By Dave Andrusko
Over the years contributors to NRL News Today have had the pleasure of writing stories about Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche , a community of people with intellectual disabilities and those who assist them, who share their lives together.
A friend forwarded a story that appeared last week in The Catholic Register about a new biography of the almost 88-year-old Catholic philosopher written by Michael Higgins. According to reporter Michael Swan, “Published in Canada by Novalis, Jean Vanier, Logician of the Heart has seen record-breaking pre-publication orders pour in to its American publisher, Liturgical Press.”
“I have no illusions that this has anything to do with the author,” said Higgins [at the Toronto launch of the book]. “It’s all about the subject.”
Higgins was asked how it is possible for Vanier to take “strong, uncompromising and unpopular positions” against, for example, physician-assisted suicide. Swan writes
Higgins’ answer is that Vanier knows how to state his case positively and in Christian charity.
“He shows us how you state your case without eviscerating, vilifying or diminishing those who hold other positions,” Higgins said.
The Vanier method of argument humanizes and ennobles everyone, he said.
“Here is a religious figure for whom the secular can find something admirable,” said Higgins.
When last we wrote about Vanier, he had just received the 2015 Templeton Prize, an award for promoting spiritual awareness.
Who is Jean Vanier? He is described (by the Independent’s John Litchfield) as a Catholic philosopher, and activist for those with mental disabilities whose “life’s work has been based on the conviction that the ‘strong need the weak.’” That would be L’Arche to which Vanier said he would give the 1.7 million prize money.
In a powerful piece written last year by Conor Friedersdorfmar that appeared in The Atlantic, Mr. Friedersdorfmar took the time to transcribe Vanier’s deeply inspirational remarks delivered when he received the award.
To be fully human is really to discover who I am. And who am I? I’m a member of the huge human family, where we’re all brothers and sisters wherever we come from, whatever our culture, whatever our religion. We were born in weakness. We will grow. And we will die. So the story of each one of us is a story of accepting that we are fragile.
To discover who I am is also to discover a unity between my head and my heart. The head we are called to grow, to understand, and to work through things. But the heart is something else. It is about concern by others. We are born into a relationship. And that relationship that we all lived is a relationship with our mom. We were so small. So weak. So fragile. And we heard the words which are the most important, and maybe the words we need to hear all our life: I love you as you are. You are my beloved son or my beloved daughter. And this is what gives consistency to people. They know they are loved. And that’s what they’re seeking, maybe for the rest of their lives.
So there’s the head, where we are called to understand and to deepen the laws of the world, of nature, and so on. But there’s also the heart. The heart is a very fragile part of us.
And terribly fragile in the little child. If the little child is not loved at the moment of his birth or the few months after there’s a deep, deep inner wound. And from that wound comes up anguish, from anguish comes fighting and wanting to win, and to prove that I am someone.
Fundamentally, to develop the heart is to see that in each person you are beautiful. You see, the whole thing with human beings is to learn to love. And to love is not to do things for people. It’s not to tell people what to do. It’s to reveal. What do we reveal? ‘You’re important.’ You might be important in the things you do. But there’s something even more important than what you do. It’s who you are. And who you are is something about your heart being open to others. A heart that is not filled with fear.
The problem today is that many people are filled with fear. They are frightened of people, frightened of losing. And because people are filled with fear they can no longer be open to others. They’re protecting themselves, protecting their class, protecting their group, protecting their religion. We’re all in a state of protection. To become fully human is to let down the barriers, to open up. And to discover that every person is beautiful. Under all the jobs they’re doing, their responsibilities, there is you. And you, at the heart of who you are, you’re somebody also crying out, “Does somebody love me not just for what I can do, but for who I am?”
So to be fully human is the development of the heart and the head, and then we can become one. One inside of us. Becoming one inside of us we can little by little let down the ego, the need to prove that I am better than you. And then I can begin to see in other people, other groups, other religions, other cultures, that people are wonderful. And then we can come and we can work for peace together.