Monday, December 29, 2008

Gentle Radical

It's been more than forty years since I walked into a lecture hall in Montreal to listen to a man I knew only as the son of the man whose name appeared above the entrance to the university library. I thought about that moment when Saturday's Globe and Mail declared Jean Vanier its Nation Builder for 2008. The subject of Vanier's talk that day was familiar to anyone who has followed his life: His focus was on those people who, in French, Vanier calls les faibles -- in English, literally, "the weak" -- but which more faithfully translates as "the vulnerable." Vanier believes we are all faibles. For him, however, the most vulnerable are the mentally challenged or, as current terminology would have it, the "developmentally disabled."

Vanier is the son of Canada's first French Canadian Governor General. He spent his youth in Britain and the British navy, a scion of privilege. Yet he left all of that behind and founded a community he called "l'Arche" -- the Ark -- to serve the very people he spoke of forty years ago.

What struck me most that day -- and what has stayed with me for the rest of my life -- was his notion that we, the privileged, owed a debt to les faibles. In my youthful narcissism, I had thought it was the other way around. But, for Vanier, these were the people who gave our lives meaning: they gave us the opportunity to work for what was good, decent and transcendent. It was a notion which I greeted with considerable skepticism. And, at the end of the lecture, I proceeded to the podium to ask him what I thought was a worldly-wise question.

I have forgotten the question; and I have forgotten the content of his response. But I will always remember how he answered my question. He did not dismiss me as another foolish youth. In fact, he gave me his complete attention. His eyes did not wander to other people or events in the room. He dealt with my skepticism directly and was in no hurry to move on. I was aware from that day forward, as I read his books and followed his work, that he is a truly remarkable man.

Vanier's conviction has never wavered. Today, as the world strains under the enormous burdens the best and the brightest have left in their wake, his message is the same. To those who have worshipped at the altar of free markets and global competition he says, "There's obviously a good aspect to competition -- the development of the body, the mind, creativity. But there's something where we can very quickly walk on people -- I want to prove I'm better than you. [What really matters is] how to find a world where the essential thing is to work for peace, to work to build something together." It is our recognition that we are all faibles that keeps us from walking on each other. "Vulnerability," says Vanier, "brings us together."

When I think about that lecture hall forty ago, I also think about a more modest lecture hall in which I sat a dozen years ago. It was the end of the day, at the high school where I taught for most of my career. The Director of Education for our school board had gathered us together to explain how The Common Sense Revolution was going to change education in Ontario. To underscore his point, he told us the parable of the animals at the water hole. It seems that a lion wandered into a gathering at a particular African source of refreshment. He surveyed the impalas, wildebeests, zebras and other long time members of the congregation. One of the impalas looked up and noted the lion's presence. "Well," she said, "this is certainly a change." The lion -- his eyes gleaming -- responded, "Yes. And from now on you're all going to have to run a lot faster."

That particular director has retired. I do not know what became of him. I assume that he has found a comfortable chair from which to view the passing parade. Jean Vanier has also retired. But he has not looked for a comfortable place to land. He gives L'Arche -- as he gave me -- his complete attention. He still visits its many homes throughout the world. And now, he says, "I am free to do what I like, and what I like is to announce the message: That people who are weak have something to bring us, that they are important people and it's important to listen to them. In some mysterious way they change us."

As we face the new year, we need to remember our debt to the vulnerable -- and we need to remember that we are all vulnerable.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am inspired by this story of Mr. Vanier's commitment to the les faibles or the vulnerable, and to put it more appropriately in the case of the Philippines, the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed, Jesus Christ's favorite folks in ancient Palestine. Thanks for the sharing the story.