The Canadian founder of a network of homes where the disabled and able-bodied live together exudes a soft power than belies his moral – and actual – authority.

Can a leader be gentle?

Our mental Rolodex of leaders usually does not include that adjective. We think of ringing orators, shouting generals, hard-charging CEOs, tireless social entrepreneurs. Perhaps gentleness is important in sensitive situations -- firings, employees’ personal trauma, even a hard day. But one at the helm whose very being breathes tenderness?

Jean Vanier suggests that the adjective works. He started the L’Arche movement in the small village of Trosly-Breuil in France in 1964. He and two severely mentally disabled friends, Rafael and Philippe, simply moved in to share their lives together. So began a movement of able-bodied and disabled living together as friends.

When Vanier, 84, was introduced to speak at Duke Divinity School recently, he was teased for bringing only one small bag for a trip from France. “You should see what’s in that bag!” he said. “Books mostly, maybe some pajamas.” Vanier wore the same windbreaker and blue shirt his entire four-day visit. A friend of Vanier’s who has known him for several years told me he has never seen the man in any other clothes. One particularly prim and proper worship planner complained that Vanier did not wear an alb to preach in Duke Chapel. He relented when he was told that the windbreaker and shirt are all Vanier ever wears.

Vanier’s gentleness in speech and manner are beyond words. He speaks softly, tenderly, as though waiting for the words he released into the air to circle back and whisper something profound to him. I asked one of Vanier’s hosts at a recent event what he was really like, expecting reflections on the greatness of the man whose 133 L’Arche houses now appear in more than 30 countries.

“He really listens to you,” she said. Before a recent preaching event, Vanier asked not for water or a moment with his manuscript, but “for 10 minutes just to pray here.” The palpability of the man’s holiness make one feel they should erect a plaque: “Jean Vanier prayed on this spot.”

L’Arche’s philosophy is to be with people in their places of pain, and ask them also to be with us in ours. Vanier often asks people, “What is your pain?” L’Arche represents a “spirituality of loss -- what are we prepared to lose to enter a deep relationship with someone different?” There is deep fear of persons with disabilities in modern culture -- Vanier pointed to the common practice of aborting babies when pre-natal testing reveals Down Syndrome. He spoke also of his own original fear of what he would say to disabled people when he first ventured into institutions. “Mostly they talked to me. They asked, ‘Would you be my friend? Would you visit me again?’”

Listen for the profound loneliness in that question -- one sparked by abandonment to callous institutions, one matched only by the loneliness in one’s own heart. Such mutually lonely people, spending their lives together is the miracle of L’Arche. “We are a small, committed, sort of crazy group,” he said. “Our hope is that the world is not crazy enough, or crazy in the right way.”

Vanier illustrates this “right” sort of craziness with reference to his friend Eric. “He had no identity at all. His body was but anguish.” He was blind, deaf, paralyzed, and full of inexpressible sorrow. And when he died in agony -- the others and doctors unsure why -- they had a mystery, not a success story. “Our communities are founded on broken bodies, they are incarnational,” Vanier said. “The point is to see his body as a temple of God.”

Vanier talks about his communities in familiar ways -- many made famous in Henri Nouwen’s work about him, which tells the story of how Nouwen relinquished the power and achievement of the Ivy League to live at L’Arche Daybreak in Toronto.

“There is a difference between generosity and the communion of hearts,” Vanier said, grateful for the money and time and knowledge of the generous, but aware of a lingering power dynamic when a “superior” helps an “inferior.” He spoke of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet as the antithesis of a leader as “someone up there doing big things,” and of Jesus’ praise of a grain of wheat dying to produce much fruit as a call for each of us to “no longer pretend we are important.” The rhetoric of giving up power, of moving to the margins, is deeply familiar and accurate to an extent.

But not fully. Vanier himself has enormous power that stems from his own holiness. People want to be near him -- disabled and fully able people, for a blessing, to learn about holiness, just to hear his voice and see his face. It is as though merely touching him could make one well. That is enormous power, of a sort not easily talked about, and certainly not readily copied. Vanier’s use of that spiritual authority to draw attention to his houses and money to his cause is a matter of good stewardship. But how do we speak not only of relinquishing power as the world understands it, but of embracing the sort of power Vanier already embodies?

Vanier himself wields no small amount of power in a worldly sense, to maintain St. John’s language. He has had entrepreneurial ability enough to open 130 houses in 35 countries. He called in monastic aids to help L’Arche in succession planning after his retirement. He has drawn on monastic wisdom to contemplate his own role, speaking of himself as an “abbot” of the community. It’s an arresting phrase, the “father,” both in a severe sense (abbots traditionally carry a crook, as bishops do, a sign of being a pastor to souls who may need to yank them from harm’s way as a shepherd does with sheep) and a tender one -- the term can mean “daddy.” How do we speak well of this sort of power?

Both the spiritual, soft power and his hard authority as founder and head of a large, complex organization are in service to a holiness one can almost touch and taste. “L’Arche is a road to holiness, which is the only thing that’s interesting,” he said. Elsewhere he spoke of Jesus kneeling at his disciples’ feet. “This is not a humble act. This is who he is, God at our feet,” who then helps us rise.

The witness of Jean Vanier is that gentleness, forged from friendship with the most vulnerable among us, is power -- if we look at things in Jesus’ crazy-but-right way.

Update: Jean Vanier died May 7, 2019.