Jean Vanier, World Peace and the Politics of Gentleness

There is a new website up dedicated to the life and work of Jean Vanier, founder of the international community of L’Arche, a global federation of homes and workspaces where adults with intellectual disabilities and assistants try to live in prayerful and mundane communion with one another. They are messy, beautiful communities where authenticity, tenderness and time-lost-at-table are cherished above all. The care and patience demanded to live  in a L’Arche home creates a good deal of frustration and the feeling of being worn out, often. Yet, these acts can also give themselves over to this searing self-discovery of one’s capacity for gentleness and the deep joy of being in the presence of another. I always remember the bewilderment on the face of a 19-year old German assistant when she described to me about just how much time she spent preparing for and then eating at the table in her first week at L’Arche, and then I remember the inner flicker of her eye a few months later as she shuffled over, arms a-tangle with a core member to cut some rosemary branches and petunias for dinner. And I think that walk from bewilderment to the inner-flickering of the slow act of being with the little of the earth is L’Arche at its best.

The website tries to get at some of this, hoping, explicitly, to make Jean Vanier’s witness to communion-across-difference more public, and articulate it, as Jean has attempted himself, as a political source of peace. Jean’s “politics of gentleness” as Stanley Hauerwas has put it.

For those who love L’Arche and Jean Vanier, the website is a delight and gives an excuse to reflect on what a politics of gentleness could really mean. There are glimpses on the site. The quotes about Jean Vanier from Romeo Dallaire, for example, the Canadian Lt. General famous for doing the best he could with a token UN force to shield Tutsis from the genocide slaughter of Rwanda in 1994, evoke the darkest sides of political structures which prize competition rather than slow-little-being as their motor of existence.  The hope against this darkness, then, is in the work of listening to the weak as teachers; filling the relationships of our polities with reconciled understandings of our fragilities; living broken bodies and souls as an experience of growth and goodness. These global hopes of Jean remain in the realm of the prophetic, but when the words start feeling a bit too airy, start clicking on some of the photos, read some of the tags and the hopes of more German kids carrying rosemary, and all the global peace-flickering that goes with it, doesn’t seem so impossible.