A personal tribute to Jean Vanier

Winner of the 2015 Templeton Prize Jean Vanier smiles during a press conference in London, March 11, 2015. Pic:Paul Hackett

Meeting Jean Vanier changed my life. He was my accompanier and spiritual mentor; I had the privilege of being the leader of the house where he took his meals and prayed when he was not travelling around the world. I also organised a retreat he led at Worth Abbey for 300 people with learning disabilities, their friends and families in 2004. I don’t claim any special friendship, though he did have the gift of making everyone he met feel special.

Here I reproduce a note he sent me in around 2001, say a little about a ‘marginal walk’ I undertook with him in 2014, and give a personal recollection from my time of being in the same community as him from 1995 to 2000.

Notes from around the world

From time to time – especially once I had moved from Trosly to the L’Arche Community in Bognor Regis – I received cards from Jean from various places around the world. They were invariably brief, written in the short poetic lines he used for some of his books and penned in his small, precise but hard to decipher style. This is one of the longer ones, sent from the Ukraine. It summarises what L’Arche is ultimately all about.

My dear Christopher

I am in Minsk – meeting with
parents, visiting institutions
trying to sow a few seeds of hope
in the name of Jesus
trying to be a little instrument of
the love of Jesus.
We all need strength and courage in these
days of insecurity.
Our way to do work of peace
is to try to build little communities
where we love one another.
Pray for me as I pray for you
that we may all be as Jesus wants.
May you find the strength and wisdom
of the Holy Spirit
in your community.
Let us pray for one another
and be in communion in Jesus.
My love to you

Jean Vanier and the margins

In 2014 I embarked on a project of ‘marginal walks’ in which, as part of a course in Social Sculpture at Oxford Brookes, I would walk and talk with people for upto an hour; talking while seated didn’t generate the same response. We’d start by talking about different meanings and associations with the word ‘margins’, then look at the margins around us and allow them to shape and influence our subsequent conversation. I recorded our conversations and afterwards listened and transcribed them: each felt like a personal letter to me.

One of my walks was with Jean Vanier. I went out to Trosly and we walked up and down his garden, him leaning on me for support, as he talked about the plight of refugees and times of conflict and difficulty. This is part of what he said.

Jean Vanier and Chris Bemrose during our ‘marginal walk’, Trosly, 2014.

Further details are at http://spiritofthemargins.org

A personal recollection of Jean Vanier

I first came to L’Arche in Trosly, France, for a month in 1995. I subsequently returned, becoming joint house leader of the Val Fleuri – the house where Jean came for meals and prayers when he was not travelling around the world. I then became General Secretary of the International Federation of L’Arche Communities. Later I returned to the UK, becoming leader of the L’Arche Community in Bognor Regis, where I still work part time in the garden.

What I remember about Jean Vanier, above all, is that he was a man of peace. I never saw him agitated or anxious. He was a man of prayer. Before any talk he invariably took time to be still, listening to his inner self – the place where he felt that God resides. I would often see him praying in the chapel or, from time to time, in the oratory – an old stable converted into a place of prayer.

In his demeanour he was invariably centred and calm – except when his shoulders rode up and down with infectious laughter. He had an ability to be at home wherever he was. He was assured, but not over-confident. If he came into a room you invariably had a sense that a presence had arrived. Not because he was dominant – far from it – but because there was a sense of peace that surrounded him. He was tall – six foot four, I think. I know that from celebrating my birthday with him and Patrick, a man with learning disabilities. Our birthdays were all in September and often we would celebrate together. One time we had to stand back to back to see who was tallest. Jean won! Although tall, he had a gentle, stooping demeanour. He had a warm smile, with twinkling eyes.

Each day he would walk through the village of Trosly from his own house to the Val Fleuri – the house where he took his meals – or to mass in the chapel. It would take most people about five minutes, but it took Jean about fifteen to twenty minutes. Partially because he was a slow and steady walker, with a heart pacemaker in later years. But primarily because it was, for him, a journey of community, as he would invariably connect with people with a cheery word or a wave along the way. He was always unhurried and had time to welcome people. He had a good memory for names and faces. Even though he was the busiest and most fruitful person I have known, he was also one of the most accessible.

He was demonstrably physical. Often there would be physical touch: a hand on my shoulder, a form of appreciation and assurance both for me and – as he became frailer – of support for himself. When a core member with learning disabilities was agitated, he would often say nothing, but put his hand on their knee, reassuring and quietening them in the process. When we had oranges at meal times he was always the first to throw the orange peel gently across the table: starting an animated barrage of enthusiastic involvement from everyone, especially those who were non-verbal. 

He was humble. After supper in the Val Fleuri, he would wash the pots and pans. He would take his pills at the same time as everybody else – showing solidarity with others on medication. He had his hair cut in the house by one of the assistants on a regular basis.

