A Poet/Saint! Happy 88th Birthday to Jean Vanier on Sept. 10th

Jean Vanier. Photo Credit: The Templeton Prize

Jean Vanier. Photo Credit: The Templeton Prize

I grieve to speak of love and yet not love as I should.

I ask forgiveness of the many I have wounded.
And of the many I have passed without seeing their wounds.
Pray for me, my brother.

Jean Vanier from the foreword to Tears of Silence, Griffin House, 1971

For me, it seems absurd that a man who has devoted almost fifty five years of his life in the service of others would pray this prayer/poem in the foreward to his book. But not for Jean Vanier.  Once a naval officer in the Canadian Navy (more than sixty years ago!) but now, celebrated as a theologian and Roman Catholic social innovator who has devoted himself as a friend to countless men and women around the world who live in the L’Arche federation of  about 140 home communities he founded in France in 1964. L’Arche, known as L’Arche Daybreak in Canada, is now active in about forty countries, providing warm and loving homes for people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them.

I have met many people in my life but no one comes as close to the having the qualities that define him, in my heart, as a holiest of holy human. I know Vanier would bridle at that description. But I write it anyway. His compassion for others seems limitless. It shines out from his 1998 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Massey Lectures – Becoming Human (click here) – and in his three NPR interviews  with Krista Tippett (click here).

Here is an excerpt from Tears of Silence:

and I am afraid.....
                    those haggard eyes
                         or open wounds
                         or black skin or white skin
                         or alcoholic smell
                         or freaked out mind
                               of the man in misery
                       strike deep chords of fear within me....
                      fear of losing my money, time, reputation, liberty
                         fear, above all, of losing myself
                            fear of the unknown,
                               for misery is a world of the unknown.......
                            terror of despair,
                                 those hands......those hands.......
                                    those hands stretched out towards
                                      i am afraid to touch them......
                                           they may drag me down, down,
                                              down to some unknown
I fear my helplessness
           my hollows
                    my poverty

you remind me that i too must die

and so I turn my back
           returning to my home
                 escaping the fundamental reality
                      of my own existence,
                           of my own poverty
                                and yours, my brother.....
                    i refuse to love......
because i fear your grasping hand
                   calling me to the unknown
                       the unknown of love

Jean Vanier, ibid

I have my own story to tell about Jean Vanier. It was forty three years ago later this Fall. An auditorium at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario was packed with people there to hear an expert on the dispossessed in our society – particularly prisoners and those suffering from so-called mental handicaps. At least some in that audience were there because of Social Science course requirements. And for some the talk was unexpected and revolutionary. It was a cry to reach out to others in love and compassion. The speaker was Jean Vanier. I had no idea who he was. I was one of those there because of a course requirement!

Vanier told story after story of people locked up inside prisons of hatred, loneliness and fear. How the key to unlock them is in each of us – it is love. The shock for the comfortably middle class audience in that place that day was that the speaker clearly felt a lot more at home among the so-called wounded people in prisons and half-way houses than he did with those people imprisoned in prosperity, wealth and success.

One story was unforgetable. Vanier had been in a hospital in Paris and seen a woman who was virtually a vegetable – locked inside herself. He asked what had happened. This woman had been in an autistic state for years when one doctor tried to make emotional contact with her. He spent hours talking to her, feeding her and building a bridge. It worked. The woman began to respond. But the doctor, unprepared for this person’s sudden need of him, stopped coming.

The result was emotionally catastrophic for the woman. She disappeared inside herself again – this time for good. Vanier’s anger at this doctor was raw and shocking. He made the point that the doctor, instead of looking on this as some kind of experiment, should have brought others into relationship with her as well so she wasn’t relying on just one person.

My other memory that has stayed with me is how unapologetic Vanier was about expressing his faith. Especially after someone asked where he got the strength to keep giving to others without burning out. Vanier went silent. The auditorium hushed. As if all breathing in the room had stopped. Then in French Vanier said: Jesu Christ.

