Jean Vanier meets Little Sisters in Tre Fontane

Jean VanierJean Vanier

This text, taken from the recording, has not been reviewed by Jean. These are extracts of his talk.

I can’t come to Rome without passing by the little sisters. How many times I’ve come! So, what do I have in my heart? I saw the pope yesterday. I told him, “You must go see the little sisters of Jesus!” And he answered, “Yes, I would like to go”. […] There were many of us who went to see the pope yesterday, and I saw him alone for a half hour, but it seemed like much less to me. I was asked, “What did you talk about?” I don’t know, but I ‘encountered’ him, this man of encounter: the eyes, the hands… I said to him, “You are the pope of tenderness”. He held my hand, I held his hand, we encountered each other… and encountering is not just “hello!” To encounter someone is a gift of communion, it is being together.

I remember, at the North Station in Paris a few months ago, a beggar with a big dog at his feet. I felt drawn to him. I approached and asked him his name. His name was Tony. I shook his hand. “I’m sorry, I have nothing for you.” We spoke a little and I asked him pardon. He said, “I am here for hours on end and you looked at me. Thank you.” And then we parted. When you get right down to it, we were like two poor men. Encounter... it’s always a bit in poverty because we have nothing to give except a look, a listening, tenderness, a gesture, a look…

For 26 years we had a psychiatrist, P M., in our community. One day I asked him, “For you, what is human maturity?” He said to me immediately, “tenderness”. When he died we found a document he had written on tenderness. It is quite surprising, a man without Christian faith. In speaking to our directress Odile, someone had said of P M.: “He is an anarchist, a communist, an atheist.” I remember when Odile, presenting him to the community council, had said, “I got the information: he is an anarchist, communist, atheist, but I am sure that he is the one to hire.” He wanted to work with us because, he said, “you at l’Arche, you believe in human beings”.

When you get right down to it, we see this mystery of tenderness in all the images of Mary with Jesus, the cheek of the child against the cheek of Mary. They are cheek to cheek. Tenderness is always linked with the body. And the Word was made flesh, to reveal by means of a body that he loved us. Basically, that’s what St John says in his epistle, “What was from the beginning, and what I declare to you, what I have seen, contemplated, what I have touched with my hands, concerning the Word of Life, Word made flesh, I declare it to you so that I may be in communion with you and you are in communion with him.” Patrick M. was surprising, because he had a deep sense of the real. Tenderness is not just holding hands, it is a way of looking, a way of listening without posing any judgment. As with Tony at the North Station, I looked at him, he looked at me, we smiled at each other, I gave him nothing, but he have me a lot, and maybe I gave him a lot… a look…you exist!...

Sister Wambui working at L'Arche LondonSister Wambui working at L'Arche London

The whole heart of l’Arche is to reveal that “You are more beautiful than you dare believe. You are beautiful!” A way of looking that has no judgment in it. I do not possess you. The only reality is that we are two human beings. I dare to say that there is something like that with the pope. […] Basically, the encounter was simple. We didn’t say anything during that half hour! That seems foolish to go see the pope and to spend a half hour with him and say nothing. And he didn’t say anything either. It is a little idiotic...and perhaps that’s it, you have to be a little foolish…

When I rethink things, I did tell him that I was thankful to him for when he was at Assisi and said “persons with handicaps are the wounds of Christ”. I thanked him! And afterwards I said to myself, that I should have said to him, “but we must work to heal them”. That would have been good…

Nowadays, I live in a little house that l’Arche transformed for me [...]. I eat my meals with the community I have been part of since 1981, with P and D…, who have been at l'Arche for nearly 40 years. Doud is often agitated and both irritated and irritating, but he is a man of God!... One day he went to the cardiologist and when he returned and we were at table, we asked him:

“What did the cardiologist see in your heart?” ................... “He saw Jesus!” “And what is Jesus doing in your heart?”…………………..“He is resting!” You see, the second thing is more important than the first. “He is resting!” He, D, does not rest very often, he turns around and turns around...he can irritate, but he is a man of God!

I live with D, with P. When someone arrives P's first question is, “Do you smoke?” And if it is ‘yes’, the second question follows, “Can you give me one?” P had been put in a psychiatric hospital in the service for psychotic children. His father was a marvelous man, a vibrant communist but big friend of l’Arche. When P was 20, his father placed him with us. P loves to repeat. He can make the whole tour of Paris saying, “la Porte d’Orléans, la porte de …”, but, at the same time, he is a man who seeks encounter. Sometimes he will sit down next to me, put his hand on mine, and remain in silence. He is a bit afraid to say if he doesn’t feel well or if he has a stomach ache, because for him to “feel bad” means “to go to the hospital” and to go to the hospital means “to die”. There is also D who has Down’s syndrome. He is small, small. He just arrived from another l’Arche community. He says he had difficulties with another person in the workshop to whom he had said, “I am going to knock you down!” I think he would have difficulty to even knock a cat down!

