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Jean Vanier’s world of love and kindness

How a visit to an ‘idiot’ asylum inspired the founder of L’Arche

1 July 2017

9:00 AM

1 July 2017

9:00 AM

Some of the time, most of the time, it’s tricky to believe in God. There’s just too much that’s sad — and behind it all, the ceaseless chomping of predators. Then sometimes the mist lifts and just for a moment you can see why the saints insist that everything’s OK. There’s a documentary out now, Summer in the Forest, that for a while cleared the mist for me and made sense of faith.

It tells the stories of a group of men and women with learning disabilities who live alongside volunteers without disabilities in Trosly-Breuil, a small French village north of Paris. The community is called L’Arche — The Ark — and it was founded 53 years ago by a French-Canadian former naval officer, Jean Vanier. In his mid-thirties, Vanier visited an institution for ‘idiots’ and was struck by the great loneliness there. Where most of us would scuttle away guiltily, Jean Vanier made a decision in the autumn of 1964 that sent his life’s trajectory off at an odd angle.

He invited two men, Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux, to leave the asylum where they’d spent their adult lives, and come to live with him in his cottage in Trosly-Breuil. He thought it would be fun, he says. He thought they could go for drives.

In the film, a now elderly Philippe Seux explains what Vanier’s decision meant to him: ‘In the psychiatric hospital, there was nothing to do — just sit on your arse all day doing sod all. When some lads misbehaved, they were given injections to calm down. It was quite a relief to be out of there, I can tell you.’

The cottage became L’Arche, which in turn became an international movement over the years, and there are now hundreds of L’Arche communities worldwide, where men and women who would otherwise live locked up can live as family. The strange and lovely thing is that if Summer in the Forest is to be believed, it’s a family filled with unusual joy.

Jean Vanier is now 88 and, if you ask around in Catholic circles, it’s whispered he’s a saint. He still lives in Trosly-Breuil, but in his spare time he’s a sort of secret superhero for peace — flying around the world to broker between powerful players. Justin Welby called on him this year to mediate between cross bishops, and it’s said he made them all wash each other’s feet. Though Vanier’s life has been punctuated with great accomplishments and prestigious awards, it’s that first invitation to Raphael and Philippe that seems most impressive. You can change the direction of your life — you can change other people’s lives! Deep in my everyday rut, I forget.

When I spoke to Jean Vanier, England was simmering in the aftermath of the election and the Grenfell Tower fire. Summer in this city — all the railing against the rich — seemed a far cry from Summer in the Forest. Vanier lives with and champions the very poorest people. I asked him: All this rage against the rich, can good come of it? Will it be productive? He replied: ‘I mean, it’s not only unproductive but it kills oneself. If you hate people, then you begin to hate yourself. You destroy yourself and no more peace! You are just continually in anger.’

So what are we to do? (When you’ve got a candidate for sainthood on the line, you cut to the chase.) ‘When there is a lot of poverty it should be a call for a lot of people to rise up to share tenderness,’ he said. ‘It’s what the Samaritan did when he bent down and started looking after this Jewish guy somewhere between Jericho and Jerusalem. Something suddenly rose up in him that he could communicate life, and he did it to this guy who was a sort of enemy in religion. We all have that — that’s the beauty, we all have that potential. If we can cool the anger down.’


One way of cooling the anger — better than another smug-fest pop concert — might be a giant screening of Summer in the Forest in Trafalgar Square. This, I think, is actually a genuinely good idea. The residents of L’Arche, unlike most Corbynistas, are some of the least fortunate people on the planet. But they have a laugh. The documentary shows the canteen at breakfast. One young man, David Surmaire, says: ‘I’m a strong man, me. People who treat me as if I’m small — they have to stop it.’ Then he drops to all fours, and barks like a dog while his girlfriend miaows. They’re having a blast. Jean Vanier eats all his meals in the canteen. He sits to one side and gently teases his friends.

Michel Petit, the real star of Summer in the Forest, is a barrel-bellied 75-year-old with the gait and purposefulness of a toddler. In his pre-L’Arche life he spent angry decades in a home. He says, simply and seriously to camera: ‘Jean Vanier is a man who loves us very much. He loves me very much. He taught me about calm.’

