s remarkable, uncommon “common humanity” shines through these letters. Not everyone will share his Christian tradition, but everyone can learn from him how to enrich themselves, others and our world through developing, experiencing and celebrating the “gifts of the heart” and putting into practice a “little sign of love in the world”.

Margaret Somerville is professor of bioethics in the school of medicine at the University of Notre Dame Australia.     

Margaret Somerville AM, DSG, FRSC, FRSN, DCL is Professor of Bioethics at the University of Notre Dame Australia School of Medicine (Sydney campus). She is also Samuel Gale Professor of Law Emerita, Professor...