Jean Vanier & the “Little Ones”
Man and Woman He Made Them
By Jean Vanier
Publisher: Paulist Press
Review Author: Michael Downey
Swiss-born, 57-year-old son of the 19th Governor General of Canada, Jean Vanier remains the inspiration for the worldwide communities of l’Arche (the Ark, Noah’s ark) which began in August 1964. Together with Raphael and Philippe, two mentally handicapped Frenchmen, Vanier set l’Arche to sail. With seeds sown in Trosly-Breuil, about an hour by train from Paris, the communities of l’Arche now number 70 worldwide, representing nearly 200 family-like homes. Joined together under the same roof by the spirit of the Beatitudes, the handicapped and non-handicapped live a common life, breaking down barriers between “normal” and retarded, strong and weak, rich and poor. The “assistants,” as the non-handicapped persons are called, are not members of l’Arche primarily for the purpose of teaching or giving to persons with handicaps. Rather, at l’Arche, it is the handicapped person who is viewed as the teacher of the intelligent and robust. The logic of l’Arche is this: The seeds of the divine and the capacities of the human heart are found in weakness, not in strength. Thus, the strong learn the ways of the heart from the weak. The weak learn from those poorer and weaker still.
Vanier’s strength in this, as in his other writings, lies in the extraordinary facility with which he speaks of the human and the concrete. His writings since the beginning of L’Arche strike a different chord from his doctoral dissertation on Aristotelian ethics, completed at the Institut Catholique in Paris in 1960. Vanier’s writings since 1964 are the fruit of his willingness to listen to those who are least listened to, and of his desire to give voice to words that they cannot speak. On every page is found wisdom born of the vulnerability and wounds of the poorest and most forgotten. Vanier’s words are prophetic. In them we hear the words of another whose voice is inaudible. In his life we glimpse one whose call is to point to the presence of God where we least expect it. In human weakness is God’s strength.
Man and Woman He Made Them draws on over 20 years of life in community with people who are handicapped. Vanier’s style is simple and straightforward. There is no single point or thesis that can be traced throughout. The book is, rather, a series of brief reflections, personal stories, and vignettes that convey a homespun wisdom about the nature and function of human sexuality, it also communicates a startling vision of a God who, in Jesus Christ, is revealed as divine vulnerability.
In Vanier’s telling, the human person has head (intellectual ability), hands (capacity for efficiency and productivity), and heart (affectivity). For Vanier, the person is the heart. By heart, or affectivity, he does not mean mere sentiment or emotion, but rather that openness to others and God enables persons to be in a relationship of covenant with others and God. The heart is not all sweetness and light. It is that in us which is disordered by sin and needs healing by grace that comes through community with others and communion with God.
Contemporary persons live more from the head and/or hands than from the heart. But the heart, wounded by sin, by others, and by the inordinate stress given to head and hands, is nonetheless the place in us where God abides. Those who have little ability with their hands, or who do not have potential for intellectual achievement, often live from the heart alone. Through encounter with the handicapped, the clever and strong glimpse the qualities of the heart — mercy, compassion, forgiveness, peace — that are manifest in their lives. Those who live from their hearts alone — the handicapped, the marginalized, the little child — reveal to the clever and the strong their own hearts, buried beneath the unbridled quest for efficiency and intellectual achievement. The little and the weak disclose the divine presence in the vulnerable and wounded heart.
It is against the horizon of this Christian anthropology that Vanier addresses the issue of human sexuality. Created male and female in God’s image, the human being longs for fulfillment. The person longs to touch and be touched, caress and be caressed, bathe and be bathed in love and tenderness. Our deepest needs are for light (knowledge), life (freedom and creativity), and love. Most often, though not always, the road to human fulfillment is traveled with another, and includes “the exercise of genital sexuality.” But this offers no guarantee of fulfillment of our deepest needs and our most urgent longings. Deepest needs and passionate longings are met, for Vanier, through a profound sense of belonging, commitment, fidelity, stability in relationship, and loyalty to a covenant of love.
Vanier speaks out against those trends dominant in the field of psychology and related sciences affecting the lives of the handicapped that seem to view sexual activity as a panacea for any number of problems, and a right for any and all adults, handicapped or other. For Vanier, it is intimacy, ecstasy, and fruitfulness that we are made for, and these do not necessarily imply the exercise of genital sexuality. Friendship, commitment, communion with others and God, as well as a covenant relationship with them, are required if we are to live lives of intimacy, ecstasy, and fruitfulness, whether one’s life includes sexual relationship or not. Not everyone is meant for or called to the exercise of genital sexuality.
This has been hailed as the most important book Jean Vanier has written. Not all will readily agree with such a claim. Community and Growth is vintage Vanier. Therein he writes about that which he knows best: community, covenant, human vulnerability, and the seeds of the divine in the human heart. In Man and Woman He Made Them Vanier enters into that very complex and elusive area of human sexuality. His simple and direct approach is at times useful. At other times, especially when dealing with issues about which there are no direct answers, the approach does not do justice to the complexity of the issues.
But Vanier is not an ethicist. Nor is he a Christian social worker. He is a man of God whose life with the poor and the most wounded of our world presents a prophetic challenge to those who recognize the call to live in God’s image. This is a call to love, a call offered to each human being through a deeply wounded humanity.
In these pages Vanier holds out a vision of a full human life by sharing the wisdom he has gained through his life with handicapped persons. The book is a witness to the fundamental Christian truth that God’s wisdom, hidden from the clever and the strong, is revealed to the little ones.
© 1986 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved
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