To me, Jean said: ‘I’ve been with these people now for 30 years, they are super people. Because they are people of fun, they love to celebrate. Every meal can become a celebration. That doesn’t mean to say that now and again people won’t prod their next-door neighbour with a fork — this is life. But the fundamental movement from many people with disabilities, they have been so pushed down, they don’t know they’re lovable, and then the day that they discover that they are lovable and they can trust themselves, then it becomes whoopee!’

The L’Arche communities are peaceful places, but they’re a puzzle for the West. We all talk great game on equality but the truth is most of us think: ‘I’d rather be dead than very disabled.’ Witness the hundreds of poor babies with Down’s syndrome aborted each year. So how can these men and women at L’Arche be living better lives than our own?

Vanier explained: ‘Look, there are two realities, two cultures. There is a culture of power and there is a culture of relationships. The men and women I live with see that it is good to be together and we don’t have to solve all the problems of the world when we are together. They teach me to lighten up. But then now and again,’ he said, ‘you get people from The Spectator who ring you up and you have to start being serious…’

I looked down at my great list of serious questions, and ploughed on. Here in the UK, the dominant philosophy in the social services is one of ‘care in the community’. The idea is that people with learning difficulties should live not in homes, but in their own flats, independently. Communities like L’Arche are closing down. Isn’t that lunacy?

‘We did that for a while right in the early days,’ said Vanier. ‘We found jobs for people and got them into apartments and everything, but then they found that television and beer go really well together and then we had to work with the AA! The point is not just to have independence, it’s to have friends. People belong together in a shared life.’

‘If I could change the law,’ he said, ‘I would organise it so that industries can be welcoming people with disabilities, meaning they don’t have to pay such high prices, they have much greater flexibility in wages and time and so and so, that could be adapted to people with disabilities.’

Oh what a hot potato this is in England! Rosa Monckton argued the same case in this magazine a few months ago. She suggested that people with learning disabilities who long to work, should not have to be paid the minimum wage. The reaction was apoplectic, I told Jean. ‘What a shame!’ he said. ‘The Down’s people would bring in laughter to the businesses! It would benefit everyone. But anyway…’ Anyway. It’s life, and we’re all in it together.

According to the philosophy of L’Arche, men and women with learning disabilities — loving and guileless — teach us how to live. But, says Vanier, they have another lesson for us too — they also teach us the mystery of living with loss. This I find unnerving. What is the mystery of loss?

‘We all live with loss,’ said Vanier. ‘It’s inevitable. We begin, most of us, by being loved totally when we’re born — then we enter into a world of loss, a mystery of loss. Every time you lose a job, or something precious, or there’s death, there’s loss. We cannot live without this movement of loss and gain. But some people are so frightened of loss, they are just scared stiff of loss.’

He laughed. I didn’t. I thought of a life spent acquiring and keeping safe: a husband, the baby, a house, the great stream of packages from Amazon. The possibilities for loss give me vertigo.

‘You can’t escape it,’ said Jean Vanier, gently. ‘In the end, you even lose what you feel is yourself. We all do. There’s a beauty in that. There’s a beauty even in something like Alzheimer’s, because it is a cry. It’s not a disaster, it’s a cry for a one-to-one.’

But how can that be beautiful? Isn’t it just catastrophically sad?

‘We have to learn to cry,’ said Jean Vanier, ‘because we’ve created an identity of power and not an identity of relationships, and that’s what the whole film is about — an identity of relationships.’

It’s true that Summer in the Forest turns the world upside down. If these men and women, who have so little of what the world admires, can be so happy, then we must be going about things a little wrong. The mystery of loss remains a mystery to me — but I’m left with the image of Sebastian, a member of L’Arche in Trosly-Breuil, whose life is spent lying scribbled up on a sort of motorised bed: limbs useless, head twisted sideways. In the film he’s shown having his heart checked by a doctor. When the doc is done, Jean, standing beside him, leans his head down next to Sebastian’s. ‘You are so beautiful, Sebastian,’ he says. Sebastian, who should by all rights be furious with life, accepts Jean’s love.

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