Stanley Hauerwas: Jean Vanier was a dear friend to me and many others

Jean Vanier speaks with friends during a visit to Duke in November 2008. Photo courtesy of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School

The theologian writes that the founder of L'Arche, who died last week, initially scared him, in the way a theologian is always afraid of a saint.

I was frightened to meet Jean Vanier. I was teaching at the University of Notre Dame, and Jean was giving a talk at Saint Mary’s College nearby. I had learned of Jean and the work of L’Arche from students who had been assistants in various L’Arche homes. I had read his book “Community and Growth,” as well as listened to interviews he had given.

I sensed that Jean was a person of holiness, and holy people frighten me. I am, after all, a theologian -- which means I know just enough about God to know that God sends people like Jean Vanier to make us think more deeply about God’s being present in Jesus Christ.

I went to his lecture and sat well in the back. He spoke with a gentle grace that suggested that this was a person who had been overwhelmed by the love of God.

He was obviously a person who emanated the virtue of humility but had never tried to be humble.

His talk was profound, insightful and wise. He was telling us that although care for the mentally disabled is good, the challenge is not to let our care be a substitute for being with those who are forced to bear that label.

I was not totally unprepared to hear what Jean, who died May 7, 2019, at 90, had to say. I had encountered some of the need he addressed by serving on the board of Logan Center in South Bend, a facility dedicated to serving the mentally disabled by providing schooling, medical care and a safe workshop.

I could not help but recognize the challenge he put before us.

As he talked, he glowed. Jean was different. He had been made different by living into that challenge -- being present with differently abled people that loved him and that he loved. For if Jean was different, it was because of his ability to see the disabled as human beings.

He understood that the mentally disabled feared that they could not be loved because of their difference, and this deep insight made all the difference. Many of Jean’s friends knew that their very existence may have disappointed their parents. Jean overwhelmed their fears by not only loving his friends but loving being loved by them.

I didn’t meet him at that lecture many years ago in South Bend, Indiana, but I was already overwhelmed by the presence and love of this man.

I no longer remember the first time I actually did meet Jean, but I vividly remember his visit to Duke. His talks were, as usual, moving and deceptive -- simple yet substantive.

But what I remember most was that he and some of the mentally disabled present washed each other’s feet. That exchange embodied one of the essential insights of Jean -- that is, that his friends also have gifts to give.

I am not sure when I got over being afraid of Jean in the way that a theologian is afraid of a saint, but being with him at Duke helped.

I discovered that Jean had a wonderful sense of humor. And he was not only funny; he loved to have fun.

Anyone that has been part of a L’Arche community will tell you how important celebrations are for the core members and the assistants. No birthday can be forgotten. That rule was a direct expression of Jean’s life.

One highlight of my relationship with Jean was the meeting at Aberdeen, Scotland, that resulted in the book we did together, “Living Gently in a Violent World.”

I remember John Swinton asking me why I had come to Aberdeen for a conference with Jean. I answered without hesitation: “I came to get to know Jean better.” I was stunned when Jean answered in turn, “I came to get to know Stanley!”

He said that I might have some insights into the work of L’Arche that were worth exploring. I do not know whether that is true, but it is a judgment I cherish.

We subsequently had a seminar with Jean and a number of academics to explore questions raised by the work being done by Jean and L’Arche.

Jean, of course, was not overly impressed by us, but he was patient with us.

It should not be forgotten that Jean had written his dissertation at the Institut Catholique in Paris on Aristotle, whose account of friendship suggested that the mentally handicapped were not capable of friendship.

Jean proved Aristotle wrong.

Hans Reinders, a theologian from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam who has written some of the most insightful work on Jean, turned those proceedings into a book “The Paradox of Disability.” But Hans would be the first to tell you that no book can catch the spirit that made Jean Vanier who he was.

The spirit that made Jean Vanier who he was is surely the Holy Spirit.

How to account for this young boy from a prominent Canadian family serving in the British navy in WWII and ending up the founder of L’Arche defies explanation.

But Jean knew that our very existence defies explanation.

He was, after all, a pious Roman Catholic. I shall always remember him holding a member of L’Arche all the way through a mass with the sure certainty that this is the way God has given us to live in peace with one another.

Jean is dead. He died a gentle death. He is now in the presence of the ultimate difference we call God. That is as it should be, but we cannot help but feel that the world is less for no longer enjoying the presence of Jean Vanier. May we learn to touch one another as he touched his friends.