Jean Vanier, the Canadian naval officer turned philosopher and founder of the L’Arche Communities, died yesterday morning.

News of his death hit me harder than I imagined it would. I have read plenty of his books and followed the work of L’Arche for many years. It was only after his death that the reason for his impact became clear. In fact, it was only when I was standing in front of our student body during chapel yesterday and telling them about Vanier’s life that a realization shook my foundations.

Credit: Association Jean Vanier

I want so badly to be like Jean Vanier. I want to be the type that gives up a promising career in the academy to live in a house with two adults with disabilities. I want to be the person that surrenders all to serve those who are the least in the eyes of our world.

I have always wanted to be seen as a servant, as selfless.

Here is the hard truth. I don’t really want that, but I want to be seen as the type of person who wants that. My ego is altruistic in a way that only the ego can be. “If I care for the less fortunate, then people will see how wonderful I am and then I will be loved.”

In one of his classic works, Becoming Human, Vanier writes, “To be lonely is to feel unwanted and unloved, and therefore unlovable. Loneliness is a taste of death. No wonder some people who are desperately lonely lose themselves in mental illness or violence to forget the inner pain.”

I would add that people who are desperately lonely lose themselves in caring for others or at least in the dream of caring for others.

In his writings and his life, Jean Vanier spoke the Gospel truth that still shatters me to the core: there is a part of me that is unlovable, unwelcomed, and unknown by the world and that is the part of me most deeply loved by God.

Vanier’s life was spent in dedication to those with disabilities who were seen as unworthy by society, but that feeling of unworthiness stretches far beyond those with medically diagnosed disabilities. In the very core of our being we all live with the question, “Am I lovable?” When we don’t get a clear answer to that question from parents, friends, or partners, it creates chaos in our psyche.

The work of L’Arche is to bring people into community to show that everyone is lovable. This is one of those pesky facts that I can talk about all day but have a hard time internalizing. Much like the fact that eating vegetables is the best option, I let the knowledge of my lovability slip in one ear and out the other. I can tell it to others, but I can’t bring myself to believe it.

“Physician, heal thyself!”

As a preacher of the Gospel, I can stand in any pulpit and proclaim the Good News of God’s grace to those who desperately need to hear it. The trouble arises when I am the audience. There is still an eight-year-old child inside of me that is desperate to hear that he is loved and yet is resistant to that news.

Credit: Ian Brown/The Globe and Mail

Vanier spoke to this truth in an interview with Krista Tippett, saying, “We don’t know what to do with our own pain, so what to do with the pain of others? We don’t know what to do with our own weakness except hide it or pretend it doesn’t exist. So how can we welcome fully the weakness of another if we haven’t welcomed our own weakness?”

The Gospel can be intellectually understood which explains why there are thousands of books on the subject. However, the saving power of Jesus — the thing that makes the news Good — affects something much deeper than intellect. The news that we are infinitely loved in our unlovable-ness needs to be heard, felt, seen, and believed in the heart and in our weakness.

This is why Christians minister to one other. We need someone to proclaim God’s love over us again and again.

In scripture, we see the example of Ananias who goes to Saul the unlovable and calls him “Brother Saul.”  

In the liturgy, we hear the Comfortable Words of salvation each week because each week we walk into church burdened by our failures and transgressions.

In the L’Arche communities, people live together regardless of ability to remind each other of God’s deep love for them all.

We must be reminded constantly that we are loved in our weakness. We are loved in our failures. We are loved not because of what we bring to the table but because of whose table it is.

Credit: CatholicIreland.net

Jean Vanier wrote, “All of us have a secret desire to be seen as saints, heroes, martyrs. We are afraid to be children, to be ourselves.”

The witness of Jean Vanier spoke to me as I stood in front of an auditorium full of teenagers at a high-performance, college preparatory school and said the following:

“You do not have to be afraid of not being successful. You are loved with an infinite love regardless of what your college applications or report cards or career tracks say. The you you hide from everyone else is a beloved child of God, as hard as that is to believe.”

I am no Jean Vanier, which is fine. I am loved anyway.