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Jean of Ark

L’Arche began 50 years ago when Jean Vanier asked two men with mental disabilities to live with him. Now it has communities all over the world

Maggie Fergusson | July/August 2014

Late in the afternoon of June 22nd 1940, Hitler marched into a glade in the forest of Compiègne, 60km north of Paris. A giant swastika was unfurled as he saluted columns of Nazi troops, before hoisting himself into what had once been the private railway carriage of Marshal Foch. Inside this, on November 11th 1918, the Germans had signed the armistice that ended the first world war. So it was an apt spot for Hitler, sitting in Foch’s chair, and flanked by Goering, Ribbentrop and Hess, to witness the French surrender. Today, in a replica of the railway carriage, you can watch old newsreel of the Führer emerging into the evening sunshine and pulling on his leather gloves with an expression of grim satisfaction. This was a significant step towards the creation of his 1,000-year Reich. Four years later, of course, the Reich had collapsed, and Hitler was dead.

Less than an hour’s stroll through the beech trees, a rather different piece of history is unfolding. Fifty years ago this August, a 35-year-old ex-naval officer, Jean Vanier, bought a tumbledown cottage in Trosly-Breuil, a village on the edge of the forest. The cottage had no lavatory, one tap and a wood-burning stove, and he called it L’Arche—The Ark. He then invited two men with mental disabilities, Raphaël Simi and Philippe Seux, to leave the bleak, overcrowded asylum where they had spent most of their adult lives, and to make a home with him. “There was”, he says, looking back, “no huge idea of doing something special that might change the world.” 

He thought that he, Raphaël and Philippe might remain one small family, able to fit comfortably into his battered car for outings. But, like the biblical mustard seed, L’Arche grew beyond all expectations. Friends came to visit, and were inspired by Jean Vanier’s insistence that those with mental disabilities have gifts that many “normal” people lack. More houses were bought, more men and women rescued from institutions. Today, there are L’Arche communities in every continent of the world—146 of them, in 35 countries, from Bangladesh to Burkina Faso, Ireland to the Ivory Coast, Palestine to the Philippines.

Hitler’s visit to the Forest of Compiègne and Jean Vanier’s arrival in Trosly-Breuil are not as remote from one another as they might appear. When the second world war broke out, Jean Vanier was ten. His father, Major-General Georges Vanier, a much-decorated military hero who had lost a leg fighting in the trenches, was Canadian envoy in Paris. In May 1940, as the Germans advanced, the family was forced to evacuate by ship to Britain. From there, they returned to Canada, where Georges Vanier later became governor-general—a position once held by the novelist John Buchan. But something in the sea journey between Bordeaux and Milford Haven had fired Jean’s imagination, and when he turned 13 he asked permission to travel back to Britain and enter the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth.

Most parents would simply have said no. This was 1942, and crossing the Atlantic was treacherous. Hundreds of German U-boats lurked beneath the waves, intent on sinking Allied ships. Allowing a teenage boy to make a journey that was not strictly necessary was, as Jean admits, “a kind of madness”. But Georges Vanier was exceptional. A tireless promoter of unity between Francophone and Anglophone Canadians, he was, for Mountbatten, “the greatest Canadian of his time”, and for Lady Diana Cooper, speaking after his death, “the dearest man ever to be given to a generation craving something finer and nobler than themselves.” If Jean was certain that this was what he wanted, his father told him, then he must go ahead. It was a formative moment—“because if my father trusted me, then I could trust myself, and if my intuitions were true, then I could work with them.”

We are speaking in Jean’s sitting room in Trosly-Breuil, sharing a packet of Digestive biscuits I’ve brought over on the Eurostar, knowing that they bring back happy memories of his early childhood in a house near Regent’s Park in London. He is now 85, white-haired and slightly stooped, but still immensely tall, emanating both energy and peace. Dressed in the blue anorak he always wears, whether meeting homeless people or heads of state, he speaks steadily, using his long El Greco hands to illustrate his words. The demons of shame, regret, fear, sorrow and rage that prey on some old people seem strangers to him. Instead, he is filled with joie de vivre and openness, an appetite to keep on growing and learning and trying to make the world a happier place.

