Jean Vanier and L’Arche

Earlier this week, Jean Vanier, a Catholic theologian and founder of L’Arche, won the 2015 Templeton Prize. The Templeton Prize is valued at $1.7 million and is given to honor “a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s breadth of spiritual dimensions, whether through insight, discovery or practical works.” L’Arche is an international network of communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together.

In a press conference accepting the award, Vanier said “There is also a change in the way people with intellectual disabilities are seen. For many years these wonderful people were seen as ‘errors,’ or as the fruit of evil committed by their parents or ancestors. … They were terribly humiliated and rejected. 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.”

I have not been to a L’Arche community, although I know the great writer Henri Nouwen spent his last years in the L’Arche Daybreak community near Toronto. Yet I am fortunate to have experienced a taste of what he says in my time at Via Center​. I saw students develop important intellectual and social skills. I saw students learn to control their impulses and communicate with the world. I saw students who lashed out in frustration and violence become transformed by love. I also saw my own heart become transformed and deeply moved by these wonderful people.

In his remarks at the news conference, Vanier recalled the story of a young woman he encountered in L’Arche’s early years named Pauline. “She came to our community in 1970, hemiplegic, epileptic, one leg and one arm paralyzed, filled with violence and rage. … Our psychiatrist gave us good insight and advice: Her violence was a cry for friendship.”

“For so long she had been humiliated, seen as hardly human, having no value, handicapped. What was important was that the assistants take time to be with her, listen to her and show their appreciation for her. Little by little she evolved and became more peaceful and responded to their love. Her violence disappeared … she loved to sing and to dance.”

“It takes a long time to move from violence to tenderness, but the assistants who saw her initially as a very difficult person, began to discover who she was under her violence and under her disabilities. They discovered that for a person, growth was not primarily climbing the ladder of power and success, but of learning to love people as they are.”

“Love, in the words of St Paul, is to be patient, to serve, to bear all, to believe all and to hope all.”

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