He dressed simply: always the same old blue jacket and blue chinos, whether he was meeting a well-known politician, business person or theologian, giving talks, or just having a regular day in the community. The only exception to this was when he was awarded the Legion d’Honneur, the highest order of merit in France. He was to be presented it by the French President in the Elysee Palace. The word went out that he needed to borrow a suit and one of the villagers had one which, I am told, fitted well for the occasion.

I never heard him be critical of others. At times that could be a problem. Once, when I had been leader of the Val Fleuri for nearly a year, I asked him for feedback. It was all highly positive, but I was looking for guidance on how to improve. Eventually, with great reluctance, he suggested that perhaps I could look at the diet of people in the house.

He was well organised. At the end of one accompaniment session he would fix the date for the next session in his diary, in his meticulous, tiny hand. He never missed or changed a date without informing me beforehand. When you visited him in his little flat, papers would be in neat piles over the floor. His bookcase was full to overflowing, with a pile of books still to read on his desk. There would be pictures of assistants who had died on the walls and presents from various L’Arche communities scattered around.

He worked all hours and found it very hard to say no to people. One person told me that when he and his wife had been thinking of joining L’Arche they had been encouraged to go on a retreat led by Jean, and arrange a meeting to talk about it with him privately. They were shocked to discover the time he suggested they meet was 2.00am. Barbara, his secretary of many years, said that when, aged about 65, he said he was retiring, it just meant that he would stop seeing people after midnight. 

Despite meeting so many people, nearly everyone who met him felt they had a personal relationship with him. He had a ready ear and had the knack of finding the appropriate words at the right time. He was a man of great wisdom. In my first accompaniment session with him, he asked me whether I felt at home at L’Arche and whether I felt I was growing. The themes of home and growth remained key during our sessions for much of the next year. Later, when I was in a relationship, his advice was invaluable – if sometimes hard. He gave little of himself away, except in the most general terms, but I had a sense of someone who, while often full of joy, could also empathise with the pain and suffering of others at a deep level – born out of his own experience.

He was full of small but significant gestures. I have a small but treasured collection of cards from him sent from various retreat centres. Each has just a few well-chosen words, and yet were full of meaning.

He was a world-renowned speaker. One time he came back from giving a retreat in South America. I asked him what the theme of the retreat had been. ‘I don’t remember,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t really make much difference. I tend to say much the same, but whatever the key verse – the truth shall make you free, for example – I tend to repeat those words more often and more slowly than everything else.’ As someone told me ‘When Jean gives a talk it is invariably much the same. But what is amazing is how it is always a different part of the talk that touches you – and that is what is significant’.

For me, it was as much the way he delivered his talks as the content. Slow, gentle and deep.

He said that when giving a talk he tried to listen out for the mood of the audience – and to respond accordingly. In other words, to respond to what he felt was their need. Without looking at his watch, he could time a talk – whether for ten minutes or an hour – to the minute. He spoke with virtually no notes. One time, after a talk of an hour he left his notes behind. The notes just had three words on them.

He told people not to worry if they fell asleep during his talks. ‘You need the sleep,’ he would say. He would go on to ask that they pay attention to whatever was being said when they woke up. ‘It’s because an angel is touching you on the shoulder and saying ‘wake up’ – this bit is for you!’

He loved to make things visual. Whether it was the washing of the feet, celebrating birthdays or re-enacting biblical events, he had a strong sense of creativity, and making things come alive. At the same time, he was concerned to maintain the meaning of events, and not let them become just spectacles. I remember once taking out my camera to photograph the washing of the feet. He admonished me to put it back: ‘We need to keep the sacred, sacred – just as we would not photograph people praying,’ he said.

Jean changed my life. When I first came to L’Arche it was just for a month. During that time I had two meetings with him. At the first I told him that I was at a crossroads in my life and was not sure which direction to take. He suggested a number of options, including the possibility of returning to L’Arche for a year: ‘A month is not long enough to decide the future of your life,’ he told me. At the second I said that, sadly, that option was not possible as the consultancy I then worked for was merging with another, and I would be committed to staying with the new consultancy for at least four years. ‘If God intends that you come to us in four years’ time and not now, then so be it,’ he told me, demonstrating both his capacity to let go and to hang on to the sense of God in everything. As it happened, the negotiations with the consultancy broke down and I was free to return to L’Arche.

Jean expanded my vision of the religious to the spiritual, from the grand to the mundane, the academic to the practical. He taught of community and connection, hope and forgiveness. He believed that everyone, ultimately, could change. ‘If we don’t believe that we can change, we might as well be packing potatoes,’ he used to say. Above all, he practiced what he preached.

An article on Jean Vanier: Man of the margins can be seen at http://spiritofthemargins.org/category/blog/