What is characteristic about the persons at l’Arche is that we are all “idiots”, that is we do things that are not reasonable, that are nonsense... Our talk at table is never about very serious things.

We pass our time talking nonsense. We don’t have any other language than that. I discovered that with R at the very beginning of l’Arche. We had bought a little jar of mustard and, whenever we opened it, it made a pschitt sound and a spring made an unpleasant face pop out… When the inspector came, R was there, hands trembling to put the jar of mustard next to the inspector… and the inspector opened it… and R was on the floor…laughing…! The same, when l’Arche went to see John Paul II. F went right away and sat on the pope’s throne!... It was the best seat. Why choose a worse seat when there is a better one? The few bishops that were around were afraid to do anything.

Basically, the characteristic is to break the conformity. That’s why I say that the language is the language of nonsense… and a language of liberty… They do what they feel like! Nobody likes it, but that is part of our culture, our culture is a culture of nonsense. When we laugh together and when we cry together, there is unity. It is by means of tears and by means of laughter that we become united. [...] In the end, what do we want to be in our nonsense? To be the joy of Jesus!

When I reflect on the meaning of l’Arche... In the beginning we were known as a little Christian community and many people came because it was a new type of Christian community. Today many young people come to l’Arche, but most come because they have experienced failure, a family failure. Their family is more than difficult, they have no job. They go on the internet, Google... I would say that very few have faith. Many of those who come go through a transformation. What transformation? It is not always too clear, something has changed in their head: those considered the lowest of humanity aren’t in fact so low as that and are perhaps more human that most of the people they know, more human perhaps than their own family where they had difficulties, more human in the places they worked or didn’t work. They discover a sort of humanity at l’Arche that they didn’t suspect. Their vision of society changes. Usually in society there are different levels of quality, of people who make it, who have succeeded… and they discover that those who have not succeeded are somehow the most human, even if from time to time there are difficulties and crises…

What is the spirituality of l’Arche? Sometimes we welcome a woman like P, who arrived when she was 40 years old with encephalitis, a leg and an arm paralyzed, and epileptic…What characterized her was her violence. She screamed, would throw herself on the ground… She couldn’t hit anyone because, if she had tried, she would have fallen herself.

How react with someone violent? Our psychiatrist helped us: “You know, she has experienced 40 years of humiliation. She was considered as handicapped, an idiot, unsuited and, finally, all the names that are given. She was not considered to be a person but someone rationally and humanly incapable.” She was not really considered a person! The family didn’t want a woman like that; at school they mocked her; in the street, the same thing with all her handicaps, her leg paralyzed… Therefore, she was furious with her body…because her body was the source of all her troubles. . The psychiatrist told us, “Fortunately she is violent. If not, she would be in a state of depression.” Violence is a language. When someone is violent, we can sit down and say, “How are you?” and ask her what we can do. Deep down, she hates her person, her body. All she needs is to find friends, someone who listens to her, and to enter progressively into a relationship of friendship. She experienced so much humiliation... […] The mystery of the poor is to be humiliated, to not be regarded as a person of value. We mock them. We have not looked at them with tenderness!... […] How can we transform this humiliation? How can we help people to be simply themselves?

At l’Arche, we receive nearly 300 young volunteers for civic service. Most arrive without faith, however, they progress in getting to know Jesus (not the Church very well, because many have a block when it comes to the Church)… So, what is the deep meaning of l’Arche? When you get right down to it, it is the revelation that God has chosen the foolish and the weak to confound the intellectuals and those who seek power. And it’s true, rationally speaking, what is the human meaning of P and D? What is the human sense? People say, “There is no sense, no meaning!” So, there is abortion… they must be eliminated…!

Like this young woman who phoned a few days ago. She was already mother of a child and was happily expecting a second, but the second sonogram showed that the child’s arms and legs were all too short…so, the doctor said, “Do you want a Voluntary Interruption of Pregnancy It is automatic, it’s normal... She said, “No question!” She was brought up near a l’Arche in Belgium...But in ‘human’ eyes, that has no sense.