Scattered around him are some of the things he’s been reading, and they include—alongside piles of correspondence—“The Road to Canterbury” by Archbishop Justin Welby (“he’s super!”), the text of a talk by Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, and “Synchronicity”, a bestselling study of leadership by the American lawyer Joseph Jaworski. Next to him is a pinboard with photographs of family and friends, and some of the people he most admires: Aung San Suu Kyi, whose name we struggle to pronounce; Etty Hillesum, a Jewish woman who died at Auschwitz, and whose diaries he often cites; Sophie Scholl, a German student who was beheaded, aged 21, for resisting the Nazis.

The landline rings as we talk, and Jean makes meticulous pencil notes in a pocket diary. There’s no sign of a computer or iPad, but pencil and paper serve him well. In the 20-plus years I’ve known him, he has never forgotten a meeting, or been late for one. He is formidably disciplined. His naval training stood him in good stead.

Yet, as the second world war drew to an end, it became clear to Jean Vanier that the navy was not his ultimate vocation. Shortly after the liberation of Paris, in January 1945, he spent some leave at the Gare d’Orsay helping the Canadian Red Cross receive survivors from Buchenwald, Dachau, Belsen and Auschwitz. “I’ll never forget the men and women who arrived off the trains—like skeletons, still in the blue-and-white striped uniforms of the concentration camps, their faces tortured with fear and anguish. That, and the dropping of the atom bombs, strengthened a feeling in me that the navy was no longer the place for me; that I wanted to devote myself to works of peace.” A committed Catholic, he imagined he would probably become a priest.

While many of his contemporaries were getting married and settling down, Vanier resigned his commission and spent a number of years living in a community near Paris, combining a life of prayer with manual work and the study of philosophy. Following this, on the strength of a thesis on Ari­stotelian ethics, he was offered a post at the University of Toronto. He discovered that he had a gift for teaching, a gift that he retains in old age: an ability to hold large audiences rapt as he spoke without notes or hesitation, and with minimal amplification. But still he did not feel he was following his true star.

Then, in 1963, when Jean was 35, a Dominican priest, Père Thomas Philippe, chaplain to Le Val Fleuri, an institution for mentally disabled men, invited him to visit. It was a terrible place—“The men had a little work, but the doors were locked”—yet, despite an atmosphere of noise, depression and violence, Jean found it “beautiful”. “This is my experience of having been in many dark places—prisons, psychiatric wards, slums, leper colonies. There’s something frightening, but also something beautiful, a sense of wonderment. It’s mysterious. Maybe it’s the discovery that amidst all the chaos, these people are human beings. I saw anger and pain in the faces of these men, but also great tenderness. And each one of them, 30 in a constricted space, was saying, ‘Will you come back?’”

“They were literally saying this, or you felt that’s what they wanted?”

“They were literally saying, ‘Veux-tu revenir?’ And behind those words I sensed a great cry: ‘Why have I been abandoned? Why am I not with my brothers and sisters, who are married and living in nice houses? Do you love me?’ A great thirst for friendship.”

For several months, Jean devoted himself to finding out more about the treatment of those with mental disabilities. “I visited psychiatric hospitals and institutions, I spoke with families. And I discovered a whole world of suffering: these were perhaps the most oppressed and humiliated people of the world. They were called stupid, mad, imbeciles, foolish, idiots…All these words were used about them. They were not considered really human—so as long as you gave them food and lodging, you were doing a good act.” In Saint-Jean-les-Deux-Jumeaux, an asylum east of Paris, 80 men lived locked in a building made of cement blocks. They had no work, and spent most of their days walking around in circles. And those who remained with their families were not necessarily treated with more compassion. On a farm, Jean met a teenager who was kept chained in a garage.

