“The problem today, is that many people are filled with fear. They are frightened of people, frightened of losing. And because people are filled with fear they can no longer be open to others. They are protecting themselves, protecting their class, protecting their group, protecting their religion. We’re all in a state of protection. To become fully human is to let down the barriers.” — Jean Vanier
Toronto Globe and Mail: Jean Vanier, the Canadian humanitarian who spent the past half-century working with people with intellectual disabilities, has been awarded the 2015 Templeton Prize in recognition of his advocacy work and his reflections on the importance of helping the vulnerable.
Last year, Maggie Fergusson talked to the former naval officer: [A]s the second world war drew to an end, it became clear to Jean Vanier that the navy was not his ultimate vocation. Shortly after the liberation of Paris, in January 1945, he spent some leave at the Gare d’Orsay helping the Canadian Red Cross receive survivors from Buchenwald, Dachau, Belsen and Auschwitz. “I’ll never forget the men and women who arrived off the trains—like skeletons, still in the blue-and-white striped uniforms of the concentration camps, their faces tortured with fear and anguish. That, and the dropping of the atom bombs, strengthened a feeling in me that the navy was no longer the place for me; that I wanted to devote myself to works of peace.” A committed Catholic, he imagined he would probably become a priest.
While many of his contemporaries were getting married and settling down, Vanier resigned his commission and spent a number of years living in a community near Paris, combining a life of prayer with manual work and the study of philosophy. Following this, on the strength of a thesis on Aristotelian ethics, he was offered a post at the University of Toronto. He discovered that he had a gift for teaching, a gift that he retains in old age: an ability to hold large audiences rapt as he spoke without notes or hesitation, and with minimal amplification. But still he did not feel he was following his true star.
Then, in 1963, when Jean was 35, a Dominican priest, Père Thomas Philippe, chaplain to Le Val Fleuri, an institution for mentally disabled men, invited him to visit. It was a terrible place—“The men had a little work, but the doors were locked”—yet, despite an atmosphere of noise, depression and violence, Jean found it “beautiful”. “This is my experience of having been in many dark places—prisons, psychiatric wards, slums, leper colonies. There’s something frightening, but also something beautiful, a sense of wonderment. It’s mysterious. Maybe it’s the discovery that amidst all the chaos, these people are human beings. I saw anger and pain in the faces of these men, but also great tenderness. And each one of them, 30 in a constricted space, was saying, ‘Will you come back?’”
“They were literally saying this, or you felt that’s what they wanted?”
“They were literally saying, ‘Veux-tu revenir?’ And behind those words I sensed a great cry: ‘Why have I been abandoned? Why am I not with my brothers and sisters, who are married and living in nice houses? Do you love me?’ A great thirst for friendship.”
For several months, Jean devoted himself to finding out more about the treatment of those with mental disabilities. “I visited psychiatric hospitals and institutions, I spoke with families. And I discovered a whole world of suffering: these were perhaps the most oppressed and humiliated people of the world. They were called stupid, mad, imbeciles, foolish, idiots…All these words were used about them. They were not considered really human—so as long as you gave them food and lodging, you were doing a good act.” In Saint-Jean-les-Deux-Jumeaux, an asylum east of Paris, 80 men lived locked in a building made of cement blocks. They had no work, and spent most of their days walking around in circles. And those who remained with their families were not necessarily treated with more compassion. On a farm, Jean met a teenager who was kept chained in a garage.
Outraged by these discoveries, many people would have thrown themselves into pressing for reform. Jean’s background meant that he was used to mixing with people in positions of influence. Why didn’t he go straight to the top, I ask. Why didn’t he launch a campaign? “It’s good to campaign. But I could only do what I felt. All that I saw made me sad, maybe a bit angry, and all that I felt I could do was to start living with some of these people; to take a risk, and see what happened.” [Continue reading…]