Heroes of the Faith

June 2018: Jean Vanier

By Maggie Fergusson

June 6 2018
When Jean Vanier invited two men with disabilities to share his life, it transformed the former naval officer, as he explains to his long-time disciple Maggie Fergusson.

The Scots have a word for those places where the veil between heaven and earth seems almost transparent. They call them “thin” places; and there can be few “thinner” places than the village of Trosly-Breuil, less than 40 miles north of Paris, on the edge of the forest of Compiègne.

Many readers will be familiar with the story. In 1964, a tall, handsome, ex-naval officer, Jean Vanier, was invited to Trosly to visit an asylum for men with mental disabilities. “It was a horrific place,” he says, “full of screaming and violence; and yet it filled me with a sense of wonderment. I sensed in these men a great cry – ‘Do you love me?’, ‘Will you come back?’” He visited other asylums, equally dismal, and then decided to act.

“What I love about the Good Samaritan,” Vanier says, “is that he didn’t waste time weighing up the pros and cons, he just did something.” He himself was similarly bold. Having bought a tumbledown cottage in Trosly, he invited two men with disabilities – Raphaël Simi and Philippe Seux – to leave their asylum and live with him. He called their home L’Arche, “the ark”.

“There was no huge idea,” he says, “no intention to change the world.” He simply wanted to ease the suffering of two men. But, as he shared his life with Raphaël and Philippe, he gradually discovered that he was being transformed by them. “God has chosen the weak and the foolish,” he says, rephrasing St Paul, “to confound those caught up in their heads.” Raphaël and Philippe were enabling him to live from his heart, to escape “the tyranny of normality”, to laugh like a child. They were, he says, “teachers of tenderness”. Others came to join him, the community grew.

Today there are 143 L’Arche communities in 35 countries, from Zimbabwe to Palestine, Uganda to the UK. 

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