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Reviewed by:
  • Jean Vanier: Essential Writings
  • Michael Downey (bio)
Jean Vanier: Essential Writings. Selected with an Introduction by Carolyn Whitney-Brown (Modern Spiritual Masters Series). Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008. 176 pp. $16.00

Published to mark Jean Vanier’s 80th birthday on 10 September 2008, this is a very fine collection of Vanier’s writings from various sources on a wide range of topics. Carolyn Whitney-Brown and her family were part of the l’Arche Daybreak community near Toronto from 1990 to 1997. While no longer living in l’Arche, Whitney-Brown speaks as an “insider,” someone familiar with Jean Vanier and with his message. [End Page 109]

The broad contours of Vanier’s life are well known. Born in Geneva into a distinguished family, Canadian Jean Vanier had a brief career in the military before deciding to follow another path. At the outset that path led him to studies in philosophy in Paris and to a very brief teaching stint as professor of philosophy at Saint Michael’s College, University of Toronto. In part because of the inspiration and influence of Dominican Thomas Philippe, the philosopher and former naval officer bought a small dilapidated house in 1964 in the little village of Trosly-Breuil, about an hour by train from Paris. He welcomed two men with mental handicaps—Raphael and Philippe—to come live with him in this modest house, christened l’Arche, the Ark—the biblical symbol of refuge, diversity, and hope. While Jean Vanier is Roman Catholic with roots long, deep and strong in its tradition, l’Arche and related movements founded under Vanier’s inspiration are ecumenical, inter-religious and interfaith. Further, there is room on board the Ark for those who profess no faith in God, but who are committed to cherishing and safeguarding the dignity of each person, especially those who are poor because of intellectual and/or physical disability.

From the seeds sown in Trosly-Breuil in 1964, l’Arche has grown into a community of communities throughout the world. In l’Arche people with disabilities and their “assistants” share life together. The assistants, the “normal” members of the community, are not on board primarily to give help to those with disabilities. Rather, all in the Ark share life and grow more deeply in relationships grounded in the dignity of each person.

The honors and awards bestowed upon Jean Vanier number in the dozens. It is likely that Vanier himself has lost count. There is chat about him being a “living saint” and persistent rumors of a Nobel Peace Prize. On both counts, time will tell.

One of the benefits of Whitney-Brown’s work is the Introduction, weighing in at a hefty 43 pages. Here she provides information about Vanier’s formative years (particularly while he was a student in Paris) that lends a fuller understanding of the decisions he made which have given direction to the rest of his life.

The selection of writings gives a good idea of Vanier’s spirituality. It is a spirituality that is, first and finally, a spirituality of “the heart,” which Vanier understands as a region of wound and wisdom in all of us. Vanier understands the heart as much more than the seat of our emotions or feelings. Rather, as Vanier puts it, “the person is the heart.” By this he means that we are created for relationship. And in the ways of the heart, the wounded and the weak are often the teachers of the clever and the robust. Retrieving the biblical sense of the heart, Vanier gives to it his own particular nuance and sees its as the capacity for cultivating, nurturing and sustaining relationships rooted in our shared vulnerability, our differing gifts, our call to forgiveness and reconciliation, our common humanity.

One of the advantages of this volume is that Whitney-Brown helps the reader get a grip on a rather slippery body of writings that includes, but is not limited to, books, essays, letters, transcriptions of radio broadcasts, and personal interviews. This she does by selecting and arranging the materials in view of three governing concerns that she discerns from one of Vanier’s favorite sayings: “Change...


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pp. 109-111
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