“She’s been brought up in a field of humility.” We are listening to Jean Vanier tell us a story of a community elder. This elder is a woman who lives in a nearby village, and who does not go out very much. She is a person remarkable not for achievements but for being who she is, and for how she is with others. Jean tells us that this elder is one who had no desires to be going up in the world; she has just done what she does within the context of her own village: “She’s a very humane person, very open, very loving. … She’s grown up in a human way in which the only important thing is to love. … She’s been brought up in a field of humility, like children are humble.”
We are sitting in Jean’s small apartment just adjacent to the little community green at the heart of La Ferme in Trosly-Breuil. It is a cool day in early May in the department of Oise, France. We are in Jean’s home to meet him and to talk with him about L’Arche, about his friendships, about humanity and exemplarity and the nature of the self. A few hundred meters away stands the house where Jean joined with his friends Philippe and Raphael to begin a community of people who aim low.
Jean tells us that in the community even today, “we’re discovering that you don’t have to go up the ladder to be well. It’s being with those who’ve been at the bottom and discovering that these are super people. … [I]t’s going down the ladder, to discover [that] frequently truth is in the mud, in the compost. It’s in the compost that life flows. It’s in the recognition of our weaknesses, our fragilities, the recognition that ‘I’m not perfect, I’m just who I am, I have a history.’ There’s the assuming of one’s history, which is the assuming of our wounds, woundedness, which is the assuming that we’ve created barriers in our woundedness to protect us.”
Super People: Authentic Humanity and the Founding of L’Arche
It was 1964 when Jean and Philippe and Raphael co-founded L’Arche. They saw their new community as an open place of rescue and refuge, so they named it L’Arche—the Ark—a little open boat holding people leaning toward one another, held by the sea. Philippe and Raphael and all of those whom Jean and L’Arche see as Core Members of L’Arche are persons with profound cognitive differences, usually called disabilities. They do not display the central qualities taken to define the cognitively “normal” as society sees it. They are Core Members even so, because, as Jean says, they are super people. They teach us how to be authentically human by just being who they are. By being who they are and by seeking and bestowing authentic belonging, they rescue the other members of L’Arche, their friends, those who fall into the category of cognitively normal. In turn, the Core Members in the boat find freedom from fear by knowing that they belong, an experience new to many and rare for all.
In the little sitting room, I am with a friend who, like me, is only meeting Jean in person for the first time, along with another friend who has known Jean for many years. One friend of ours is absent, kept away due to a sudden illness. We are thinking of him. The three of us feel immediately welcome in the simple space of Jean’s apartment, and we sense Jean’s joy and energy as we see his easy smile and relaxed posture. He is 88 years old. We settle in the room after a brief introduction to Philippe and Raphael, hearing memories that Jean shares with us of these two dear friends whose photographs hang on the wall. Behind Jean is a large, striking image of one of his favorite stories of Jesus, from the gospel of John, when Jesus stood up from the Passover meal, took the basin and washed the disciples’ feet, and then said to his disciples, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. … Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” Washing one another’s feet is the primary ritual of L’Arche around the world.
Normal Life: Power, Trauma, and Love
We settle in and Jean is talking about the double movement that drives so much of normal life. Normal life, he says, grasps either at a future greatness that overcomes trauma by beating it, or it grasps at rediscovering an idyllic, pre-traumatic past. “All this movement of past and present,” he says, seeking normalcy. That normalcy is power, Jean says, “frequently crushing [others] or at least [acting with] indifference [to others].” The difference in the approach to healing and wholeness “here [he indicates with his hand the surrounding community] demands a radical change, about loving the different, loving your enemy … going inside oneself and meeting the other person in their primal innocence. That is the secret. The primal innocence.”
I am nodding and murmuring as though I understand what Jean is saying. At my level, I think I have some understanding. Even as I affirm hearing Jean’s words, though, I know that if I knew these things—if I understood them—then I would know that I would be blessed if I would do them. So I would do them.