Outraged by these discoveries, many people would have thrown themselves into pressing for reform. Jean’s background meant that he was used to mixing with people in positions of influence. Why didn’t he go straight to the top, I ask. Why didn’t he launch a campaign? “It’s good to campaign. But I could only do what I felt. All that I saw made me sad, maybe a bit angry, and all that I felt I could do was to start living with some of these people; to take a risk, and see what happened.”

What happened very quickly was that Raphaël and Philippe began to bring Jean Vanier fully alive in a way that neither the navy nor academia had. Raphaël had suffered meningitis as a child. He could speak only about 20 words, and his understanding was severely impaired. Philippe, a victim of encephalitis, talked over and over about the same things, and lived largely in a dream world. Both were physically as well as mentally disabled. Yet living with them, Vanier began to understand what it meant to be really human. “We did everything together—the shopping, the cooking, the gardening—but above all we had fun. We found we could really laugh together.” With other friends, Jean had been used to spending time doing things, achieving things, having intellectual conversations. “But with Raphaël and Philippe, I entered into a new kind of relationship. Before meeting them, my life had been governed largely from my head and my sense of duty; they brought out the child in me. I began to live from my heart.”

Although Jean had no grand plans, what he was doing chimed with the zeitgeist. In France and Italy, parents of children with mental disabilities were beginning to band together to object to large institutions. In America, Wolf Wolfensberger was advocating “normalisation” of the mentally disabled. The social services were keen for L’Arche to accept more people, and because the economy was strong they were able to support the fledgling organisation financially. Above all, though, there was an abundance of young people keen to join Jean, and try living by his example. “The 60s and 70s were the age of community: ‘Let’s get together and not be controlled by authority!’ It was the hippies in America, it was Woodstock. It was a huge moment.” Some stayed a short time, others for life. And so L’Arche grew, opening more houses in Trosly, then in other parts of France, then in Canada and beyond.

L’Arche communities are not uniform. Some welcome those so profoundly disabled, both mentally and physically, that they can neither speak nor walk, and the only means of communication is touch. In others, disabled men and women go out to work in gardens and studios. And, whereas Jean Vanier is a Catholic, Stephan Posner, the current head of L’Arche in France, is Jewish, while in Bangladesh and Palestine Christians and Muslims live together, and in India many in L’Arche are Hindu. People with mental disabilities can be a force for ecumenism: they tend to have an instinct for communion, and not to split hairs over questions of dogma and 
belief. What all the communities share, however, is a sense that they are not institutions but true homes—places in which those with mental disabilities live alongside “normal” people, all giving and receiving from one another. The actor and comedian Steve Coogan, whose brother and sister-in-law live and work in the community in Manchester, first visited Trosly as a teenager, and it struck him as “radical and ordinary, all at the same time”. “What L’Arche does brilliantly”, he says, “is to create the same sense of belonging as you get in a family.”

L’Arche came into my life slantwise, through a series of nudges. While at university, I made friends with someone working at Oxford High School. Over supper one evening, she told me she was giving up teaching the academic daughters of dons to go and live with mentally disabled people in France. She told me about Jean Vanier. Impressive, I thought; but perhaps a bit extreme. Then, the morning after I finished my finals, I had a call from my mother. My brother and sister-in-law, who were living in Tokyo, had had their first baby, a daughter called Mary. She had Down’s syndrome, and multiple complications with her heart and lungs, and was not expected to survive her first night.

Mary was lucky to be born in Tokyo. The doctors there were prepared to perform surgery that would not have been attempted in Britain—partly because the Japanese regard people with Down’s syndrome as special. Tenshi, they call them: angels. Mary found it hard to breathe, so the paediatrician constructed a tiny tent around her, pumped in cold, damp “English” air, and weaned her, slowly, off a respirator.

While Mary was still in intensive care, it happened that Jean Vanier visited Tokyo to give a talk. My brother went along. “If you ever have a chance to hear him,” he wrote home, “I urge you to take it. His holiness is almost tangible.” My brother is a career diplomat, careful with his words, so this was pretty striking. Spool forwards a few years, and my cousin Jock, a priest in Edinburgh, mentioned that he knew Jean Vanier. “I’d like to meet him,” I said. So Jock wrote a letter of introduction, and I headed off to France with a friend.

