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Saturday, December 20th, 2008
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Jean Vanier: Essential Writings (Modern Spiritual Masters)

by Jean Vanier

Jean Vanier: Essential Writings

A review by Chris Faatz

One of the great events in American religious publishing of the last several years has been the introduction of Orbis Books' Modern Spiritual Masters Series. This phenomenal series of slim volumes makes available the lives, witness, and writings of a plethora of religious writers of, roughly, the last century. Included are those you would expect -- Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Merton, and Mother Teresa, for example -- and many who may be considered as either more obscure, or as having little interest outside of a narrow community of believers and students of the spiritual life. To date, there are roughly 35 volumes in the series, and, for the most part, they are all excellent, combining fabulous introductions with careful and stirring excerpts from their subject's work.

The latest installment in the series is no exception to the rule. Jean Vanier: Essential Writings is an exceptional and beautiful book, bringing together a rigorous and learned introduction with some of the finest writing on the committed religious life that I have had the pleasure of coming across for a long time.

Jean Vanier is the founder of L'Arche, a worldwide network of intentional communities where developmentally disabled people live together with assistants in pursuit of a gospel-based vision of melding the inherent worth and dignity of each and every human person with the transformation of the world in a more peaceful, compassionate, fully human direction.

Vanier, a former naval officer and the son of one of Canada's most prestigioius diplomatic families, has been living this vision since 1964. Essential Writings brings together excerpts from more than 25 books which bear such titles as Finding Peace, Images of Love, Words of Hope, and From Brokenness to Community. In many ways, the titles of these books reflect the simple, yet extremely profound message of this volume, and of Vanier's amazingly inspiring life: we all live in relationship, in community. It is in recognizing that connection, in taking upon ourselves the opportunities and responsibilities of living our lives in that web, that the heart of spirituality is found. It is, in short, in the midst of relationship -- creative relationship with ourselves, with others, and with the world at large -- that we find God.

Vanier's is an explicitly Christian vision, yet at the same time it is deeply ecumenical. People of all faiths, and of none, are welcome at L'Arche communities. An encounter with Gandhi, for example, played an enormous role in the development of Vanier's philosophies. Gandhi's life and thought simultaneously challenged and deepened Vanier's Christian faith. Vanier writes:

While in India, I learned to love Gandhiji, feeling that he is one of the great prophets of our times. His deep love for the underprivileged, espeically the untouchables; his desire to identify himself with them; his openness to the spirit of God in order to become an instrument of his peace; his desire to unite men, particularly those of opposed religions; his universal heart; his deep desire to bring peace into the world; his vision of poverty and riches; his own poverty; all these attracted me deeply. Gandhiji seemed to follow so authentically the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes, those Beatitudes which seem to have been for him in many ways a guiding light. Far from separating me from Jesus, Gandhiji seemed to bring me closer to him, teaching me much about his gentleness and his tenderness. The Beatitudes of the meek seems to be none other than the deep strength, the peace, the patience and unceasing goodness and love of nonviolence, ahimsa, about which Gandhiji spoke so often. Gandhiji taught me to love Jesus more and gave me a desire to make my life more like his, especiallly in this domain of a struggle for peace and universal brotherhood. And this struggle can be won only by using the means of the Spirit: those of love, of gift of self, of gentleness, with no aggression or violence.

Vanier is both radical and prophetic. He calls us to love and to rise to new heights of goodness in our connections, to recognize, as the Quakers put it, that of God in everyone. And, in the end, to act in a way commensurate with the implications of that recognition. What do you do when you are confronted with the holy, with the shining forth of Christ in the face of the Other? You love, unreservedly and totally. You give up selfishness and churlishness. And, perhaps, you find in that act true meaning in your life. There is nothing harsh in this vision. It rises straight from the Gospel teachings of Jesus. Imbued with love, it is nothing short of a call to transform the entirety of our lives. Nothing more, but also nothing less.

The message of Jesus is truly good news. It is not, first of all, a series of laws that we must obey. It is an experience of a loving encounter with Jesus, in faith and tenderness. This encounter, which opens us to the universe and to the Father, reveals that we are precious in the eyes of God.

These encounters are constant. They are everywhere, and a part of every day and every moment of our lives. Christ, in short, can be found in all things; the hand is always open, and the invitation is always there. And, the transformation is continuous.

There are a lot of ersatz Christians out there who have given the faith a bad name. They make easy targets for the New Atheists, and others who are concerned with what it means to be fully human in today's beleaguered world.

But, the Christian idea isn't dead, and Vanier is a shining invocation of this truth. His writings sing of a life totally committed to the Gospel, to a life of following Jesus, and to a life rooted in love. Just as 1 John 2:3 reads, "Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments," Vanier not only obeys, but makes abundantly clear that this is a joyous path, filled with meaning and light, and that it can, finally, transform the world.

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