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Jean Vanier   Leave a comment

A eulogy for Jean Vanier

By Jim Taylor – published on Sunday, May 12, 2019

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The news on Tuesday that Jean Vanier had died hit me like a punch in the gut. Tears welled up, unbidden.

I can’t claim that I knew him personally. But that’s not quite accurate. Because everyone knew him personally. That’s the kind of person he was. He wasn’t paying attention to the person behind you. He didn’t care if you were a prime minister or a corporate CEO or Mother Teresa — you, as you, mattered.

I only heard him speak three times. At a United Church General Council in Saskatoon, in 1972, he offered common sense to 600 people struggling to resist the pressures of a consumer culture.

  • It’s not about what brand of car you drive, Vanier said. It’s about who gets to ride in that car.

  •  It’s not about how big or modern your refrigerator is, he said, it’s about who gets to eat out of that refrigerator.

An unprepossessing speaker

The second time I heard him was at a multi-denominational Festival of Faith in Ottawa. speaking to several thousand people.

He was an unprepossessing speaker, by conventional standards. He ambled on stage, almost shambled on, 6-feet-4-inches looking as if he had slept in his clothes, with a great hooked nose that hung over the microphone.

 And a smile that stretched from here to eternity.

He talked as if there was only one person out there — and it was you. He switched from English to French, and back again. He didn’t repeat himself in the other language. I knew little French — high school French doesn’t stick very long — but his French was so simple, so concrete, so practical, that I had little difficulty following him. Francophones, I gathered later, had the same reaction to his English.

And he told stories. Not about great adventures.  Not about meeting with illustrious people — though he had certainly done that. Indeed, he was one himself, once. As the son of  Governor-General Georges Vanier (1959-1967), the Queen’s senior representative in Canada, he had once moved in the highest circles of society.

No, stories about the most ordinary of people. The kind of people most of us overlook. Or ignore. Or even deliberately avoid, because we find their presence uncomfortable. People with intellectual and physical disabilities.

The meaning of beautiful

 When Vanier met a small group of men with disabilities he was so moved that he invited some of them to come and live with him. And that was the beginning of L’Arche, now a network of 152 homes around the world, 29 of them in Canada.

 Vanier talked about his friends as if they were holy. And in his eyes, they were. He described bathing men who could do nothing at all to bathe themselves. He called their bodies “beautiful.”

 I didn’t understand that. I couldn’t understand it, until some years later when our son was dying. He had cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that afflicts the lungs. As thicker-than-normal mucus clogs up the tiny passages in the lung that transfer oxygen to the blood and remove carbon dioxide, the lungs have to work overtime  to draw in enough air to do their job.

Cystic fibrosis also affects digestion, making it harder for the body to absorb nutrients. So our son was, by any conventional standards, a caricature. Massive barrel chest. Arms and legs like Tinkertoy creations, all skinny bones and knobby joints.

But as I rubbed his chest, in an attempt to ease his breathing during his final hours, I remember thinking, “You have a beautiful body. Not beautiful because it matched any external standards. Beautiful because I loved it. And that was Vanier’s point. His helpless friends had beautiful bodies. Beautiful because he loved them.

Standards worth aiming for

 I can’t help comparing Vanier to other public figures.

Almost two thousand years ago, Christian missionary Paul wrote a letter to one of the churches he had established. He concluded, “Finally, dear friends, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy …keep doing these things.”

I can’t think of one thing that Donald Trump has done that matches any of the qualities Paul commended. I can’t think of one thing that Jean Vanier did that doesn’t fit those qualities.

If Jesus was — as Christian doctrine has long asserted — God incarnate, embodied as a human, then Jean Vanier might qualify as Jesus embodied for our time.

 And so I cry. For him. For me. And for the world that must now do without him.

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Copyright © 2019 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved.

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Posted May 13, 2019 by allanbaker in Uncategorized