There is M, who is in a wheel chair. I was touched the other day when he said, “I am saying the rosary, I am praying for the families who are lost in a Boeing airplane.” He saw that on TV and I imagine that he was perhaps the only person in the world praying the rosary for the families, many Chinese, 4 French… Thus, it is this mystery that God chose the foolish and the weak, and it is true that many of those at our place want to know Jesus better… […] there is a sort of attraction, because basically the mystery is, as St Paul says, that these parts of the body which are the weakest are necessary to the body and must be honored. So the question is, therefore, why are the Patricks, the Doudoules, and the others necessary? Finally, they are necessary because they are among the only ones who manifest their deepest need: they need to be loved. […] They don’t need to succeed – many people need that – but to be loved.

We are entering into a world that is going to become more and more problematic because we can now live to an older age and there are more and more elderly in the world and less and less active people… but, also, more and more people with Alzheimer’s, no longer close to reality. And we come back to the same question: What is the sense of people with Alzheimer’s? What is the sense of Patrick, Doud, David and others? What is the sense of human weakness?... because we are born to live, but we are also born to die. We are born to grow up and influence and take on responsibilities and we are born to become weaker...

An ethics professor from Fribourg, a specialist in Alzheimer’s, comes to our place each year because we have more and more people getting elderly who no longer have the same head they used to have. He gave us a conference: basically, someone who has Alzheimer’s , it is not that he has lost his head but rather that his head is hidden in time and needs someone to help find a way so that the conscience, which has become very hidden, rises back up into the body. That requires a very great presence. I would say that it is almost impossible humanly speaking.

Some twenty year olds spoke to me about their grandpa. They said, “Grandfather is terrible. He owns a business and he is the only who is right. He is used to giving orders to everyone.”… And then one of them said, “My grandmother has Alzheimer’s and my grandfather decided to take care of her”. Then the grandchildren said, “Now he has completely changed. He gives his wife a bath, feeds her...”. And you wouldn’t believe it. This hard man, giving orders to everyone, had become the most gentle man in the world, had changed, and had entered into this relationship of tenderness. The world is beginning to discover this extraordinary mystery... What then is the sense of euthanasia?

Not long ago I spoke with a little sister of the Poor. She dreams of creating l’Arche communities for the very elderly, 4 or 5 persons only, Alzheimer patients, who could come have breakfast in the kitchen, which you can’t do in a larger organization. I think in the future we must rediscover the meaning of little things, of small communities, so small that people, students, and others, volunteers, can help. I discovered that there is already a center like that in Trois Rivieres, Canada, people in an ordinary house who could come have breakfast at 10:00 a.m. in the kitchen.

I also saw something like this for street people. In Paris there are these apartments called APA, a Parisian organization for street people: 7 or 8 persons, with some volunteers, who are all single and professionals. They live with the street people and go to work according to their profession. There are now 15 apartments of this kind in Paris, because it was seen that it is in living with them that they change! If they have an apartment all alone, they get bored and at the same time it is not so easy to put 10 together because they can very quickly get into fights… but living with volunteers, they manage to make it.

Presently, the world of the weak is on the increase. We are beginning to be aware that the future will be the weak and strong together, on both the social and human level.

Today, the young people who arrive at l’Arche are not the young people of the 60’s and 70’s who wanted community. Everyone wanted community! The hippies, living together with a few cows in the mountains… This dream of community is broken, because living together is not so simple. It seems super, but the reality of living everyday with the same person at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with the same “stuff”… We can understand Therese of Liseux who said, “There was a sister who was disagreeable in everything”! And she added, “When there was a service or something where we should have been together, I fled.”! Living with this sister provoked too much anxiety... We cannot control anxiety! It comes just like that, suddenly. To have this person in front of me three times a day is distressing. It’s as simple as that... We can understand that that beautiful idea of community life of the 60’s and 70’s, when everyone was wishing for community, got broken!

When I think a little bit about the Holy Spirit, I think of St Paul: prophesy, the interpretation of tongues..., he also says that, if there is no love, all that will not do any good! And after, what is love? It is patience, it is service, and he gives a whole list of negative things (it does not get angry, it is not jealous...). And at the end: it hopes all, supports all, believes all, hopes all! That is love! Patience...! I find that in the Church we have not said enough that living in community is impossible. It takes the Holy Spirit, and a change of heart!

Where is Jesus steering the boat? Finally, anyway, we have a pope who smiles, who enters into relationship with the people, who has encounters, who wants a poor Church, close to the poor. And, as I said yesterday, “You must go to visit the little sisters of Jesus at Tre Fontane!”

Thank you for being here! Will you sing something?

What is foolish in the world, that is what God has chosen, What is foolish in the world, that is what God has chosen! Come Spirit of fire, Come Spirit of love, Come Spirit of God, Come, we are waiting!