On 7th May 2019, at 2.10am, Jean Vanier died.
He was my beloved teacher and friend. I think there are probably thousands of people throughout the world who can say the same, but it doesn’t make it any less true. Jean had an extraordinary gift of meeting people, listening to and being present to them, as though they were they only person in the world, and a person of great value and beauty. I last saw him in September 2018, on the eve of his 90th birthday. Mass was about to start, and as I greeted him I said ‘Just time to give you a kiss and wish you a happy birthday’. ‘Aren’t we lucky?’, he replied.
I first knew Jean through his writings in 1971. I was in a youth group at my church and we read ‘Tears of Silence’. I was profoundly moved by it, and it has shaped my entire life. In 1979 ‘Community and Growth’ was published, and I knew then that I wanted to live in community – though for some reason, at that time, I didn’t think it would be L’Arche.
I first met Jean in person when I went to live in L’Arche in Trosly in 1985. I was walking along the road and realised he was just ahead of me. Not sure whether to speed up and say hello, or slow down and avoid him out of shyness, I was dithering when he turned round and greeted me. ‘I don’t think we’ve met yet. I’m Jean’. Soon after, I had cooked a silly lunch for my L’Arche household, who loved Disney Channel on the TV. There were swans made out of eggs and mashed potato (I don’t remember how!!), swimming on a lake of peas. My house leader Chi Chi arrived home with Jean in tow. ‘I hope you don’t mind, I’ve invited Jean to lunch’, she said. I didn’t mind, of course, but I did feel a bit daft serving him swans.
That was the first of many meals shared with Jean. Over the next thirty years I translated for L’Arche International meetings, and so ate with him – and others of course – all over Europe, and in the Dominican Republic, Honduras and India. Particular memories include a tortilla making contest with the L’Arche community in Tegucigalpa, which Jean won despite making the worst tortilla of the lot.
On a pilgrimage to the Holy Land we drank wine together in Cana (which of course was cheap and disgusting coloured water for the tourists, but Jean was game). It was a wonderful and moving experience to hear Jean speak about St John’s Gospel – which he loved very much – at the places where Jesus lived and taught. I loved that there was also room for a bit of fun.
When I lived in L’Arche in Trosly, I had the opportunity to meet Jean’s mother, known to all as Mamie (Granny) Vanier. She welcomed all new English speaking assistants to a lovely meal, an opportunity to speak English, and to indulge in chat about mutual acquaintances, mainly from the Jesuit world. I still remember that the meal was steak and chips followed by chocolate mousse – not usual fare in L’Arche. Later, when I arrived in L’Arche London UK, then L’Arche Lambeth, I met and went on to become friends with his sister Therese. Much less well known than Jean, Therese was an exceptional woman, bringing L’Arche to the UK and playing an important role in both palliative care and ecumenism. She died in 2014 and is much missed.
As well as seeing Jean at meetings, and going to talks he gave, I also went on many of his retreats, deeply inspired by his vision of every human person as someone of value, with a mission to bring peace and tenderness to our world. Later, I would visit him in his home, first the little cottage beside the original L’Arche home, and in recent years as his mobility diminished his new home beside the chapel in Trosly. Sometimes he would ask me to make tea as ‘English people know how to make tea so much better than French people’. I once had the responsibility of driving him across London to catch a train, and it was rather nerve racking!
It seems very fitting that I was once again on retreat in Trosly just days after his funeral. For L’Arche goes on, in all the little moments of daily life and friendships, and it’s good to be reminded of what we live and why we live it. It will, nonetheless, be a bit harder to live without Jean by our side.
Fare well, dear teacher and beloved friend.