Weakness as the Way to God: In Honor of Jean Vanier (1928–2019)

Yesterday it was announced that Jean Vanier has died. The well-known philosopher, theologian, and humanitarian was 90.

Vanier was best known for founding L’Arche in 1964, a global network of communities where people with and without disabilities live together in solidarity. His experiences in these communities fueled many powerful writings, including the excerpt below.

Pope Francis called Vanier before his death to thank him for his ministry and witness. Vanier uniquely embodied the Lord’s compassion and gentleness in our time. Paired with his gifted writing and intellect, those virtues were an inspiration to millions.

Below is an excerpt from Living Gently in a Violent World, coauthored with Stanley Hauerwas.


[. . .] When we meet people with disabilities and reveal to them through our eyes and ears and words that they are precious, they are changed. But we too are changed. We are led to God.

Shortly after the genocide in Rwanda, I met with people from the Faith and Light communities there. They came from the villages, and we had a beautiful little retreat in the cathedral of Butare.

During a very moving moment, many mothers of children with severe disabilities came forward during the celebration of the Eucharist and lifted their children up as a gift to God.

Later, we had a meeting with all these women. I asked, “What has Faith and Light brought to you?” And they said, “We no longer feel ashamed.”

When we read Deuteronomy 28, we see that at the heart of the Jewish vision is the belief that disability and sickness are caused by sin. A son with a disability reveals that somewhere in yourself and your family you are doing things against God, against truth and against love. This vision is frighteningly powerful. That is why in the ninth chapter of John the immediate question the disciples ask Jesus when they see a man born blind is, “Is it because he has sinned or because his parents have sinned?” Jesus answers, “Neither he nor his parents have sinned, but it is so that the work of God may be manifested in him.”

[. . .] Francoise came to our community nearly thirty years ago. She walked only a little and couldn’t eat by herself. She had a severe learning disability. She is now about seventy-five, older and weaker. She has become blind and lives in a little home where there are ten people with severe multiple disabilities. Francoise is really quite beautiful. What touches me is how the assistants wash her and prepare food for her. But she can’t see the way they prepare the food and feed her, and I ask myself, “What is the mystery behind this woman of seventy-five who cannot leave her bed and who cries out now and again?” The assistants say, “She is our mama, our little grandmother.” They love her with tenderness and gentleness. What is the meaning of this mystery of people with severe disabilities?

I know a man who lives in Paris. His wife has Alzheimer’s. He was an important businessman—his life filled with busyness. But he said that when his wife fell sick, “I just couldn’t put her into an institution, so I keep her. I feed her. I bathe her.” I went to Paris to visit them, and this businessman who had been very busy all his life said, “I have changed. I have become more human.” I got a letter from him recently. He said that in the middle of the night his wife woke him up. She came out of the fog for a moment, and she said, “Darling, I just want to say thank you for all you’re doing for me.” Then she fell back into the fog. He said, “I wept and I wept.”

It all sounds so crazy. But when something is totally crazy, it may be that we have to go deeper. There’s a mystery, and maybe it comes back to the question of who God is and where God is.1

  1. Jean Vanier, “The Vision of Jesus: Living Peaceably in a Wounded World” in Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness, expanded edition (IVP Books, 2018).
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  • When God reminds us that He is the God of Israel we need to recall that Israel is a person, Jacob, who was transformed by his encounter with God. Every encounter we have with a person transformed by God is meant to help us know God and be transformed also.

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