By Kathy Berken
As I watched Jean Vanier’s funeral online May 16, I felt present in that small chapel in France, mourning a friend’s death.
The man who founded L’Arche in 1964 in a small house near that chapel inspired me to live more from my heart than my head during the 10 years I lived and worked at L’Arche in Clinton. He also inspired me to write from my heart, something I had to learn after 11 years as a facts-only Catholic journalist. So, when Liturgical Press offered to publish my book of L’Arche stories, we asked Jean if he would write the foreword. He said yes!
Jean’s message was our anchor in L’Arche. Find God through the vulnerable and weak. Be compassionate and loving towards all persons.
This is embedded in the world’s 140 L’Arche communities, and will continue to grow despite Jean’s death.
When I came to “The Arch” in Clinton in October 1999, Jean arrived for a week to help celebrate our community’s 25th anniversary. He was different from what I expected. Although confident, articulate and intelligent, Jean was unassuming, humble. I sensed no competitiveness, no desire to prove that he was somebody, given that he had been a military officer, a university professor, an author and essentially the CEO of an international federation.
One day he walked over to our house and asked each of us how we came to L’Arche. He spent a few hours listening, really listening to us.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer the next year, I received a letter in the mail from Jean. His handwriting was so tiny, I still can’t make out all the words, but he said he was praying for me and was sad to learn of my cancer. He signed the letter, “love, Jean.” What a treasure! Later, he sent me a card with pictures of his favorite white doves, images that were used in his funeral service.
After my recovery, core members Bertie and Mary and assistant Katie and I flew to Los Angeles for a retreat Jean was giving. During a break, I saw him sitting alone, so I walked over, knelt down and thanked him for his letter. He looked into my eyes, took my hand, and I felt a sacred intimacy. The time with Jean was a pure gift.
The board president for the newly forming L’Arche community in Orange County asked if Bertie, Mary and I could speak briefly at their luncheon for benefactors. “You get five minutes exactly, right after Jean.” What a thrill, but how nerve-wracking! Jean finished his 30 minutes and we were up. Jean was to our right, smiling at us.
In 2006, the Clinton L’Arche community drove to Chicago to meet with Jean while he received yet another humanitarian award. I was asked to speak after Jean, so upon greeting him I said, “I’m right after you; I have my speech ready!” He put his hands on my shoulders, bent over and whispered, “Put away your notes and speak from your heart.” What? Be spontaneous? I thought. But I said “OK, will do.” I didn’t have time to prepare because our talks were switched, and I was up first. With no notes and no prep time, I leaned over to core member Victor and said, “Let’s go.” We stood at the microphone, noticed Jean smiling a few feet away, and I said to everyone, “Vic, I am going to tell some stories about you if that’s okay.” He nodded, put his arm around my waist, and I started. I heard it went well.
Ironically, Jean wrote out his talk for that event. He said that in L’Arche “we are healed by the poor, and that is obvious because if what Jesus says . . . is true, then the least of my brothers are really helping me. Because if there is a real message that the poorest and the least are a sacrament, then to be with them will change me.”
Everyone who was touched by Jean Vanier — in L’Arche, his books or his talks — and absorbed his message couldn’t help but be transformed.
The 20th century Dutch theologian Edward Schillebeeckx referred to Jesus as “the Primordial Sacrament” completely human and divine.
Jean Vanier embodied this idea of sacrament as he lived his life showing us God’s love through the human actions of love and compassion.
(Kathy Berken is a spiritual director and retreat leader in St. Paul, Minn. She previously lived and worked at The Arch, L’Arche in Clinton and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark.”)