These were the pre-tunnel days, and we were in high holiday spirits as our ferry arrived in Calais and we drove through the vast, flat expanses of northern France. It was only as we turned off the autoroute into the Forest of Compiègne that we began to lose our nerve. In Trosly-Breuil, as we parked, a tall, thin man with very few teeth folded himself through the open car window. “Tu fumes?” he asked. What on earth were we doing here?

But that evening, and in the days that followed, our fears subsided. We ate together in Le Val Fleuri, home to a number of men who had lived in L’Arche for many years. Some, like my niece Mary, had Down’s syndrome, others, like Raphaël and Philippe, had suffered brain damage in the womb, or from infant illnesses. There was tiny Marc, who by birthright should have been heir to rolling acres in the Dordogne; Etienne, who looked like Ugolin in “Jean de Florette”; Patrick, the cadger of cigarettes; Dudule, Jean-Claude, Olivier, Didier, Pascal. Some were irrepressibly gregarious, others quiet. But all of them welcomed us, laughed with us, were patient with our rusty French. After supper, Jean Vanier tossed out tea-towels, and we all did the washing-up. Then we sat around a log fire, chatting. Somebody produced an old trumpet, and we cried with laughter as we tried in turn to play it.

“I could never prove this,” one of the assistants told me on that first visit, “but I have a strong sense that these people know and understand me at a deeper level than ‘normal’ people.” I began to have that feeling too. On our second evening, there was a birthday party for one of the men. Supper was followed by music, and dancing—which I’ve always hated. Feeling self-conscious, but thinking I was putting on a good show of enjoying myself, I saw Marc approach me. “Ça va, petite journaliste?” he asked, with a wry smile, and came to sit with me. On the final evening, overwhelmed by all I’d experienced, I went and sat for a while in the little chapel. Didier, who walked and spoke with great difficulty, found me there, sat with me, and rested his hand on my shoulder. People say, and rightly, that one of the advantages of becoming middle-aged is that you cease to be anxious about what others think of you. But I feel I had an early taste of this in Trosly-Breuil in my 20s. Nothing I’d ever learned or achieved could have impressed these people; they simply wanted me to be myself.

Rowan Williams, former archbishop of Canterbury, has been close to L’Arche since the 1970s, and has found it similarly liberating. “What L’Arche does is to question our assumptions that, in order to be living a life of worth and beauty, we need to be fluent and successful. The affirmation of everyone, whatever their capacity, allows those of us who think we are in control to face our own vulnerability and failure.”

It’s easy, of course, to be idealistic. Community life is tough. It offers no shelter from the tedious, everyday challenges of irritation, jealousy, exhaustion; and living with the anguish of men and women who have been rejected can awaken feelings of anger, even violence. There is a danger that “normal” people can be drawn to L’Arche in a search for meaning in their lives, only to move on when their needs are satisfied. “And for the people with learning disabilities,” one long-term assistant points out, “this can feel like a double-
rejection.” Her words strike an uncomfortable chord: I for one have dipped in and out of L’Arche. Nevertheless, that first visit felt to me like a kind of homecoming. “Come back!” the men called as they waved us off, and I knew that I would.

For the poet Michael Symmons Roberts, who last year scooped both the Costa and Forward poetry prizes with his collection “Drysalter”, an initial visit to Trosly-Breuil was so life-changing that he’s never felt able to return—“for fear of overwriting the memory”. He went there during the mid-1990s, a confirmed atheist working as a documentary-maker for the BBC. Commissioned to make an “Everyman” programme about genetic futures, he interviewed scientists who argued that pre-natal screening would allow us to eradicate suffering caused by inherited illness and disability. Parents would have many more choices to make about whether to continue with a pregnancy. But some philosophers were worried about a future “eugenics of choice”, so Roberts looked for a counterweight in the film, someone with a different vision of the future—“and somewhere I read about L’Arche, and was struck by Jean Vanier’s claim that ‘in a healthy society, the strong need the weak as much as the weak need the strong’.”

