By Kathy Berken
Here’s when I met Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, who recently won the prestigious Templeton Prize for 2015.
Jean Vanier came to L’Arche Clinton for our 25th anniversary in October 1999. I had just left Green Bay to start a new life as a L’Arche assistant. I looked forward to meeting our founder. (L’Arche is an international federation of communities where persons with and without disabilities live and work together. There are 147 such communities in 35 countries. Clinton is one of 18 in the United States, which opened in 1974.)
One morning, all nine of us assistants plus two visitors and Jean gathered at our newest home, Arch III. Instead of talking about himself, Jean invited each of us to tell the story of our journey to L’Arche. We talked. He listened with great attention.
On Sunday, after his public talk and book signing, Jean joined us for Mass in the Clinton Franciscans’ chapel. He sat among the core members, and as the priest held up the bread and wine saying the words of consecration, I felt grateful and blessed to be part of the worldwide community he founded. I believed that God gave the core members to me in this way, as broken bodies. It was such a fitting metaphor.
But it would be Jean Vanier’s understanding of the spirituality of L’Arche that flipped me upside down exactly one year later. I sat in that same chapel with the core members, but now I had drainage bottles hanging from my side, with chemo starting soon. I understood what Jean Vanier was saying all along. I heard the words of consecration much differently. My body was broken and blood was pouring out, but it was all for them. They would be caring for me now, and the line was blurred between who was broken and why. As Jean would say, we are broken for each other. This was the gift of L’Arche.
Soon after my recovery, in May 2001, core members Bertie and Mary Pat and I traveled to California joining hundreds of others for a retreat led by Jean Vanier. I wanted to thank him in person for the letter he wrote during my treatment. I found him sitting in the auditorium, walked over to him and knelt down so we could be head-to-head. I was on one knee with the toes on my other foot bent to support my weight. I introduced myself and thanked him for his letter. He looked at my “new” short hair, realizing I just finished chemo, and then drew his face closer to mine. I felt this pure sense of compassion, a moment of real intimacy forming. But I also became painfully aware of my bent toes and the increasing sharp pains radiating up my leg. I didn’t want to move, but after two minutes of pain, I shifted my weight and, as I expected, the bond between us broke. Still, I had two minutes of what I can only describe as spiritual love. He has this rare gift of loving everyone with deep compassion.
Later that week, I was to speak at a luncheon following Jean’s presentation to a group of donors. How in the world do you follow Jean Vanier?! I was scared, but Bertie and Mary Pat followed me to the microphone and held tightly to my waist as I spoke. Jean sat across from us, smiling. He had no ego. He saw my nervousness and made me feel comfortable. He was never an act to follow.
A few years later, we all went to see Jean receive a humanitarian award in Chicago. Again, I was to give a short talk after his. I wrote it all out so it would be perfect. I mentioned this to Jean when I saw him in the lobby. He said, “Kathy, I want you to throw away your notes and speak from your heart.” What? I’d only have 20 minutes at most to prepare something new! And then, they changed the program and asked me to speak first. I quickly grabbed core member Victor’s hand and asked him to come with me. It was a déjà vu moment. He stood next to me, put his arm tightly around my waist, and we both noticed Jean Vanier in the front row, smiling and sending us a lot of love. I got through it just fine.
Along with the Dali Lama, Mother Teresa and Desmond Tutu, Jean Vanier deserves the recognition of this prize and, as he said, not for himself, but for all of the L’Arche and Faith & Light communities worldwide that share life with people with disabilities so that they can be a light to the world that peace among all people is possible.
(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton (1999-2009) and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)