I would love those who are different. Wouldn’t I? I would love my enemies. Wouldn’t I? I’m wondering as Jean is talking, what exactly is the “primal innocence” of a person? Do I have it? Do all others have it? In what does it consist? Is it a fiction? Is it something that my field of cognitive science would be quick to dismiss as a “psychological construction”? Is primal innocence something similar to that construction of the “True Self”, which cognitive science sees as a useful concept, a beneficial fiction, a “myth”, but ultimately as empty of meaning? I am listening again now, pushing these questions aside as they try to draw me, past and future, out of the present meeting.
Jean is saying that when we feel wounds in childhood, “defense mechanisms come up, and protective systems, and then obviously protection against any types of aggression and so on, and then you enter into a whole new field, and the only answer to that for the majority is to go up the ladder; get more money, have more power, and some of this is controlled by ethics [he laughs softly], some controlled a bit better by spirituality, some becomes uncontrollable….” These are very different fields than the field of humility.
I ask more of my questions, and I am grateful for the way that Jean receives them. He is relaxed, attentive, as if meeting us again in each question. Sometimes the sound of a question is over and there follows a long silence before he makes a sound in return, replying with a clarifying question, right on the mark of meaning. Some of these questions, like my question about the importance of being exemplary, he gently turns aside: “No,” he says. Exemplarity is not important, or at least not exemplarity that sees persons as moving up. Rather, exemplarity is “[t]o grow in not being an exemplar, but to grow in just being who one is. … Every person has a mission, and the mission is living to the inner voice, the conscience. The exemplary is just to be oneself, living to the inner voice. … The opposite of peace is fear. … Exemplarity is the lowering of fears. Or to put it another way, it is the lowering of walls that separate us from others.”
Inner Voice and a Sense of Mission
I ask Jean about that inner voice. I want to know more of what it sounds like, what it says. Have I heard it? How do I know which of the daily messages that come and turn and return in my mind’s internal dialogues are those of the inner voice, those that move me lower, toward greater authenticity? Jean tells us that, “[w]ith the inner voice is the whole sense of growth of mission, and that is very important, which other people call vocation—or call it whatever you want. But it’s somewhere a consciousness of mission, which … is not better than others’, it’s just mine.” The mission is “just doing what I have to do.”
Jean continues: “I don’t like to use the perfect/imperfect, because we’re very quickly falling into the trap of going up the ladder to perfection. Where it’s going down the ladder, to discover [that] frequently truth is in the mud, in the compost, it’s in the compost that life flows. It’s in the recognition of our weaknesses, our fragilities, the recognition that ‘I’m not perfect, I’m just who I am, I have a history.’ There’s the assuming of one’s history, which is the assuming of our wounds, woundedness, which is the assuming that we’ve created barriers in our woundedness to protect us.”
Empathy vs. Compassion
I ask Jean about how to meet with those who are rejected by society, about whether that meeting is grounded more in empathy or compassion. “Compassion goes further,” he says. “Empathy is a sort of openness, kindness; but compassion is a movement, that somewhere in a mysterious way, I feel your pain. Whereas empathy—it’s on the good road—but it hasn’t yet reached the point.” The central moment of compassion is the meeting, where “I’m struck by the pain that you’ve lived”. Compassion is something that happens—when someone knows, “I feel close.” I ask Jean whether compassion means you accurately know what the other is seeing and feeling, or if it is something else? These are the questions that I ask, wanting to know Jean’s theory of mind. “I don’t know,” Jean says, “but there’s something that’s happening that says, ‘I feel close [to you].’ … Where is it situated? I would say it’s situated … probably in that deepest part, where we are attentive to the inner voice, and in the inner voice there is a movement—that’s why [we] don’t like always the inner voice—a mysterious attraction to health, which is accepting who I am in my poverty, accepting who the other is in their poverty. So there is a movement of discovering who I am, that I will die, that still I will probably need other sufferings, other humiliations, because, I mean, we all have to go through humiliations to enter the final humiliation of death. So it’s an acceptance of the downward path into death. But death is also resurrection, because all we know is that the history of every human person is a movement from loss to gain, all the way through. … The whole of the history of life, that every loss will be the place of gain, until the last loss will be incredible gain.”
