The Canadian philosopher Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche community, has lived and worked with people with intellectual disabilities for almost 50 years, influencing thousands of people of faith, including the late Henri Nouwen. In this interview with the UC Observer, he talks about his work:
Q You’ve lived alongside people with intellectual disabilities for nearly 50 years now. What have they taught you about God?
A There is a mystery behind people with disabilities. I find that in many ways, they are a presence of Jesus. We see their fragility, their pain — and yet at the same time, we can say that they speak of God. As we enter into relationship with them, they change us.
I spent a year living in community with a man named Andrew. One day, he went to see a cardiologist. When he came back, I asked him what had happened. He said, “The doctor looked into my heart.” I said, “Well, what did he see in your heart?” Andrew said, “He saw Jesus, of course.” Then I said to him, “What does Jesus do in your heart?” And Andrew said, “Jesus rests there.” In French, the phrase is “Il se repose” — the sense is “He takes his quietness there.”
Q Someone once described you as an unconventional Christian. What do you think they meant by that?
A I don’t know. What is conventional and what is unconventional? What I can say is that there’s something happening here in L’Arche that hasn’t yet been fully understood in the church. See, St. Paul says that God has chosen what is weak and foolish to confound the intellectuals and the powerful. He wasn’t speaking about the intellectuals and powerful outside the church: he was speaking about the intellectuals and powerful inside the church.
The church frequently intellectualizes faith. But to love is to let the other rest in your heart, as Andrew put it. How many people would say that? And yet it’s right at the heart of the mystery of all the Gospels. The whole vision of Jesus is there: to live in us as we live in him.