With a BBC crew, Roberts spent a week filming in Trosly, and from the first morning he was amazed by the “extraordinary ordinariness” of the place. “There were these young assistants from all over the world looking after men and women some of whom were very profoundly disabled—unable to walk or talk or eat by themselves. But there were no white coats; the place wasn’t institutionalised, or medicalised, or advertising its own holiness. It was just a group of people who wanted to live together. And there was a sense of love that was almost tangible. I come from a loving family; I’ve loved and been loved. But I’ve never encountered a pervasive atmosphere of love like that before.”

Film crews are pretty cynical, says Roberts—“to do their jobs, they have to remain objective and slightly cold. You cannot move them. But they were moved by L’Arche.” What moved them most? “There was a phrase Jean Vanier used when we interviewed him. He described people with mental disabilities as ‘teachers of tenderness’—and that’s what we experienced. Here were these men and women who had no interest in social veneer, or education, or achievement. They forced us all to take off mask after mask, until we faced one another as human beings: a mutual transformation.” In the course of the week, the filming became “almost irrelevant” to Roberts, and after he came home “nothing quite looked the same again”. He no longer felt persuaded by his atheism. While one of the film crew left the BBC to live in L’Arche, Roberts later became a Catholic.

In November 1994, I took a short sabbatical from work and spent a month in Trosly-Breuil. I lived in a house so close to the forest that at night it felt as if the owls were hooting in my room. In the morning, I cleaned and shopped and cooked while the six men and women I was living with went out to work—making pottery and candles and mosaics, or gardening. Jean-Pierre worked in the woods, and he’d come back at lunchtime and explain what he’d been up to in a series of cartoon exclamations: “baf! boom! craack!” Sometimes, in the afternoon, I’d wander through the village to visit my friends in Le Val. Trosly is a beautiful place: thick-walled stone cottages with crow-stepped roofs, hens clucking in back gardens, little plots of land lovingly cultivated. All the toil and fruitfulness made me feel I was living in the Book of Hours.

On my last evening, while I was doing some ironing, Jean-Pierre came and propped himself in the doorway. “Reste avec nous!” he said. English sound and French meaning merged poignantly: I’d rested, but I couldn’t stay. Next day, I headed for Paris. In Trosly, November had been purely November: misty mornings, still days, cold evenings. At Charles de Gaulle airport, Christmas was already in full swing—bright lights, tinsel, noise. Re-entering the “real” world, I experienced the bends.

I’ve been back regularly to Trosly since, and from time to time I’ve met Jean Vanier off the Eurostar and driven him to give talks in different parts of Britain: he is in constant demand as a speaker, whether to groups of prisoners, or businessmen, or to the Anglican bishops at the Lambeth Conference, all compelled not just by the story of L’Arche, but by Jean’s ability to communicate from his heart as well as his head. And, though his courtesy and serenity are unassailable, I’ve always suspected that he too finds leaving Trosly unsettling.

“Yes, it’s true,” he says. “Somewhere I feel a little bit awkward.” 

It’s partly to do with the praise lavished on him when he’s introduced to audiences. “I feel that people are saying, ‘You’re doing beautiful work’; and that doesn’t interest me because what they are really saying is, ‘I’m glad you’re doing it, not me.’ But it’s mainly that I find I have more fun, I’m more myself, when I’m with people who are a little bit crazy. And our people are a little bit crazy. I mean that they are not bothered by the need to conform—to be dressed as they should, to do as they should. I don’t want to be part of a world where every­body has to be the same, and to win—‘I succeed, therefore I am.’ I don’t want to live under the tyranny of normality.”