Loss and Gain; Forgiveness and Celebration
Jean clearly connects this teaching of loss and gain, death and life again, to L’Arche’s central practices of forgiveness and celebration. What about forgiveness, I ask Jean? What is it? What happens to the person and to the relationship when the person bestows forgiveness? “We have to distinguish forgiveness and reconciliation,” Jean says. “Reconciliation is a coming together. Forgiveness is, ‘I don’t want vengeance.’ In forgiveness there are all sorts of passages to reconciliation, but one of the first begins, ‘No vengeance.’” Is this act in the passage of forgiveness to reconciliation primarily about the self or about the other? “‘No vengeance’ is something about self. Forgiveness is ‘no vengeance.’
I remember speaking to a woman in Rwanda. Seventy-five members of her family had been killed by the Hutu and she said, ‘Nobody’s asking forgiveness, I don’t know what to do.’ I was a bit lost, you know, it’s too enormous, and I said, ‘Would you want to kill all those who killed your family?’ She said, ‘No!’ and she was shocked by the question. So I said, ‘Well, you don’t have vengeance. That’s a first step.’ So it’s a long, long, long, long … [his voice grows faint and disappears]. Which maybe only God can do, as we experience the presence of God in our wounds.” I am nodding but I say out loud to Jean how paradoxical that is, to experience the presence of God in the deepest wounds caused by the hatreds of others against us. Those are the scars we carry that show how deeply we were once and perhaps still are hated, when others struck out and hit and cut and left us broken. He is gentle and receives the question and its implicit objection, “It’s paradoxical, but we have been wounded by a lack of real love, so the healing can only come by an experience of real love. How will that be? There can be many shades of it. But it will be when I am accepted in the parts of my body, parts of my story, parts of my being, which maybe I don’t even accept myself.”
Restorative Justice and Meeting the Other
I ask Jean about what happens in the act of forgiveness for (or to) the person who has perpetrated the wounds. After a long silence, he says, “We’re touching something on restorative justice aren’t we? What happens in restorative justice is a meeting, and it always comes back to the meeting. If somebody has killed my son in a moment of madness or whatever it is and then that person meets me in my pain, and there is a sort of connection, and becomes horrified that ‘I caused that pain,’ so there’s a sort of compassion. But that has to be prepared; it’s a long road, and demands a lot of wisdom and time. So it’s some way to discover that the person I hurt the most is the one who in this mysterious way is healing me in revealing to me not the anger but the wound.” I hear immediately that Jean has in the space of a few sentences moved perspectives, from the one wounded to the one who has wounded, from the dignity of the one wounded to the horror and the vulnerability of the one who has wounded.
We do not feel it, caught in the present, but over an hour has passed and we know Jean soon needs time to be with others. But as we come to the end, he is talking of tenderness: the central place of tenderness in bringing persons out of the rush to past and future, out of the normal, into the place of meeting. “Tenderness is a very important word. Tenderness is a gesture. How would you describe it? So gentle. The way a nurse takes off a rather delicate bandage so that it doesn’t hurt. … To listen tenderly to people, without any judgment, without fear. So tenderness is something conscious that the other person can be very quickly frightened or hurt. So it demands a quality of love, and you will find it throughout the Psalms, the tenderness of God. … Sending out messages of proximity and of love. Something very special. Tenderness.”
Jean Vanier died in Paris on 7 May, 2019, nearly two years to the day after our meeting with him. He was 90 years old. He met us as one unafraid, as one vulnerable, as one who received us tenderly. He told us stories of loss and of great discovery emerging from the dignity of human persons in compassionate relationship. He told us about seeing persons precious in primal innocence, as they really are. To learn how to see like this—to have the perception that is compassion, that is a constantly renewed movement in meeting—was at the core of Jean’s life and teaching. He learned all this from his great Teacher. Now that we know these things, we will be blessed if we do them. Blessings to you, Jean, and to all of his friends who remember and celebrate his incredible gain.
Michael Spezio has worked with L’Arche USA and with L’Arche Communities and La Ferme in France, thanks to funding from the John Templeton Foundation, the Templeton Religion Trust, and the Self, Motivation, and Virtue Project. He is grateful for the generosity and kindness of Jean and of all the Core Members and Assistants who contributed to the projects. He gratefully acknowledges the friendship and scholarly contributions of Robert C. Roberts, Gregory Peterson, Sister Anita Maroun, and all of those who worked together on the research.