Signs of Peace
Jean Vanier and L’Arche

By Bob Wells

Academic theology, done well, is no easy feat. No matter how vigorous and robust the thinking, how well-chosen the words, how carefully crafted the sentences with which they are expressed, theological notions are difficult to convey. 

What does “peace” or “community” or “reconciliation” look like?

You need signs. Concrete examples.

To Stanley Hauerwas, the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics, they look a lot like L’Arche, the international federation of communities for people with developmental disabilities and others.

Years ago, when he was first starting out as a theologian, Hauerwas had a rough idea, a certain inchoate sense, of what Christian ethics concerned and what it would look like. But putting it into words was excruciating.

“Then I discovered the work of Jean Vanier and L’Arche,” Hauerwas recalls. “And I said, ‘Oh, that’s it. It looks sort of like this.’”

Located in 36 countries, the L’Arche communities—135 in all—are “family-like” homes where people with and without disabilities live together. Founded by Vanier in 1964, they are places that “give witness to the reality that persons with disabilities possess inherent qualities of welcome, wonderment, spirituality, and friendship,” according to L’Arche USA.

The L’Arche communities are not “church,” nor are they the ultimate embodiment of peace on earth. They are, after all, modeled after families. Yet in L’Arche, Hauerwas saw signs of what he was trying to describe. In a world of violence, they are places of gentleness and peace, however fragile.

As Hauerwas points out in Living Gently in a Violent World, a new book co-authored with Vanier and scheduled for publication this fall by the Center for Reconciliation at the Divinity School, L’Arche does not pretend to be a solution. It is instead “a sign of hope.”

“I believe one of the singular gifts L’Arche has made for Christian and non-Christian alike is to help us see what peace looks like,” Hauerwas writes.

Published in partnership with InterVarsity Press, the book is based on talks delivered by Hauerwas and Vanier at a 2006 conference—“A Day with Jean Vanier and Stanley Hauerwas”—at the Centre for the Study of Spirituality, Health and Disability at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.

Like L’Arche, Vanier is also a sign of peace, according to Chris Rice, co-director of the Center for Reconciliation. This November, the center will celebrate the witness of Vanier and L’Arche at its 2008 “Teaching Communities Week: Living Gently in a Violent World.” 

Launched in the fall of 2007, Teaching Communities Week is a series of events—workshops, lectures, conversation, and worship—that explore the nature of Christian leadership for reconciliation. The basic idea, says Rice, is to bring together a living witness whose life exemplifies the Christian vision of peace and a theologian who can help provide insight and understanding into that life in a way that has meaning for the church. (Last year, for the inaugural event, Teaching Communities featured Mississippi pastor-activist John Perkins and Charles Marsh, professor of religion at the University of Virginia.)

From the Field

Student Interns Expand L’Arche Friendships

When Stuart Harrell D’09 told people he was going to spend last summer as an assistant at the L’Arche Daybreak community in Toronto, they often assumed he was going with the mindset of a "servant." But in his time at L’Arche, the categories "servant" and "served" began to blur. Instead of doing things for the community’s core members, he found himself doing things with them.

“Through his extraordinary life journey and his witness as founder of L’Arche, Jean Vanier is the ideal person for us to bring to campus for this fall’s Teaching Communities program,” says Rice. “He helps us to see how we can connect with places of hope that are living amidst the brokenness. Together, he and Stanley will help us to view L’Arche as a powerful lens for seeing what it means to be church.”

As Rice suggests, Vanier’s life—at least the 80 years so far—has indeed been extraordinary.

Photo Courtesy of L’Arche International
Jean Vanier

A French Canadian, born to a world of privilege and power, Vanier as a young man walked away from promising careers in the military, the church, and the academy to commit his life to people with intellectual disabilities. His father, Major General Georges Vanier, was a distinguished soldier and diplomat, leading troops in combat—and losing a leg—in World War I. He later served as Canada’s minister to France, delegate to the Paris Peace Conference, ambassador to France, and representative to the United Nations. From 1959 until his death in 1967, Vanier was Governor General of Canada, the British Crown’s official representative to Canada.

Growing up in a series of European countries where his father was serving as a diplomat, Vanier as a child fled Paris with his family in 1940 when the Nazis invaded France. At age 13, after receiving his father’s permission, Vanier returned from Quebec to enter the Royal Naval College in Greenwich, England, and serve in the Royal Navy. After finishing his education in Great Britain after the war, he joined the Canadian Navy and served as an officer on an aircraft carrier.

But increasingly, Vanier felt called elsewhere. In 1950, he left the navy and began a spiritual and philosophical search, spending a year with a Catholic lay community in France, where he was mentored by Father Thomas Philippe, a Dominican priest. For several years he studied for the priesthood, but just short of ordination decided against that path. Along the way, he had begun work on a Ph.D. at the Institut Catholique de Paris. He completed the degree in 1962 and taught philosophy at St. Michael’s College in Toronto. His Ph.D. studies were to prove formative for his work at L’Arche. His dissertation was on Aristotle on friendship and happiness, which Vanier defined as “loving and being loved”—four words that could easily be L’Arche’s mission statement today.

But it was during a visit to France to see his old mentor, Father Thomas, that Vanier found his life’s calling. Father Thomas was living in Trosly-Breuil, a small village north of Paris, as the chaplain of a home and workshop for men with intellectual disabilities. During that visit, Vanier toured a nearby institution for the mentally disabled and was horrified by the conditions. 