Wherever possible, therefore, he travels with his L’Arche family. In 1997, invited to receive an honour from the Vatican, he flew to Rome with a group from Trosly. Pope John Paul II, already frail, was visibly moved as they gathered round him. Then, just as he was about to leave, he turned and shuffled back towards them. Addressing the whole group, he appealed to them to “conduire l’église au nouveau millennium”. Then, in 2003, Jean was invited by the French government to receive the Légion d’honneur at the Elysée Palace. “They knew that I lived with people with disabilities, so I said, ‘Could I bring 40 or 50 people with me?’ They couldn’t say no.” Pascal, one of the men from Le Val, sought out President Chirac and “threw himself into his arms and embraced him. Of course, Chirac wasn’t really prepared for that, but there was such openness and love…”

On March 21st this year, World Down’s Syndrome Day, Jean visited Pope Francis, accompanied by members of L’Arche’s community in Rome. Italian news cameras captured an encounter of extraordinary joy: a meeting of twin souls, radically committed to the poor and the marginalised. But implicit in the news coverage was a challenge. How would Jean respond, I ask, to those who admire what he’s done, but who feel that they as ordinary people, with jobs to do and children to look after, cannot hope to change the world?

“You know,” he says with feeling, “I think people don’t believe in themselves enough. Maybe they’ve lived setbacks, complications in relationships, and it’s left them with a latent depression—‘I’m no good.’ But at the heart of L’Arche is the belief that every person is precious, and if I believe that every person is precious, I have to believe that I am precious too. Every one of us can make a difference, even if only in the way we look at people. Walking in the streets, passing a homeless person for example, it’s not so much a question of ‘Do you give him money?’, as ‘Do you really look at him as a human being?’”

It sounds straightforward enough. But these words—and the full implication of failing to recognise some people as human beings—are brought home to me a fortnight later when I visit Richard Keagan-Bull in L’Arche in south London. More able and articulate than many in the community, Richard lives independently in a little flat. Over a cup of tea, carried in on a William and Kate tray (“my favourite couple”), we chat about his early life, and his travels around the world as an ambassador for people with learning difficulties. He’s humorous, intuitive and very good company. Then he tells me about his holiday in Poland, which included a visit to Auschwitz. “What shocked me most was that everyone had labels pinned to their prison uniforms. I was there with my friends from L’Arche, one Polish and one German. And I asked my friend what label I would have had. I don’t think I would have been here today, nor none of my friends. I think that if I were there, they might have decided to do some tests on me in their so-called ‘hospital room’. It made me quite angry, it did. I wanted to kick something, I did. I feel quite angry now, I do.” I felt angry too, thinking of my friends in Trosly-Breuil, and of my niece Mary. She’s 27 now, with a bunch of younger siblings, and, as her brother Joe says, “she’s taught us all more about warmth, openness and enjoying the moment than anyone else we know. Wherever she goes, and whoever she meets, her joy is infectious.”

So what of the future—is Jean hopeful or fearful as he looks ahead? In the 50 years since its foundation, L’Arche has never been without challenges: shortage of money, and of assistants, ever more constricting health-and-safety regulations, and, in some countries, political upheaval and even war. Through his communities, Jean has been directly involved in some of the great conflicts of the past half-century—in Ireland, Israel, the Balkans, Rwanda. When we meet, he is particularly concerned for the communities in Ukraine and Syria; shortly after I return to London Frans van der Lugt, the Jesuit founder of L’Arche in Syria, is murdered in Homs. But a lifetime of facing apparently insurmountable difficulties has given Jean Vanier a kind of pragmatic equanimity. “Our world is a moving world,” he says. “So the question is not, ‘will the future be good, or will it be bad?’ The question is ‘what can I do today to accept myself as I am, to accept others as they are, and to help one or two people to fly?’”

While I was in Trosly this spring, a group of young people were there too, spending a few days finding out about life in L’Arche. The old farm building where visitors stay, normally deeply peaceful, thrummed with hip-hop and games of football. On my last evening, as I sat upstairs transcribing my interview, the teenagers were gathered in the room below talking to Jean. I could hear his steady voice, occasional silences, much laughter. Eventually, he walked back across the courtyard towards his little house. Watching his towering figure disappearing into the dusk, I thought of a line from a 16th-century Spanish mystic, St John of the Cross. “A la tarde,” he wrote, “te examinarán en el amor.” In the evening of life, you will be examined in love.

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