I’ve been following the career of Jean Vanier for nearly 35 years now. And, by career I mean mission. And by mission I mean sacrifice. Jean Vanier is an example of self-lessness.
Yet so many people have never heard of him. I guess this just proves my point.
As a couchsurfing host (I host about 10 – 15 internationals per month!) I always tell my French visitors—one of your countrymen is an inspiration to me—and they give me a funny French look. Who? Qui?
In the early 60s he did this incredible thing. He took people out of mental institutions—or asylums as they were referred to back then. Or more aptly prisons, because once in you didn’t get out. So Jean Vanier took one or two men out and asked how would they feel to come live with him? To live as brothers, not as able and disabled, but as peers? Before they said yes, he probably had to explain the house they would start out in needed some work. From a story I remember reading they didn’t have hot running water and the roof leaked. But together they fixed and mended: their spirits and souls. That first house became a movement eventually called L’Arche, named after the ark of the Old Testament that saved mankind/animal life from the rising waters.
Last week Vanier was awarded the Templeton Prize worth close to a million dollars.
From the Catholic News:Vanier received a standing ovation from the congregation as he received the prize. After expressing his gratitude to all present he went on to speak about people with learning disabilities. They are often the most overlooked, the most ignored, the most humiliated people in our society, he said. In the past, disabilities have been seen as a punishment from God and often these people were hidden away in institutions.
"People who are not endowed with intellectual gifts have ... unique and marvelous gifts of the heart, and can open us to love in a special way," he said. "They are not crying out for advancement or knowledge or power, but simply for a personal relationship of love that will give them life and meaning."
In a world where teachers cheat and change test scores and were parents fight to make sure their children get into the right schools—here was someone saying it’s okay to be who you are. You are accepted for the person you are.
Not just accepted—but special:
Society is so divided, he said. "Let us meet across differences - intellectual, cultural, national, racial, religious and other differences. Then from this initial meeting we can begin to build community together. "Community is a place of belonging where each person can grow to become fully him or herself. It is belonging for becoming. We belong to each other so that each member can become more human, more loving, more open to others, particularly to those who are different, and finally more free."
Towards the end of the ceremony, a group from L'Arche came forward and laid a symbolic table for a feast and invited people with disabilities forward to join the party.