At 90, he looks back on the communities he founded for those with needs ... which is all of us
On the occasion of his 90th birthday, Aleteia went to meet Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, which establishes community with people who have any range of disabilities. In the living room of his little house in Trosly-Breuil, the bubbly nonagenarian shared his thoughts with simplicity, pouring out his joys and his hopes.
Aleteia: Today, you just celebrated your 90th birthday. What is your assessment of recent years?
Jean Vanier: When I turned 75, I stopped being on the L’Arche International Council. But I continued to accept lectures around the world. Then, at the age of 83, I realized that I no longer had the strength to travel. Last October, I had a heart attack. Today, my life is great. In the morning, I pray and read. I have a meal in the home twice a week and I walk 40 minutes a day. Life goes very fast. This heart attack was a shock… but it did me good. I have to be careful now because I am more fragile. But I think my head does not work too badly. And I know that this weakening will continue, whether I like it or not.
That doesn’t worry you?
My principle is that today, I have no future, but I am happy in the moment. Each moment. That doesn’t worry me. Maybe the day I’m completely physically deprived, I’ll find that difficult. For the moment, I am very lucky. I think our L’Arche communities are doing well.
At what point did you realize that fragility was essential?
I think the real sense of fragility came when I started the L’Arche adventure with Raphael and Philippe. Raphael had meningitis and did not speak. Philippe had encephalitis with a paralyzed leg … and he was talking too much. It was a world of fragility … But we were so happy! The joy of both of them led me to find my joy.
I see two things in that. First of all, they were able to draw out the child in me. We had fun, we laughed, we had parties. Then, with them, I found a home, a place where I felt good and where I wanted to stay. Raphael and Philippe needed me, and I needed them and their joy, and their way of being. The heart is made to be loved. If you regularly visit a single person, then for her, you become the messiah. Relationship is the place of happiness. But sometimes, the physical suffering is too great. We shouldn’t pretend that everything is easy. Fragility needs to be loved.
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Can fragility save the world?
Fragility is there, in the heart of the world. It sometimes translates into fear, insecurity. We sometimes encounter fragilities that are very scary. Some people reject any form of relationship, and we do not know how to bring them in. So we need people who know how to approach them.
During a trip to Calcutta, I was introduced to a mental patient who was shouting all the time. The nurses hid a little from him. With my little experience, I went to him, with my hands open (spreads his hands). He then came and he put both his hands in mine.
We can see that with the Samaritan woman. Jesus touched her because he needed her. When one can start a relationship while needing another, it changes. If Jesus had begun to preach, she would have fled. But he came humbly, saying “I need you.”
Today, there is a lot of talk … climate change, euthanasia debates … Do you think we have got it all wrong?
Yes, many things are wrong. What we can do, in the face of that, is to be ourselves. By being oneself, one becomes a model. And the only way to be yourself is to be very human. There may be times when we are depressed. It’s part of our reality. But the important thing is that each of us is standing, happy, and that we can lead others.
I am struck by the fact that there are more and more people doing small things: they have this concern to cultivate their garden, to try to be as human as possible. Take care of your garden, spend less electricity, create in your family a place of love… For the planet to be a little bit better off, all these little things that you can do on your own are important. Everyone can do their part.
We have Pope Francis, who is extraordinary. He has a beauty, a clarity… He feels that the Church must move. I find it very beautiful. He knows that it is the poorest who will bring us back to the essential, which is to love.
When there is a general upheaval, is there fruitfulness?
It’s my hope. The truth will come like a little trickle of water that will grow little by little. I see people coming together to help refugees or street people, or in the service of an ecology movement. Today, we feel a movement. I
n L’Arche, there are always young people coming. We have had wonderful assistants. I feel a desire to help. Before, we served coffee to the poor. Now, in some parishes, tables are being set up and it is the people on the street who are doing the service. Even though people are scared, we see things moving.
You are not afraid of being a saint?
Sainthood does not interest me. The only thing that interests me is to be Jesus’ friend. I want to be with Him somewhere, I do not know where. Jesus is poor, humble. I wish to be with him in poverty. Always in poverty. It’s the only thing. The secret is always in the descent, not the climb. It is in accepting that we are fragile.
How do you become a saint (capital S) anyway?
We are not always what we would like to be, even with Jesus. We always need a Jesus who catches us when we move away. He is extraordinary in his capacity to love.
The biggest danger today is the phenomenon of the need for success, which begins in schools. There is a problem of struggle between success and acceptance of who we are, with our own mission. We see a kind of contradiction between society and the Christian life. Jesus is so humble and so small. The world is upside down. The Gospel is the world right side up. It is a Copernican revolution.
What is the secret to a successful life?
Trust in yourself and listen to the little voice of your heart. What are you looking for deep within you? Listen to what I call the little inner voice. Love reality and don’t imagine it.
Your motto for the next 10 years?
To be happy at every moment.