Jean Vanier, who passed away May 7 at age 90. Catholic News Service

Vanier’s life a lesson in prayer and patience

By 
  • May 15, 2019

Fourteen years. That’s how long Jean Vanier said his life was in “a holding pattern.” 

After he left the Canadian Navy in 1950, he did not invite two mentally disabled men to live with him in Trosly, France, until 1964. Even then, Vanier had no idea that his “l’Arche” would grow to include 152 communities in 37 countries at the time of his death on May 7.

During those 14 years, he first considered joining a small community of lay Catholics in Harlem. Then, he began corresponding with the priest who became his guide, Fr. Thomas Philippe. Philippe encouraged Vanier to live with him for a year in France so the younger man could clarify his life choices. During that time, Vanier spent much time in prayer and meditation, and developed a strong feeling that he would become a priest.

He spent 10 days with the Carthusians in Switzerland, which was long enough for him to realize he was not called to be a monk. His prayer life continued to deepen and became “a heart-to-heart with the invisible.” Most of his first two years with Fr. Philippe were spent in L’Eau Vive, a lay community near Paris for studying theology. 

When the priest was called to Rome by his Dominican superiors, Vanier became head of L’Eau Vive until 1956 when the Holy Office in Rome told the local bishop and the Dominican provincial to remove Vanier from the position. After that, he lived in a Trappist monastery in France for a year, still discerning his vocation.

Vanier then completed his work on a doctorate in philosophy from the Institut Catholique de Paris while living on a small farm in the Normandy countryside. “I waited confidently for a sign from God. Waiting, abandonment; a simple life. And a happy one,” Vanier wrote in his spiritual testament, A Cry is Heard: My Path to Peace, published last year in Canada by Novalis.

(Disclosure: I had a small part to play in the publication of A Cry is Heard, proofreading Anne Louise Mahoney’s translation from the French.)

Much is made of Vanier abandoning his academic career. In fact, he only spent four months teaching at the University of Toronto. Just prior to that semester, Fr. Philippe became chaplain of Val Fleuri, a centre for the intellectually disabled in Trosly-Breuil, France. Returning to France after his teaching stint, Vanier tracked down the priest and “discovered in a special way the world of people with an intellectual disability.”

He came up with “a slightly mad idea” — to create a family-style community with a few people who had an intellectual disability. Out of this mad idea, lived out in poverty, arose the L’Arche movement.

Fourteen years is a good chunk of a person’s life, even a life as long as that of Jean Vanier. What was God doing with Vanier all those years? Why did He make him wait so long before unveiling his vocation? Perhaps Vanier could have become even more productive if he had devoted more of his youthful years to L’Arche.

But maybe God does not care so much about productivity. One day in this life is 1,000 years in eternity. We might better assume that God was maturing Vanier and that Vanier was growing closer to God during those 14 years. Maybe Vanier had to grow up so he might better appreciate the light of Christ present in those whom society casts to its margins.

All of this speaks to those who are waiting to find their life’s direction. Wait a little longer. God is not finished with you yet. He will act in His own time.

It also says lots to those who speed through red lights, get impatient in store lineups or tap their fingers while the priest’s homily lasts two minutes longer than usual. Time is meant to be savoured rather than rushed. It’s not the quantity of the minutes, hours and years that you live, but the quality with which you live them.

Vanier spent years attuning himself to the small voice of the Spirit speaking in his heart. He found that it takes discipline to hear that voice. 

Fourteen years is a long time. But it is not so long compared with eternity. Vanier discovered we are made, not for productivity, but for eternity. Because his heart was rooted in eternity, he was able to do something special with the length of years God gave him.

(Glen Argan writes from Edmonton.)

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