The founder of the worldwide L’Arche community was a man of action fuelled by contemplation. Profoundly humble, he was for many nothing less than a living saint
Jean Vanier was a spiritual giant. Those who lived and worked with him spoke of his almost palpable holiness; many considered him a living saint. He was unmoved by such accolades. Profoundly humble, what he longed for was to help people to know and live with Jesus – whom he spoke of as one might of a close friend – and to do so through encounters with the poorest and weakest in society, in particular those with mental disabilities.
Vanier’s great life’s work began in the summer of 1964, when he was 35 – an immensely tall, handsome, ex-naval officer. Without any clear idea of where it might lead, he invited two men with mental disabilities, Raphaël Simi and Philippe Seux, to leave the miserable asylum where they had spent most of their adult lives, and to make a home in a tumbledown stone cottage in the village of Trosly-Breuil, north-east of Paris. The cottage had no lavatory, one tap and a wood-burning stove, and he called it L’Arche – the Ark. “All I knew”, Vanier would later say, “was that what I was doing was irreversible.” He could never send Raphaël and Philippe back. He imagined the three of them might remain a small family, able to fit into his battered car for outings.