Jean Vanier is a Canadian philosopher, theologian and peacemaker who shines his light on the practical steps that anyone can take to make the world a better place. His wisdom is cultivated from soil that is a thousand joys and sorrows deep. I first heard him speak when I was a young university student and have been drawn to his gentle wisdom ever since. He doesn’t come to mind immediately for most people when they think about community organizing and system change but he should. Everything I write about these topics has its origins in his thinking. If you are looking to ‘refresh’ your work on climate change, poverty, exclusion, violence or other social/environmental challenges I recommend any of his 30 books, or his interviews and Massey lectures. They should be required reading for courses, retreats and workshops on social change.
Vanier left his life of prestige and achievement in 1964 to spend the rest of his life with Raphael and Phillipe two men regarded as mentally handicapped. Their home in Trosly, France became the model for L’Arche, communities where folks with and without disabilities live together and care for each other. Often in surprising and mutually beneficial ways. Today there are more than 150 L’Arche communities in 38 countries spread over five continents. They are a destination for people who want to bear the beams of love. A few years ago Vanier was awarded the Templeton Prize, the world’s second richest prize, for his “exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimensions.” Vanier’s citation read “this extraordinary man has the potential to change the world for the better”.
This extraordinary man prefers to be described as ordinary. That’s why he is a tonic for our troubled world. In a world obsessed with mastery and control, and yes, dear friends including system change, Jean Vanier reveals the power of imperfection. Imperfection as a source of personal and societal transformation. Imperfection as the doorway to working together. Imperfection as the sacred source of sustainability, resilience and justice. Imperfection as the price of admission for being a change-maker.
Here is a sampling of his wisdom:
“Love doesn’t mean doing extraordinary or heroic things. It means knowing how to do ordinary things with tenderness.”
“I am struck by how sharing our weaknesses and difficulties is more nourishing to others than sharing our qualities and successes.”
“So many people are running around doing lots of things, but they’re controlled by anguish.”
“But let us not put our sights too high. We do not have to be saviours of the world! We are simply human beings, enfolded in weakness and in hope, called together to change our world one heart at a time.”
“Peace is the fruit of love, a love that is also justice. But to grow in love requires work – hard work. And it can bring pain because it implies loss – loss of the certitudes, comforts and hurts that shelter and define us.”
“…each of us is a mixture of good and bad, darkness and light, love and hate”
Whew! Grasping these beams of love takes a lifetime.
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And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love. (William Blake)