As someone who writes about theology and disability, Jean Vanier’s shadow has long loomed over my research. In fact, to be perfectly, painfully honest: I’ve spent the better part of my (still very young) career trying to move outside that shadow. As someone who has no direct connection to l’Arche aside from a shared investment in the dignity and flourishing of the IDD (intellectual and developmental disabilities) community, I resisted reviewers and conference commentators that wanted to draw (generally unfavorable) comparisons between the fieldsite where I was doing my ethnographic work and l’Arche communities. These comparisons always frustrated me because I knew that Vanier meant for l’Arche to be the start of conversations about inclusion, not the end of them.
Insofar as Vanier held a compelling vision of inclusive community, insofar as he was a prophet of his time in viewing disability as a part of our fragile human nature, not a disease or problem to be removed, insofar as he reminded us that relationships between nondisabled and disabled are grounded in mutuality and reciprocity instead of charity, his legacy is utterly invaluable. As I’ve moved through academic and pastoral spaces that share my interests in disability, it has become clear that Vanier’s legacy is already being built. I encountered no fewer than five dissertations on l’Arche and Vanier, and a flurry of further work started following his Templeton Prize. At least two major works on theology and IDD feature l’Arche communities. And my current institution requires most sections of our first-year seminar course to assign Vanier’s writings as a common core text. Even just today, it is clear that Vanier had an impact well beyond either the academic or pastoral circles I move in: his work draws in anyone who cares about community, relationship, or experiences of sheer human vulnerability.
But I have found that many Christians are eager to engage Vanier’s challenges to the world, and not the challenges to the Church. Vanier was not only a prophet standing against lingering eugenicist views of IDD or ever-growing neoliberal individualism, he was a prophet that called the Church to be better, to live more like the Body of Christ. L’Arche was never meant to replace inclusion within Church and parish spaces, but all too often temporarily-able bodied Christians use these communities to implicitly excuse themselves from the hard task of de-centering ableism. “See how noble their work is!” said sincerely, putting the them over there, not an us, present here. “It’s great to have L’Arche!” And the sentence ends, leaving unsaid: so we don’t need to worry about accessibility of our physical spaces or inclusion in our parish communities.
The challenges that Vanier brings to the Church cannot be forgotten, especially since they are so often given not by declarative statements, but by the quiet, everyday practices of l’Arche communities. Vanier saw a great deal of beauty in our Church and in our faith, but he wasn’t overly preoccupied with theologizing, per se. He instead preferred to simply be present. Vanier once recalled received a peculiar warning from Anglican theologian (and dear friend to Vanier) David Ford, that “In l’Arche you have a wonderful spirituality, but if you don’t have a good theology, this spirituality will peter out” (Vanier, “The Fragility of L’Arche,” 21). The warning, taken on its own, is not wrong – bad theology does lead to unsustainable spirituality. Yet, L’Arche is less about orthodoxy than it is about orthopraxis. The practices of L’Arche have something to say to us about theology, about bringing the vulnerable to the center of our Church.
Usually, after a statement like that, there’s an addendum: we bring the vulnerable into the center of our church because it teaches us (as distinct from them) something, something diversity, something something shared human vulnerability. But allow me to be meta for a moment: learning from l’Arche is optional. Vanier’s call and l’Arche’s raison d’être was never about the nondisabled, but about the disabled. Learn from it we may, but the core of l’Arche (quite literally – those with IDD are called “core members”) was always community among and with the disabled. And while many a writer (and not infrequently Vanier himself) has invoked l’Arche as a place of learning, it would not only be a mistake, but would be antithetical to the heart of l’Arche and Vanier’s legacy to instrumentalize those core members for the sake of our own moral and spiritual improvement.
L’Arche has also been commended as an exemplar of unity-in-diversity, and its success at that comes by first and foremost recognizing diversity. This is profoundly illustrated by the slow shift from being almost exclusively Catholic communities, to being sites of extraordinary ecumenical and interreligious practices. This, too, is an extension of Vanier’s visions of a radical commitment to poor, to the Gospels, to Christ. L’Arche, started with a strong tradition of open-table hospitality and daily communion (One Bread, One Body, 6); today l’Arche communities host a plurality of spiritual and liturgical practices, from Holy Week footwashings and re-enactments of the Crucifixion and Resurrection in Lambeth of London (One Bread, One Body, 11-13) to Hindu prayer rooms and shared morning and evening prayer in the community Asha Niketan of Calcutta (One Bread, One Body, 29-31). This diversity has blossomed because Vanier put persons – specifically, core members – first. It is not a unity that overlooks difference, but a unity made possible by attention to difference.
Despite the resistance I have experienced in my own work to directly engaging Vanier and l’Arche, I have still learned a great deal from encountering Vanier’s theology, his orthopraxis. Like Vanier, I recognize the importance of meeting others in their embodied vulnerability, and recognizing that vulnerability in the way we talk about faith, religion, and ethics. My desire to pursue ethnographic research is in large part a way of listening – listening beyond text, beyond words – to what vulnerable bodies have to say. Vanier and l’Arche offer us a challenging, but nonetheless life-giving vision of solidarity, of living into and celebrating the differences across our fragile human bodies. Let us keep that challenge alive, not just for the sake of Vanier’s legacy, but for the life of the Church.
Jean Vanier “The Fragility of L’Arche and the Friendship of God,” Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness (InterVarsity Press Books, 2009): 23.
—–. One Bread, One Body: The Ecumenical Experience of L’Arche. Leominster, England: Gracewing, 1997.
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