Jean Vanier was born in Switzerland on September 10, 1928 to Canadian parents. His father functioned as a military advisor to his nation’s delegation to the United Nations stationed in Geneva. Vanier’s maternal grandmother‘s ancestors had emigrated to North America in the 1730’s. Therese de Salaberry Archer was an intensely religious woman. Vanier’s maternal grandfather moved to the city of Quebec at the age of 42. The two were married and had one child, Pauline, who was a nurse during World War I. Pauline Archer met Georges Philias Vanier in Montreal. Georges Vanier was a lawyer by profession who had fought in World War I; while in the midst of battle, he was grievously wounded in the right leg. As a consequence of this injury, his leg was amputated. Upon his discharge from service, he returned to Canada and subsequently met Pauline. They were married in 1921
Vanier had four other siblings. Their family was deeply devout Catholics. His father served as the Canadian minister to France (1940-1941) at the time of the Nazi invasion and takeover of that country. He was able to flee to the U.K. and eventually returned to Canada.
As a very young man, Vanier decided he wanted to join the Navy to help in the war effort. He asked his Dad for permission and got it; after joining, he was dispatched to England. He lived there from 1942-1950. Vanier was educated at Dartmouth in Hanover, New Hampshire. As a young man, Vanier experienced the horrors of war directly and was deeply impacted by that experience. France was eventually liberated by the Allied Forces in 1944 and Georges Vanier returned to his diplomatic post, stationed in Paris.
In retrospect, Vanier described his experience in the navy in the following way, “When I was in the navy, I was taught to give orders to others. That came quite naturally to me! All my life I had been taught to climb the ladder, to seek promotion, to compete, to be the best, to win prizes. That is what society teaches us. In doing so, we lose community and communion.”
Vanier witnessed the liberation of the Jews from Nazi concentration camps – Dachau, Buchenwald and Ravensbrook. He saw first-hand the extent of the horror, the anguish, the pain and the fear experienced by those Jews who had survived the Holocaust. He also was personally devastated by the news of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and its horrific aftermath. In speaking of these events Vanier said, “A few months after the liberation of Paris, I accompanied my mother, who was in the Canadian Red Cross, to the Gare d’Orsay in Paris – the train station where hundreds of men and women arrived like skeletons in their striped blue and white uniforms, from Dachau, Bukenwald, Ravensbrook, and other concentration camps. We became very conscious of the capacity of humanity to destroy itself.”
Deeply troubled by these experiences, Vanier began to formulate and refine his thinking. He was also profoundly affected by Thomas Merton’s book entitled, Seven Story Mountain (published in 1941). Within this autobiography, Merton refers to the two weeks he volunteered at Friendship House in Harlem, New York. Friendship House was a Catholic interracial center that served the poor, homeless, unemployed and addicted members of the local community.
Friendship House was originally founded by a Catholic social reform advocate, Catherine de Hueck Doherty in the 1930s in Toronto Canada. Friendship Houses were subsequently setup in other Canadian cities, including Ottawa. Doherty’s views regarding racial equality were viewed unfavorably by certain members of the Church leadership, however, and the establishment was closed in Toronto in 1936. She was eventually asked to open one in Harlem in 1938. Vanier was so impressed by this idea of community that he visited Harlem’s Friendship House and was deeply moved by the experience reinforcing in his own mind the value of community; an idea that would grow and eventually find significant expression.
Vanier underwent a personal transformation that would lead him to embark on a thirty day retreat in which he followed the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius - a collection of meditations, prayers, and practices developed by St. Ignatius Loyola to assist individuals in their pursuit of a relationship with their God. Following this retreat, he made a monumental decision – he resigned his Navy position in 1950 and his life took on a spiritual direction .
His mother, Pauline, introduced him to her spiritual mentor – A Dominican priest, Father Thomas. This relationship between Vanier and Father Thomas would assist Vanier in shaping what would ultimately become his life’s work.
In regards to his mentor, Father Thomas founded a community he called, Eau Vive in 1947. This community was designed as a place where students of philosophy and theology could pursue their academic careers while living in a community based on love, reconciliation and good works. It was an austere community to which all were welcomed regardless of ethnicity or religious belief. Vanier’s stay at Eau Vive had a profound effect upon him. Father Thomas was ultimately removed from his position by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church on the grounds that his beliefs and methods were considered unorthodox.
In pursuit of a new direction, Vanier decided to work towards a doctoral degree. He was so influenced by the works of the famous Greek philosopher, Aristotle that he entitled his doctoral thesis, Happiness as Principle and End of Aristotelian Ethics. Vanier felt that Aristotle’s ethics were based on the innate human desire for a fullness of life. It was Aristotle who said, “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
Armed with his doctoral degree, he began teaching at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto in January of 1964. However, he could not forget the suggestion made by Father Thomas that he could do something meaningful to help alleviate the suffering of the afflicted. He also remembered the misery and pain he had witnessed in post-war France. As Vanier saw it, his life could be seen as consisting of three distinct phases. According to him, “…Then during the third phase, I discovered people who were weak, people with mental handicaps. I was moved by the vast world of poverty, weakness, and fragility that I encountered in hospitals, institutions, and asylums for people with mental handicaps. I moved from the world of theories and ideas about human beings in order to discover what is really meant to be human, to be a man or women. “
From the time Vanier resigned his position in the military and his promising career in 1950 to the 1964, he spent a great deal of time immersed in studies and contemplation. The culmination of this hiatus led him to concentrate his energies and efforts upon being of service to the poor. On August 5, 1964, Vanier founded the L’Arche Community and was joined by Raphael Simi, Philippe Seux and a man called Dany - these were gentlemen who had severe mental disabilities and who had been previously housed in a mental institution. The original lodgings were so small and so austere that there was no toilet – merely a bucket – and the accommodations lacked electricity. Since its simple beginnings, the L’Arche Community is a live in institution whose purpose is the care and rehabilitation of the mentally disabled. During the first months of residing in L’Arche, Vanier was deeply moved by the lives of these individuals deeply perturbed by the internal chaos that is the hallmark of mental illness – “I sensed how their hearts had been broken by rejection, abandonment, and lack of respect. At the same time, I was beginning to discover some of the beauty and tenderness of their hearts, their capacity for communion and tenderness. I was beginning to sense how living with them could transform me, not through awakening and developing my qualities of leadership and intelligence, but by awakening the qualities of the heart, the child within me.”
By the end of the year, he had an opportunity to move into a bigger house; he was asked, in fact, to become director of the mental institution at Val Fleuri after the staff had resigned. In March of 1965, the transition was completed. Suddenly, thirty-two additional disturbed individuals joined what was previously a small quiet community. Word of his work grew and with encouragement from such renowned individuals as Mother Theresa, the number of L’Arche Communities subsequently expanded around the world; now there are approximately 150. Vanier is currently involved in speaking engagements describing the nature of his work and has written numerous books, including Becoming Human and Befriending the Stranger in which he clarifies and expands upon his fundamental message of caring and compassion for those in need.
In spite of the fact that the scientific disciplines of Neurobiology and Neuroscience have elucidated many of the biological and biochemical mechanisms that are responsible for the galaxy of symptoms that are collectively regarded as mental illness, there remains a great deal of suspicion and the resulting stigma that is associated with those who are afflicted by mental illness. Like Dorothea Dix who preceded him, Vanier is determined to look upon those suffering from disease originating within the human brain as worthy of respect, compassion and caring. For this reason, he has done a great service to humanity.