By Amy Hauptman

Learning What It Means to Be Fully Human

Jean Vanier, coauthor with Stanley Hauerwas of the InterVarsity Press book Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness, is the 2015 recipient of the prestigious Templeton Prize. Valued at $1.7 million, the award is given annually to someone whose work affirms the spiritual dimension of life in some way and who has contributed to the world a broader vision about what it means to be human. Vanier formally accepted the prize at a ceremony on May 18 at the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields in London.

As the founder of L’Arche, a network of communities around the world in which people with and without disabilities live together in mutual friendship, Vanier has been changing society’s perception of those with disabilities for many years. In his statement to the Templeton Foundation upon learning of his award, he said, “For many years these wonderful people [people with intellectual disabilities] were seen as ‘errors,’ or as the fruit of evil committed by their parents or ancestors. . . . Today we are discovering that these people have a wealth of human qualities that can change the hearts of those caught up in the culture of winning and of power.”

The Path to L’Arche

Growing up, Vanier didn’t have any plans to work with those on the margins of society. As he writes in Living Gently in a Violent World, “I knew a little about where I was coming from, but I wasn’t quite sure where I was going to.” The son of a lawyer, diplomat, and highly decorated soldier, Vanier entered Dartmouth Naval College as a thirteen-year-old, intent on becoming part of the British Royal Navy.

His parents, however, had already modeled for him a deep care for the most vulnerable. During World War II, for example, they used their diplomatic power to help Jews fleeing from Hitler acquire Canadian passports, and his mother worked with the Red Cross, serving victims who’d been held in concentration camps.

God also used Vanier’s time as a Naval officer to move him toward his lifework. Long periods of solitude on ships became times of prayer for him, during which he sensed God calling him to something besides the life of an officer. “I left the Navy in 1950, not knowing why I’d left except that I had been propelled into the gospel,” he writes. Through more prayer, theological studies, and relationships with activists, monks, and priests over the next several years, he began to discern a call from God to work with people on the margins of society.

An invitation in 1963 from a friend serving as a chaplain at an institution for people with disabilities opened Vanier’s eyes to their plight. As he visited psychiatric hospitals and similar institutions in the area, he “discovered the terrible ways people with disabilities were treated” (Living Gently).

A year later, he invited two men who were intellectually disabled to live with him as friends in a small house—which he named L’Arche, French for “ark” (a nod to Noah’s ark and an expression of his desire for the home to be a safe “boat” for people in pain to live) and “arch” (symbolizing a bridge that connects earth and heaven)—in Trosly-Breuil, a city north of Paris. The transformation he and others who visited the home experienced from living in community led to the birth of the L’Arche movement, which today includes 147 communities in 35 nations and 1,500 Faith and Light support groups in 82 nations.

Transformation through L’Arche

The power of the model is the mutual transformation that occurs when everyone in the community is viewed as a precious human being, made in God’s image. There is not caregiver and care receiver; those who live in L’Arche communities are friends who meet on the grounds of their common humanity. And both are changed. As Vanier said in the March 11 press conference for his award,

People with intellectual disabilities . . . are essentially people of the heart. When they meet others they do not have a hidden agenda for power or for success. Their . . . fundamental cry is for a relationship, a meeting heart to heart. It is this meeting that awakens them, opens them up to life, and calls them forth to love in great simplicity, freedom and openness. When those ingrained in a culture of winning and of individual success really meet them, and enter into friendship with them, something amazing and wonderful happens. They too are opened up to love and even to God. They are changed at a very deep level.

InterVarsity students in the northwest are getting a taste of this transformation. Students from the chapter at Montana State University spent their spring break at Tahoma Hope, a L’Arche community in Tacoma, Washington. Sophomore Katya Peterson reflected after the trip: “While working at the L’Arche farm, . . . we employed our individual gifts, because, in the spirit of L’Arche, ‘together we are better.’ It was a life-changing week, and I can’t wait to go back next year!”

The Templeton Prize will allow Vanier, now 86, to continue the vital work of L’Arche—and that’s good news for both those with disabilities and those without. The coming together of those whom society typically labels as “the weak” and “the strong” remains a tangible expression of the gospel in a world that often assigns value to people based on external capabilities. As Vanier puts it in Living Gently in a Violent World:

We have to come back to the gospel vision. When I reflect on the gospel vision, I find that it is incredible. It is a promise that we human beings can get together. It is a vision of unity, peace and acceptance. It is a promise that the walls between people and between groups can fall, but this will not be accomplished by force. It will come about through a change of heart—through transformation.

For more information, see the Templeton Prize website and the press release from InterVarsity Press. Photo of Jean Vanier by Elodie Perriot.