Jean Vanier passed on to paradise just hours before my son, Solomon, was born. Vanier was the founder of L’Arche, a network of communities across the world for people with intellectual disabilities. His beautiful approach to life, community building, spirituality and the power of love speak to our moment in time as urgently as it did over half a century ago when he started the first L’Arche community with two men from an asylum in France.
I learned about Vanier only months earlier and began digging into his books and interviews. His message filled me with such a unique sense of hope and connection to the most urgent and potent messages Jesus came to share with us. The way he articulated the beauty of community as a place to become more human, to let the weaknesses of the vulnerable make us more vulnerable, spoke to me. His perspective of our call to love the other, not only by serving but by revealing to someone their true value and beauty, stuck with me.
His love of, and embrace of the challenges of community, reminded me of my own experience with our food pantry family at Martha’s Choice Marketplace. Our jumbled array of young and old, rich and poor, able-bodied and those who are not, and everything in between, reminded me of his descriptions of his communities. It was heartening to hear someone with so much more experience and eloquence explain the heart of what we are trying to do, in our own little way.
A touching New York Times article this week is entitled: “Jean Vanier, Savior of People on the Margins, Dies at 90.” Vanier’s work saved countless people by befriending and loving the unloved. But I believe his message to us is that it is the “people on the margins” who can save us. Communion with those rejected, oppressed and unlauded by the world is the doorway to the peace of unconditional love. Solidarity with each other is not merely noble or aspirational but the only path to peace, to God, to understanding ourselves.
Vanier is the theologian of the everyday person, and a gentle revolutionary. Anyone can access and live out Vanier’s vision of what it means to become more human, and to participate in the love of God. Anyone can identify with what he refers to as the “vulnerability of God”– a God waiting for us to knock on his door, patient, vulnerable to our response to his invitation and limitless love.
His work founding the L’Arche movement is a physically and spiritually healing force that will live on far beyond his time. His body of written work invites us to a radical but simple reconsideration of our need for each other, what it means to be human, and to become holy. He once said: “Regarding sanctity, all that is necessary is to become a little friend of Jesus.”
Vanier certainly became a little friend of Jesus. His life offers a message, so fitting for our time. When isolation, fear and rejection plague not only the discarded of our society but also our communities of affluence, we need love that transforms both the giver and receiver. We need community and communion. We need a reminder of our fragility and littleness.
Vanier’s life points us to God through each other. I was blessed to share time on this earth with him. His joyful soul is now at home, with his Friend.
Patrick Walsh is the manager of Martha’s Choice, a choice food pantry and emergency food market located at archdiocesan Catholic Social Services’ Montgomery County Family Service Center.
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