Jean Vanier: On Being Fully Human

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Jean Vanier has authored many books, traveled throughout the world, had an audience with Pope Francis, and won numerous awards, including the Templeton Prize this year. This prize highlights his tireless work in teaching that vulnerable people have a central role “in the creation of a more just, inclusive, and humane society.” 

After an ambitious 10 year stint with the British Navy, beginning at age 13 at a British Naval academy, Canadian Jean Vanier went on to earn a doctor’s degree in ethics and began lecturing on both sides of the Atlantic. Feeling that he needed a deeper connection with his own humanity and horrified by conditions in which people with intellectual disabilities often lived, he purchased a small home in Trosly-Breuil, France, and invited two men with intellectual disabilities to leave the institution in which they lived and move in with him. From this humble beginning, the L’Arche movement was born and now encompasses 147 communities across the world. (A Christian Reformed minister, Rev. Mic Altena, serves as Executive Director of L’Arche Chicago.) 

Vanier's Christian faith permeates his thinking. In a recent interview, he was asked what it means to be human. His answer highlights being over doing, and emphasizes that relationships of love form the heart of human identity:

“To be fully human is to discover who I am. And to be human is to be part of the huge human family where we’re all brothers and sisters wherever we come from, whatever our culture, whatever our religion. We were born in weakness, we will grow, and we will die. So the story of each one of us is the story of accepting that we are fragile. To discover who I am is also to discover a unity between my head and my heart.

What “gives consistency to people is to know that they are loved, and that’s what they are seeking for maybe the rest of their lives. . .To love is not to do things for people, it’s not to tell people what to do, it’s to reveal. What do we reveal? You’re important. You might be important in the things you do, but there’s something even more important than what you do: it’s who you are. . .To become fully human is to let down the barriers, to open up, and to discover that every person is beautiful. . . At the heart of who you are, you’re someone also crying out, ‘Does somebody love me?’ not just for what I can do, but for who I am.”

Another author, Hans Reinders, describes his understanding of the image of God in Receiving the Gift of Friendship. At its heart, to be made in God's image is to have God say, "I want to be your friend. I want to love you."

Both Vanier's and Reinders' insights have arisen from significant time spent with people with severe intellectual and other disabilities. We cannot understand God's work with human beings, we cannot understand God's love unless we engage with vulnerable people. That's why the apostle Paul wrote, "those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable." (1 Corintians 12:22)

What is your church doing to engage with vulnerable people? If the answer is, "nothing," then what is your church missing by not engaging with vulnerable people?

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