© 2016 by Charles D. Jones

Jean Vanier

June 1, 2019

Jean Vanier, a French-Canadian who joined the navy just in time to miss fighting the Nazis in World War II, remained in the military for a few years after the war. It was then he became influenced by the writings of Thomas Merton, to "pray, read and contemplate." In 1962, he earned his decorate in philosophy from the Catholic University of Paris. After a couple of years of wandering and philosophizing, he visited the French village of Trosley-Breuil where he found a gloomy, horrible asylum for the mentally disabled. He was struck by the overwhelming atmosphere of sadness within those concrete walls. 

 

He seemed to be drawn to the asylum, and during one of his visits, encountered an inmate named Raphael Simi who asked him, "Will you be my friend?" So struck by the question, Vanier bought a dilapidated house near Trosley-Breuil, started the repairs, and invited Simi and another inmate named Philippe Seux to live with him there. He named the place L'Arche after Noah's Ark. 

 

Vanier died on May 7th at the age of 90. At his death, L'Arche International had spread to 150 communities in 38 countries providing homes for 5,000 disabled people.

 

In a 2015 Wall Street Journal interview, Vanier was asked what those who couldn't devote themselves to full-time service could do to help others. "Try to find somebody who is lonely," he said. "And when you go to see them, they will see you as the messiah. Go and visit a little old lady who has no friends or family. Bring her flowers. People say, 'But that's nothing.' It is nothing--but it's everything."

 

So, that's what can happen when we don't just read the writings of Thomas Merton but become influenced by them. It's impossible to seriously "pray, read and contemplate" without doing.

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