A group of students including me left that auditorium in shock. Spirituality, love and God became all we wanted to talk about. Two days later we borrowed a car, jammed in more friends and went to hear Vanier  at a religious retreat in Ottawa. At the end of the weekend one of those students began to pray and decided to switch from a film major into theology. He later became an Anglican minister. Another student, a woman, dealt for the first time openly, after a private talk with Vanier) about the suicide of her mother after her mother had tried to kill that young woman and her sisters. Another woman ended up a few years later working for Mother Theresa in India. I wish I can say I let this experience change me this dramatically then. But I can’t. I talked to Vanier, in my private meeting, about a young woman who at the time was breaking my heart. Ouch!

Some of the others had a tougher time bringing that message to life in their lives. After weeks of unbelievable openness and sharing, that was almost painful to witness, some began to withdraw from the others. I wrote this in response to a friend who was beginning to feel outside the circle.

It is easy to cover inadequacy by strength; it is very hard to be strong by realizing your inadequacy. Vanier gives out such a sense of strength and peace but let’s not forget the anguish in his face, let’s not forget the realization of his poverty – our poverty. He filled us with raw power. He enabled us to see our ability to give and our ability to need….  He made us aware of our fear.  Many people fear without recognizing fear. It’s called hate, discrimination, intolerance. But it is fear, fear of being seen, fear of accepting equality, fear of admitting the emptiness.

I had forgotten about that letter. Then thirteen years ago a friend I had recently reconnected with read that letter to me over the phone. I was so shocked. That idealism that is everyday being for Vanier was already far behind me. Money, success, a busy family had provided the very safety Vanier had warned about years before. And yes I knew, in spite of all this, my fear of admitting a sense of emptiness!

Hearing that letter became a wake up call that the next year led me to become involved in development projects in Africa. A cartoon I saw around that time, as I now see it, captured so much of Vanier’s message. An overweight man in a suit has a caption that says: My belly is full but my heart is empty. In the second frame a tall but thin African man has a caption that says: My heart is full but my belly is empty.

Last words to Vanier from his book, based on the Massey Lectures, Becoming Human:

The loss of a false self-image, if it is an image of superiority, or the need to hide our brokenness can bring anguish and inner pain. We can only accept this pain if we discover our true self beneath all the masks and realize that if we are broken, we are also more beautiful that we ever dared to suspect. When we realize our brokenness we do not have to fall into depression; when we see our true beauty we do not have to become as proud as peacocks. Seeing our own brokenness and beauty allows us to recognize hidden under the brokenness and self-centeredness of others their beauty, their value and their sacredness.

Jean Vanier from Becoming Human, House of Anansi Press, 1998



  1. Geoffrey Cowper
    Posted September 9, 2016 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

    Lovely Birthday reflection Richard for a very special heart.

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted September 14, 2016 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

    Yes! Thank you. And what a wonderful series of homilies you and others gave on Becoming Human!

  3. Posted September 10, 2016 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    What a beautiful post, Richard. I have been aware of L’Arche for years and knew of Jean Vanier and his parents who were faith-filled people themselves. They are people to be admired and being reminded again of these great Canadian I am reminded ‘there are saints among us.’

  4. Richard Osler
    Posted September 14, 2016 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    Yes, there are saints among us. Thank God!Thank you so much!

  5. Heidi Garnett
    Posted September 10, 2016 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    I find the introductory poem very appropriate. No matter how saintly we have become we are still human and, as such, we hurt others and ourselves in numerous ways, though often at an unconscious level. And the person who is conscious of his or her flawed nature as Vanier is, would be burdened with this knowledge.

  6. Richard Osler
    Posted September 14, 2016 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

    Thanks so much Heidi. Especially during the crazy US election we are not seeing much self recognition of one’s own flawed nature!

  7. Posted September 10, 2016 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    Richard, these books you mention are on my bookshelf, returned to again and again. Thank you for sharing the wondrous experience you had in meeting Mr. Vanier, and hearing him speak…I can’t even imagine that! From where I sit, your heart and life choices align with Jean’s in many ways. Blessings to you, dear Richard.

  8. Richard Osler
    Posted September 14, 2016 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

    Blessings back to you. So glad you a subscriber!

  9. Donna Friesen
    Posted May 8, 2019 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    Beautifully personal post Richard of a transformational experience with a man who clearly had “put on the mind (in a heart sense) of Christ”. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  10. Richard Osler
    Posted May 16, 2019 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

    Thanks so much Donna. Bless you.

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