Saturday, August 29, 2009

Our Life Together: A Memoir in Letters

By Jean Vanier, $ 32.95, 565 pages hardcover, Harper Collins.

“[W]e can and must work on the wound of rejection, by giving new confidence, encouragement and support to those who are weak and who live in a world that seems only for those who are strong. Our second objective is to create a community spirit for those who are living in our homes and who, for one reason or another, are not called to complete autonomy.”

These words and letters reveal the more intimate side of Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche, communities that welcome people with mental limitations and those who want to live with them and help them. This intimacy does not show a different Jean Vanier, because any of his books display the same humility, honest struggle to live the gospel, and even fresh innocence.

Our Life Together does reveal how Vanier lived the more banal and difficult momentsently get out of whack when weng up and then participating in vaOn a trip to Russia in 1990, and feeling the newfound sense of freedom in the air, he writes that

“The Russian Church has such a deep sense of what is sacrednd shows a straightforward, Jesus- and community-oriented spirituality, as in this one from India, 1973:

“I went into a church not far from the station. It was large and deserted, and had a marble floor. There were about twenty people at Mass, which was in Bengali. There was such a difference between the station full of poor people and the empty church with a few well-dressed people like myself. I felt a bit crushed.... My only consolation came from knowing that Jesus was crucified, poorer than the people in the station and on the streets, and that he died naked on the cross, and that he gives his crucified body.”

The letters indicate a life of simplicity and even hardship:

“I arrived in Calcutta on Friday evening. They had fixed up a little room for me in a storage shed in the garden behind the house. It is like a little cell, with a bed and a table.”

As usual, Vanier asks the hard questions. He does not assume that the spiritual life is simple. He notes the tension, so common to Christian history, between social justice and reverence for God. These two poles frequently get out of whack when we favor one or the other too much. On a trip to Russia in 1990, and feeling the newfound sense of freedom in the air, he writes that

“The Russian Church has such a deep sense of what is sacred. They criticize the Western churches sometimes for having lost a sense of the greatness of God and for being too taken up with political and social matters. Yet, I felt that they were touched when they rediscovered the place of the poor at the heart of the Church, the poor as an image and real presence of Jesus.”

Vanier wrote that “the challenge of L'Arche” revolved around living with the poor and the suffering and also finding a place for the presence of God.

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