Written by Vanessa Santilli for The Catholic Register on Sept. 3
A well-known line from the Peace Prayer of St. Francis wisely tells us “it is in giving that we receive.” This mantra encapsulates the incredible life of spiritual giant Jean Vanier, now 87, chronicled in Michael Higgins’ biography Jean Vanier: Logician of the Heart.
Widely considered a living saint, Vanier is the founder of the L’Arche communities where those with developmental disabilities live alongside those without. What started in 1964 in Trosly, France, with Vanier and three companions has blossomed over the years into an international community of homes and day settings in 30 countries, including Canada. This book provides readers with insights from every stage of L’Arche’s history.
Higgins’ 122-page book is just one contribution to the People of God series, which tells stories of larger than life Catholics such as Oscar Romero and Thomas Merton. It is an inspiring read, both eloquently written and concise. It offers readers a detailed account of events that led to the genesis of the L’Arche movement and the key players that inspired and guided Vanier on his journey from naval officer to academic and beyond.
The history is brought to life by quotes from Vanier himself which illustrate his motivation. For example, during Vanier’s first experience of living in community, we read: “For far too long, nobody had been interested in listening to them or in helping them make choices and become more responsible for their lives. In fact, their needs were exactly the same as mine: to be loved and to love, to make choices and to develop their abilities.”
Logician of the Heart also features a chapter outlining Vanier’s first impressions of John Paul II, which is a particular treat as these two spiritual heavyweights shared a moment in time. When, at the invitation of the pope, Vanier participated in the Synod of the Laity in Rome, we read of Vanier admitting that he spent much of his time watching John Paul and how impressed he was with the way he listened to each and every speaker without saying a word.
The book is chock full of interesting details. Among these, Vanier’s grandmother shared a spiritual director with St. Thérèse of Lisieux, he chose to enter the Royal Naval College at the age of 13 amidst the backdrop of the Second World War. And the year he worked as a popular ethics instructor at Toronto’s University of St. Michael’s College before returning to France was the very same year that L’Arche was founded.
While Higgins’ biography captures the details, he also clearly conveys the spirituality of the wounded to which Vanier has dedicated his life. It’s a countercultural and refreshing worldview. Higgins breaks down Vanier’s theology for the layperson. In doing so, this book serves as a call to action for Catholics and non-Catholics alike to recognize the inherent tenderness of the disabled as a direct link to Jesus. This ode to Vanier passes with flying colours.
Jean Vanier: Logician of the Heart by Michael W. Higgins (Novalis, paperback, 122 pages, $15.95)
(Santilli is a writer in Toronto.)