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A Difficult Love

Jean Vanier

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Near the end of his life, in an interview with the Anglican priest Nicky Gumbel, Jean Vanier recalled the genesis of L’Arche back in 1964.

People with disabilities are the most oppressed people of this world. I visited an institution where there were eighty men, completely locked up, no work. They were just sitting around with quite a lot of violence and screaming. And strangely enough, I was both attracted and repulsed.

When I left the Navy, I wanted to live in community with the poor, not for the poor. And so we lived together, and it was an extraordinary experience of joy. They were so happy to get out of that institution. We lived around the table – going to buy food, cooking your food, eating your food, doing the washing up, and then starting again. And somehow, at the heart of what we were living was the message of Jesus. In Luke, Jesus says, “When you give a meal, don’t invite your family, your rich neighbors, your friends; when you give a really good meal, invite the poor, the lame, the blind and the rejected.” And then he says, “And if you do that, you are blessed.” It’s one of the secret beatitudes of the gospel.

What happens when you sit to eat with people is that you become friends. Aristotle says, “To become a friend of someone you must eat a sack of salt together,” which means many meals. We had such fun, but somewhere there was a sense that we were to be together in order to reveal the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is a place where the poorest and the rejected come together to celebrate their joy, because they have discovered that they are loved by the people around them and they are loved by Jesus. It’s an incredible joy, because they don’t want power, they don’t want to go up the ladder of more money, more success, more status – all they want is to be happy.

That’s what people see as they come here. But inside you have the reality of complex relationships and all the rest. It’s a place of the kingdom, but you have to work at it. What appears as something beautiful implies also difficulties; we have to work at it and discover that to love is not easy.

There is something very special as we approach those who only need love, which are people with disabilities. They don’t need knowledge; they can’t pass any exams. Some can’t even speak. But they discover that they are loved. There’s a closeness between the crying out of those who have been rejected and pushed down and humiliated – “Does anyone love me?” – and the revelation that God is love. It’s a strange and beautiful meeting.

Watch the full interview:

Watch the interview

This interview transcript from 2017 has been excerpted and edited for clarity. Used with permission of Nicky Gumbel.

Contributed By Jean Vanier in March 2015 when he won the Templeton Prize. Jean Vanier

Jean Vanier, a Catholic philosopher and theologian, founded L’Arche in 1964 as a residential community for people with disabilities. He is the author of over thirty books.

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