Jean Vanier began a worldwide movement in 1964. While living in northern France, Vanier invited two men, both intellectually disabled, to live with him. In time, what began as a gesture of friendship and hospitality, developed into nearly 150 residential communities around the world.
When I learned that the Templeton Prize committee selected Vanier for their annual award, the largest monetary award in the field of religion, I immediately looked at my office desk. I had ordered Vanier’s book Signs (Paulist, 2013) just the week before after reviewing a list of recent publications in theology and religious studies.
Rather than commenting extensively on the small paperback book—which, despite its relatively short length, has numerous gems of wisdom—I thought I might highlight a few passages and simply allow his words to encourage further reflection.
Here is a lovely passage on the relationship between Eucharist and community, and how sharing meals together can signify deeper intimacy between people:
In our societies, we need to discover small and joyful communities where people are welcomed to eat together, and gradually move toward the Eucharistic table—sign and presence of the poorest and weakest one of all, Jesus crucified. These places of humanity and communion are sources of life; they bring new hope. (66)
He continues, just a few lines later, with a poignant discussion of how caring for others can lead to mutual self-awareness:
[A] sense of the body’s frailty can teach us to become part of another “body,” made up of small, vulnerable but interdependent communities. When the strong and the weak live together, a compassionate love is born: mutual help passes through weakened bodies. The strong help the old to get up and go to bed; they help those with a disability to shower, to shave, to get dressed. The weaker people awaken tenderness in the hearts of the stronger; they transform them into “real” people, capable of true compassion. The strong reveal to the weak their deepest human value. So each person, weak or strong, becomes someone uniquely valuable.
Finally, in a chapter on mystery, Vanier reflects on identifying the presence of God in the vulnerable:
We are discovering that those who are rejected by society on account of their weakness and their apparent uselessness are a presence of God. If we welcome them, they lead us progressively away from an over-competitive world where people need to accomplish great things, toward a world of hearts in communion, a simple and joyful life, where you accomplish little things with love. (82)
Meditations such as these deserve reflection over time. Vanier presents not advice for a moment, but guidance toward a way of living. I look forward to learning more from this loving, reverent man.