Michael Higgins’ profound admiration for Jean Vanier suffuses this little book — one in the excellent “People of God” series published by Novalis. A gifted writer, in just a little over a hundred pages Higgins traces the life journey of Jean Vanier and highlights not only his subject’s significant achievements and contributions — above all the founding and nurturing of the L’Arche movement and Faith and Light (which he co-founded) — but also his humanity. He aptly calls Vanier “the philosopher-activist par excellence.”
Higgins has a gift for relating Vanier’s life and actions to the larger intellectual and often theological context: “he was being called to trust his intuition, his conscience, the ‘aboriginal Vicar of Christ’ as Newman would argue.” Without getting caught up in theological discussion, Higgins points out how Vanier’s early thinking reflected Thomist and Aristotelian notions. Similarly, in a few strokes he situates Jean Vanier’s personal growth in understanding and vision and his ability to bring together theory and practice in the context of his heritage and of the times — the trust of his father whom he profoundly loved and respected, the impact of the Second World War and its aftermath, the theological currents in the Roman Catholic Church in the 1950s and 60s, the Spirit of Vatican II, and pre-and post-conciliar lay communities.
He notes Vanier’s ability to find common ground and form trusting friendships with others — Sue Mosteller, CSJ (to whom the book is dedicated), Pope Jean-Paul II, Henri Nouwen. In fact, the one place where the book stumbles is the chapter on Vanier and Nouwen. The title, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” is hardly consistent with the content and the “rich reciprocity” that Higgins describes as existing between them, and the chapter inserts Vanier into the Daybreak story of Nouwen as though Vanier were present at events, where that was not the case.
Higgins highlights Vanier’s gift for articulating “an authentic humanism” that led to the enormous success of his Massey Lectures (Becoming Human) and to his becoming a best-selling author. Vanier’s compassion, his capacity for self-reflection, his growing internationalism, his commitment to nurture peace, and his efforts to break down barriers not only between people with and without intellectual disabilities but between churches and religions and ethnic groups, are highlighted.
In many ways the full ripeness of Vanier’s life is revealed in the past decade in his singular sustained reflection on the Gospel of John. Higgins captures admirably the remarkable legacy of Vanier as he lives into his later 80s — his keen intellect wedded to a living faith, his compassion, his commitment to the poor, his capacity to read the signs of the times and continually to go ever deeper in his own reflection.
Porter is a longtime member of the L’Arche Daybreak community.