Jean Vanier was born into power and privilege. His father was an influential Canadian military officer, diplomat and statesman who eventually became governor general of Canada. During the waning months of World War II, while his Father was the Canadian ambassador to France, he visited survivors of the Nazi concentration camps.
He was profoundly affected by seeing the suffering and anguish of these fellow human beings.
A call for peace
After attending the British Royal Naval Academy, Jean embarked on a career in the British and Canadian Naval Service. After a short time; however, he longed for personal and societal peace.
He pursued a PhD in philosophy in Paris and taught college in Canada for several years.
In 1964, he felt a desire to pursue more spiritual work and moved to France to live in a small Christian community. There he met a priest, Father Thomas Phillippe, who was the chaplain to a small institution that housed people with intellectual disabilities.
Through his friendship with Father Phillippe, Jean became aware of the terrible plight of men and women who were institutionalized under deplorable conditions. As was the case throughout the world at the time, these people were scorned, put in asylums and treated as sub humans.
Deeply affected by this reality, Jean bought a small home north of Paris. He invited two men with intellectual disabilities, Phillippe Seux and Ralph Simi, to leave the sad and violent institution in which they lived and to join him in the home. And so, in 1964 the first community of L’Arche was born.
Building a community
Since that day, L’Arche has grown into an international network of communities for people with intellectual disabilities. Over 130 communities exist worldwide wherein people with and without intellectual disabilities live together in the spirit of love, respect and awareness of each other’s individual gifts and challenges.
L’Arche was the forerunner of deinstitutionalization and the model on which many community-based care programs are based today.
This book, “Tears of Silence, a Meditation,” is a reflection on the loneliness, fear and alienation that we all experience to some degree or another.
Jean challenges himself and each of us to recognize our own talents, weaknesses and vulnerabilities and in so doing come into to genuine empathy, love and understanding with our fellow human beings.
The thoughts contained in this book and the call to action with which it summons us have become the underpinnings of how we strive to live and work among the disabled and disadvantaged in our world today. They help us realize or remember that we are all wounded, and that by embracing those whose wounds are more severe or obvious, we find mutual healing.
And for those of us who live with or serve people with intellectual disabilities, Jean,s words remind us that it is truly our privilege and that even though it may be challenging and difficult service at times, it is the caregiver who benefits most.
Jean’s words also remind us that the gift of presence is the gift most dear and that it is its own reward.
Perhaps this book would be better titled “Tears of Joy.”
The profound and beautiful reflections contained herein along with the poignant black and white photos will bring tears of joy to your soul.
The 2014 rerelease of this 1970 classic is available through Amazon and other online bookstores. It is published by House of Anansi Press in Toronto, Canada.