Teaching Communities 2008

Chris Rice, co-director of the Duke Center for Reconciliation, doesn’t like the word “conference,” at least when it’s used to describe “Teaching Communities 2008: Living Gently in a Violent World.”

Determined to “do something,” Vanier bought a small house in Trosly-Breuil—which he called “L’Arche,” French for “Noah’s Ark”—and arranged for three men from the institution’s 80 residents to live with him.

The project got off to a shaky start. After a life in institutions, one of the three men—Dany—was overwhelmed and lost in his new surroundings and soon returned to the institution and the comfort and familiarity of its rules and routines. The other two—Raphael and Philippe—stayed, and gradually, in fits and starts, the three men got to know each other.

Though Vanier had started out wanting to do something, he soon found himself becoming friends with the two men. As Vanier later wrote in Our Journey Home, “Raphael and Philippe were not so much men with mental handicaps as friends.”

As those first friendships blossomed and grew, so too did L’Arche, drawing in others and gradually expanding into a network of communities around the world, including 16 in the United States. In all the communities—which typically include homes, workshops, and day programs—people with disabilities called “core members” live together with L’Arche assistants who provide help with the tasks of daily living. In recent years, several divinity students, sponsored by the Center for Reconciliation, have served summer internships as assistants at L’Arche Daybreak in Toronto.

Usually, L’Arche assistants go through the same transformation that Vanier experienced back in the original L’Arche house. Though they may arrive wanting to do something, they soon find themselves being friends with people with disabilities.

It’s easy to romanticize L’Arche and life with the disabled, Vanier says. In reality, community life with the disabled—or with anyone—is difficult. As he explained in a 2002 article in the National Catholic Reporter, “Real community is painful.”

Even so, visitors to L’Arche often comment about the peace they sense in the community. Knowing the reality, however, “everybody sort of smiles” when they hear such comments, Vanier writes in Living Gently.

“Somewhere it is true that there is peace, but it is so fragile,” Vanier writes. “It is all a gift. Not all of it comes from our efforts. In time we learn to see and receive the gift of our life together and the peace that is there. And somehow in the process we are transformed.”

Ultimately, it always comes down to belonging, says Vanier. At L’Arche, people build community by eating together, praying together, and celebrating together, laughing, and giving thanks together for life.

Such work—and play—takes time: “We need time to listen to and understand people with communication problems. It takes time to become a friend of people with disabilities.”

Photo by Duke Photography
Stanley Hauerwas

That, says Hauerwas, is one of L’Arche’s messages to the church today.

“Slow down,” Hauerwas writes. “Just slow down. L’Arche embodies the patience that is absolutely crucial if we are to learn to be faithful people in the world.”

At the heart of L’Arche, is patience, says Hauerwas. And patience, he insists, is another word for peace.

Joining L’Arche at any level requires slowing down. In a L’Arche home, it’s not just “okay” that it takes two hours or more to share a meal—or even longer to bathe a body that cerebral palsy has left twisted and uncontrollable—it is essential.

“L’Arche requires that those who do this important work learn that time is not a zero-sum game,” Hauerwas writes. “We have all the time we need to do what needs to be done.”

It’s not that people with disabilities have a special path to the ways of peace. But life in community with those who are disabled can lead to genuine transformation, Vanier writes. In welcoming the stranger, people are forced to discover the stranger within themselves. Being present to and caring for those whose brokenness is so obvious and undeniable, they are forced to confront their own brokenness, he says.

“We cannot really enter into relationship with people who are broken unless somehow we deal with our own brokenness,” writes Vanier.

It is not through force but through such transformation that the walls that separate the disabled from the rest of the world—indeed, the walls that divide all humanity—are torn down, Vanier says.

For all of us, these walls are built upon fear, writes Vanier, a “fear of being pushed down or being seen as valueless or nonexistent.” To defend against fear, to protect ourselves from being pushed down, we become “obsessed with having a name where we can be glorified, or achieving a position where we can be seen as worthy.”

“We are afraid of showing weakness,” writes Vanier. “We are afraid of not succeeding. Deep inside, we are afraid of not being recognized. So we pretend we are the best. We hide behind power. We hide behind all sorts of things.” 

L’Arche seeks to break down those walls the same way Jesus did, Vanier writes, by loving people as they are, in all their weakness and brokenness, by saying to each one, “You are important. You are precious.

“There can be no peacemaking or social work or anything else to improve our world unless we are convinced that the other is important,” Vanier continues. “You are precious. You—not just people, but you.”

In meeting and living with people with disabilities, in reflecting back to them that they are precious and valued, they are changed, Vanier writes. “But we too are changed,” he says. “We are led to God.”

“The heart of L’Arche is to say to people, I am glad you exist,” writes Vanier.

Although Hauerwas has been writing about L’Arche and Vanier for many years, the two had met only briefly until the conference in Aberdeen in 2006.

“Jean was just what I expected,” Hauerwas says. “He is a very gentle, nonassuming, insightful human being. At the Aberdeen conference, I mostly tried to sit and listen.”

Hauerwas agrees there is no small irony in having the Teaching Communities event at a major university, a place not totally unfamiliar with the quest for name and position. “Universities, I always say, are factories for envy.”

But just as L’Arche speaks an important word to the church, so too does it have much to say to the academy.

“L’Arche says to those of us in the university, ‘Whatever your work is about, don’t forget this work,’” Hauerwas says. “‘Because whatever your work is about will turn to sand if you forget what L’Arche is about.’”

Bob Wells writes for Faith & Leadership, an online publication of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, going live in 2009.

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