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Founder of L’Arche wins Templeton Prize, asks “What does it mean to be fully human?”

by | Mar 17, 2015

By Dave Andrusko

Jean Vanier

Jean Vanier

A hardy thanks to Conor Friedersdorfmar for a terrific post at the Atlantic webpage.

His subject is an amazing man, Jean Vanier. The occasion is that Mr. Vanier, a Catholic priest and philosopher, is the 2015 winner of the Templeton Prize, an award for promoting spiritual awareness.

Friedersdorf did two especially helpful things. He linked to a story in the Independent newspaper and then transcribed Mr. Vanier’s remarks from a video made in conjunction with the $1.7 million prize.

In that video Vanier took up the question of our day, or any day:”What does it mean to be fully human?”

Who is Jean Vanier? He is described (by the Independent’s John Litchfield) as a Catholic philosopher, and activist for those with mental disabilities whose “life’s work has been based on the conviction that the ‘strong need the weak.’” That would be L’Arche to which Vanier said he would give the Templeton Prize money.

Some of you may know him (as do I) by way of Henri Nouwen, the immensely influential Catholic priest and philosopher who after decades in academia went on to work with people with mental and physical disabilities at the L’Arche Daybreak community in Richmond Hills, Ontario.

Litchfield writes

L’Arche, which has 147 communities around the world in which the mentally disabled live with the mentally able. “It will certainly go to help the poorer communities, maybe the one in Bangladesh,” he said. Mr. Vanier is a Canadian, born in Switzerland, who once served in the Royal Navy and has lived most of his life in France. In 1964, he invited two mentally disabled men to leave their abusive institution and live with him in a small house in a village near Compiègne, 60 miles north of Paris. He still lives there.

Half a century later, the idea of L’Arche – or “the arc” – has spread around the globe. Mr. Vanier has written 30 books on religion, normality, success and tolerance.

Here are Vanier’s powerful remarks, as transcribed by Conor Friedersdorfmar:

To be fully human is really to discover who I am. And who am I? I’m a member 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 a story of accepting that we are fragile.

To discover who I am is also to discover a unity between my head and my heart. The head we are called to grow, to understand, and to work through things. But the heart is something else. It is about concern by others. We are born into a relationship. And that relationship that we all lived is a relationship with our mom. We were so small. So weak. So fragile. And we heard the words which are the most important, and maybe the words we need to hear all our life: I love you as you are. You are my beloved son or my beloved daughter. And this is what gives consistency to people. They know they are loved. And that’s what they’re seeking, maybe for the rest of their lives.

So there’s the head, where we are called to understand and to deepen the laws of the world, of nature, and so on. But there’s also the heart. The heart is a very fragile part of us.

And terribly fragile in the little child. If the little child is not loved at the moment of his birth or the few months after there’s a deep, deep inner wound. And from that wound comes up anguish, from anguish comes fighting and wanting to win, and to prove that I am someone.

Fundamentally, to develop the heart is to see that in each person you are beautiful. You see, the whole thing with human beings is to learn to love. And 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. And who you are is something about your heart by being open to others. A heart that is not filled with fear.

The problem today is that many people are filled with fear. They are frightened of people, frightened of losing. And because people are filled with fear they can no longer be open to others. They’re protecting themselves, protecting their class, protecting their group, protecting their religion. We’re all in a state of protection. To become fully human is to let down the barriers, to open up. And to discover that every person is beautiful. Under all the jobs they’re doing, their responsibilities, there is you. And you, at the heart of who you are, you’re somebody also crying out, “Does somebody love me not just for what I can do, but for who I am?”

So to be fully human is the development of the heart and the head, and then we can become one. One inside of us. Becoming one inside of us we can little by little let down the ego, the need to prove that I am better than you. And then I can begin to see in other people, other groups, other religions, other cultures, that people are wonderful. And then we can come and we can work for peace together.

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