It would be unlikely for a career sales and marketing guy in middle America to find much in common with this Canadian, born into privilege, who was on a relentless quest for purpose. It was a quest that took him from the British navy, to a period of priestly discernment, to life in France founding a community that would offer dignity to the intellectually challenged. Not much chance that I would encounter Jean Vanier at all.
The news of Vanier’s passing on May 7 has brought out his life and works to the front pages of many major publications in recent days, and to the feeds of all many social platforms. Many who weren’t familiar with his life's work may now come to know him through the recognition he is receiving now. But the way I encountered Vanier was a bit different.
In 2013, I attended a retreat in Columbus, Ohio, with 50 other men from my parish, led by Father Bert Buby, who was a prolific writer even in his 80s. His talks were often heady—I sometimes had a hard time keeping up. But I was able to grab ahold of one thing: Father Bert divided the men into groups of four and asked each group to focus on one of the Gospels for the retreat. I drew the Gospel of John. At the end of the retreat, as Father Bert was relaxing with us, he admonished me to not let it end with the closing of the retreat. “Take a year with John,” he said.
I took his encouragement to heart and started in earnest. Candidly, I didn’t make it a whole year, but I did read and reread John for four or five months after the retreat. I found it enriching, but I didn’t exactly have one of those mountaintop moments.
(No Vanier so far. Hang on, it’s coming.)
In 2015, I joined Franciscan Media, and one of the new books we were publishing was The Gospel of John, the Gospel of Relationship by Vanier. This title immediately drew me in. Would it be a chance to renew my commitment to Fr. Bert and study the Gospel? I had no idea what a wonderful ride I would be on. Vanier, through his stories, weaving in his scholarship and experience, brought the Gospel of John alive for me. I was especially drawn to his reflection on the Wedding at Cana. It is such a familiar story. We’ve heard the recounting of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry—the turning of water into wine many times.
Vanier writes as much about the reception that the king received when he sent invitations to his son’s wedding to all the movers and shakers in the community as he does about the miracle of water turned to wine. As Vanier writes, “They all replied, ‘I don’t have time, I am too busy, I have many things to do. I have just bought some land; I have to build on it. I have just bought some cattle; I must care for them. I have to get my daughter married; sorry, I am too busy.’”
I had not spent a great deal of time pondering the meaning behind the story of the powerful upper class declining his invitations in order to attend more pressing engagements. Did I recognize this in myself and want to avoid that part of the message? Vanier brought the message to the front of my mind with his story about the people in his communities with disabilities who would jump at the invitation to a wedding. Many people with disabilities may not be able to marry and experience this kind of love. To be invited to the banquet would take on the importance it should for them in a way it might not for those of us who take it for granted.
The story of Ramesh, a man welcomed into one of the L’Arche communities, illustrates this in a way only Vanier could tell. Fortunately for us, it is captured in his book.
Ramesh was a man with an intellectual disability, and he was also epileptic. He had spent many long years in a psychiatric hospital (which I have visited myself, and which was quite horrible) with locked cells. About three years ago, Ramesh, by then living in our community, went to spend the weekend with his brother. At the end of the weekend, he visited the neighbors there and told them, “Tomorrow is my marriage day, the day of my wedding.” Everyone smiled a little, as is often the case when someone with an intellectual disability says something people do not really understand. He then got on the bus, arrived back at the community, and went into the workshop where everyone was working. He told them, too, “Tomorrow will be my wedding day.” Later that night, he went to sleep, had a heart attack, and died.
How can we interpret his words about his wedding day? For many people with disabilities, the greatest joy in life is the wedding celebration, the marriage. They wish to celebrate in this way themselves as a sign that they are like everyone else. Perhaps Ramesh was sensing something deep within himself, that he would soon experience an enormous joy! In his own way, then, Ramesh interpreted this sense by announcing, “Tomorrow will be my wedding day.” We are all made to love and to share in the wedding feast. —from The Gospel of John, the Gospel of Relationship
Finally, I was able to fulfill my promise to Father Bert. I was able to say that I had studied the Gospel of John through Jean Vanier’s lens and found such wonderful meaning. This is one example of the richness that Vanier led me to and through.
My daughter is an intervention specialist at a Christian school. Though I have always admired her strength in doing this work every day, I am not sure I truly understood until now that she is blessed as much by knowing these young men and women as they are in receiving her loving care and assistance. “The mystery of people with learning disabilities … is that they can become a source of truth and life if we welcome them into a relationship, a communion of hearts with them and put ourselves at their service.”
And here is the mountaintop part of my experience with John through Jean. Before I had a chance to talk to my daughter about this book and how it made me think of her and her work, I noticed that it was already on her reading table. Even though she could have had my copy for the asking, she’d found it and ordered it from our humble Catholic bookstore.