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Book Review: A Cry is Heard, My Path to Peace
Jean Vanier
Darton, Longman and Todd, London 2018
144 pages/£9.99 (paperback)

by Bishop Nicholas Hudson

I have read more of Jean Vanier’s books than I can remember. But this one I read at one sitting: I could not put it down. Jean tells us things we have never heard before: like when Pope St John Paul II invited Jean to lead the rosary meditation in Lourdes; six months from death and barely capable of speech, Pope John Paul motioned to Jean at the end of the prayer to come and sit next to him; and he gave Jean his rosary, the rosary they had just prayed together, confirming in this profound gesture, says Jean, what we always knew him to be: ‘a friend who continues to watch over L’Arche.’

A Cry is Heard I expected to be a book about hearing ‘the cry of the poor’. It is indeed partly an account of how ‘the Lord hears the cry of the poor’ (Ps 34) through the 140 L’Arche communities which have sprung up across every continent ever since Jean first shared his home with Raphaël and Philippe, two men he had befriended in a local psychiatric hospital. But it is even more about the urgent cry for freedom which surfaced powerfully in Jean himself and which he experienced to be answered profoundly in L’Arche; and an appeal, albeit implicitly, to let the same cry for freedom surface within the reader as well.

Jean was only 13 when this cry rose up within him as a compelling desire to leave home and join the Royal Navy. Jean’s father, Georges Vanier, was Governor General of Canada; and he recognised in Jean the authenticity of the ‘small inner voice that took hold of me and pushed me’ (20) to beg permission to leave home and cross the Atlantic. Jean’s cry for freedom he knew to be heard in his father’s simple response: ‘If it’s really what you want, then do it’ (20). He recounts how eight years in the Navy made him a stronger person, strong enough to obey the ‘small inner voice within me, saying (next) “Follow me” (out of the Navy) to find the kingdom of God’ (23-24). He was led to the community of L’Eau Vive, a religious community, a place of study and prayer near Paris. There he completed a Sorbonne Doctorate in Philosophy. He taught some years in Toronto. But he soon felt the call back to L’Eau Vive. This gave him his first encounter with people who have a learning disability; he was profoundly touched by their yearning for relationship, by the way they asked him, ‘Will you be my friend?’; and his heart was opened.

Jean describes the voice which called him back to France and the voice which called him to share his life with Raphaël and Philippe as being the same ‘small voice’ which had called him to cross the Atlantic at 13, a continuum, in other words, a voice which did not constrain but was rather his ‘way to freedom’. It is a freedom, he explains, which needs prayer; it is a ‘learning to listen to that inner voice often in profound solitude’ (31). Such attentive listening, he warns, can lead to surprise learnings: it is likely to lead to a learning not so much to accept as a ‘learning to ignore’: ‘learning to ignore ... the lure of power ... the desire for recognition ... everything that strengthens my ego’ (32).

There is power in the simplicity with which Jean can say: ‘My small voice had shown me the road to take. I had to live in Trosly’ (33), because Trosly, just 40 miles north of Paris, is where L’Arche began in 1965. What Jean discovered in sharing his life with people whom most of society rejects was a profound joy: ‘the joy I experienced there exceeded everything I could have imagined’ (35). What others might have considered limiting, he experienced as a deep freedom. For he discovered in people with learning disabilities nothing less than ‘a path towards God’ (34). He says he has grown used to people thinking those with a learning disability ‘are poor little things we need to take care of’ but he knows them to be nothing less than ‘messengers from God’, ‘messengers from God who bring us closer to Jesus’ (50).

A Cry is Heard sets out to name the multiplicity of fruits which have been reaped not only by Jean and L’Arche but by the churches and indeed other faiths through the experience of interchurch and interfaith communities being formed around those with intellectual disabilities. Jean has the courage as well to name the damage and hurt which was recently revealed to have been done by Fr Thomas Philippe, the Dominican priest who called Jean to L’Eau Vive and introduced him to people with learning disabilities. Fr Thomas was revealed to have sexually abused adult women, without disabilities, in a spiritual direction context. ‘These behaviours caused serious harm to these women,’ writes Jean. ‘It was good that L’Arche and the Church wanted all people who had suffered in this way to be able to speak and be heard within the context of a canonical investigation.’ Jean’s description of this tragic reality I find salutary: ‘I was shocked. I felt anger. Then sadness ... and almost disbelief,’ he says. Gradually I had to accept this painful reality.’ He adds that he prays for the victim-survivors and he prays for Fr Thomas. ‘I pray that together, at the foot of the cross of Jesus, we can all be open to the mercy of God’ (72-3).

As I closed this powerful book, there came strongly into my mind a saying of Pope Francis’s. It is the idea of a ‘revolution of tenderness’. Pope Francis speaks often of the ‘revolution of tenderness’ which was achieved by Jesus in his outstanding ministry of mercy. The book itself cites Cardinal Rylko saying, ‘L’Arche has caused a Copernican revolution’ (50). This revolution of tenderness Jean is describing as having happened in him and through L’Arche when he says, ‘At the beginning, I thought I would carry out a Gospel work by trying to do people with disabilities good. Over the years I evolved as I discovered it was these people who did me good and, more than that, changed me’ (74). He puts it even more simply when he says, ‘If I encounter the poor with compassion and mercy, it is they who transform me’ (87). Here he is describing nothing less than his extraordinary share in the revolution of tenderness which Jesus came to effect; and I judge this to be Jean’s best rendition of that revolution to date.