A professor of friendship: Jean Vanier and L’Arche

Jean Vanier, founder of the worldwide L’Arche community, died in May 2019. Tony Gibbings, community leader of L’Arche in Ipswich, explores the life, legacy and message of Jean Vanier and of L’Arche

I first met Jean Vanier in early 1970, when I heard him speak at the Catholic chaplaincy in Gower Street, London. A few of us wanted to go to France for the summer and do something a bit more interesting – and possibly easier – than picking grapes. That summer, four of us went to the village of Trosly, near Compiègne and spent two happy months immersed in the community of L’Arche that Jean had created during the previous five years.

The moment I walked in the door I felt the Gospels coming alive. Here was what Jesus meant in the Beatitudes; here were the poor in spirit and the pure in heart; here were the words of St Paul about weakness, strength, the centrality of the cross and the experience of resurrection all happening in front of me; here was the feast of the kingdom of heaven happening before my eyes – with French cooking! Here was the possibility of living as a child of God, even as an adult taking responsibility for others; here was a place where rejection was identified and consciously and deliberately reversed by a tangible love which welcomed all to the feast with the outsider at the centre. Power complexes all had to succumb to a deliberate culture of welcome. Here was what was missing from the Church and life generally. The last really were first and the first last.

And if you wonder if this is an idealistic vision or memory of an alternative 1960s ‘hippy’ lifestyle which would become unsustainable over the years, then get this: recently, almost 50 years on, a young woman came to our community in Ipswich, having been brought up without brothers and sisters, and said to us in a community gathering: ‘This is the Christmas I never had….and it is every day!’ Her experience recalled to me my arrival at Trosly in 1970. The community was fully alive. Jean created a fragile model of community that stands the test of time to the extent that it is built on the strength that comes with being open to vulnerability.

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