The news on Tuesday that Jean Vanier had died hit me like a punch in the gut. Tears welled up, unbidden.
I can’t claim that I knew him personally. But that’s not quite accurate. Because everyone knew him personally. That’s the kind of person he was. He wasn’t paying attention to the person behind you. He didn’t care if you were a prime minister or a corporate CEO or Mother Teresa — you, as you, mattered.
I only heard him speak three times. At a United Church General Council in Saskatoon, in 1972, he offered common sense to 600 people struggling to resist the pressures of a consumer culture.
It’s not about what brand of car you drive, Vanier said. It’s about who gets to ride in that car.
It’s not about how big or modern your refrigerator is, he said, it’s about who gets to eat out of that refrigerator.
An unprepossessing speaker
The second time I heard him was at a multi-denominational Festival of Faith in Ottawa. speaking to several thousand people.
He was an unprepossessing speaker, by conventional standards. He ambled on stage, almost shambled on, 6-feet-4-inches looking as if he had slept in his clothes, with a great hooked nose that hung over the microphone.
And a smile that stretched from here to eternity.
He talked as if there was only one person out there — and it was you.
He switched from English to French, and back again. He didn’t repeat himself in the other language. I knew little French — high school French doesn’t stick very long — but his French was so simple, so concrete, so practical, that I had little difficulty following him. Francophones, I gathered later, had the same reaction to his English.
And he told stories. Not about great adventures. Not about meeting with illustrious people — though he had certainly done that. Indeed, he was one himself, once. As the son of Governor-General Georges Vanier (1959-1967), the Queen’s senior representative in Canada, he had once moved in the highest circles of society.
No, stories about the most ordinary of people. The kind of people most of us overlook. Or ignore. Or even deliberately avoid, because we find their presence uncomfortable. People with intellectual and physical disabilities.
The meaning of beautiful
When Vanier met a small group of men with disabilities he was so moved that he invited some of them to come and live with him.
And that was the beginning of L’Arche, now a network of 152 homes around the world, 29 of them in Canada.
Vanier talked about his friends as if they were holy. And in his eyes, they were.
He described bathing men who could do nothing at all to bathe themselves. He called their bodies “beautiful.”
I didn’t understand that. I couldn’t understand it, until some years later when our son was dying. He had cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that afflicts the lungs. As thicker-than-normal mucus clogs up the tiny passages in the lung that transfer oxygen to the blood and remove carbon dioxide, the lungs have to work overtime to draw in enough air to do their job.
Cystic fibrosis also affects digestion, making it harder for the body to absorb nutrients.
So our son was, by any conventional standards, a caricature. Massive barrel chest. Arms and legs like Tinkertoy creations, all skinny bones and knobby joints.
But as I rubbed his chest, in an attempt to ease his breathing during his final hours, I remember thinking, “You have a beautiful body.”
Not beautiful because it matched any external standards. Beautiful because I loved it.
And that was Vanier’s point. His helpless friends had beautiful bodies. Beautiful because he loved them.
Standards worth aiming for
I can’t help comparing Vanier to other public figures.
Almost two thousand years ago, Christian missionary Paul wrote a letter to one of the churches he had established. He concluded, “Finally, dear friends, whateveris true, whateveris noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whateveris lovely, whatever is admirable -- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy …keep doing these things.”
I can’t think of one thing that Donald Trump has done that matches any of the qualities Paul commended. I can’t think of one thing that Jean Vanier did that doesn’t fit those qualities.
If Jesus was -- as Christian doctrine has long asserted -- God incarnate, embodied as a human, then Jean Vanier might qualify as Jesus embodied for our time.
And so I cry. For him. For me. And for the world that must now do without him.
Copyright © 2019 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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Last week’s column on the NRA didn’t generate as much mail as I had expected. Only five cancellations, including one from a minister in Texas.
But I certainly got feedback.
Steve Roney accused me of wanting to take guns away from hunters and people who live in remote and dangerous situations -- something I had not said -- but he did make one point about the NRA. I had said it used to be an organization of people who liked guns for hunting or recreation.
Steve said, “The NRA was actually formed during the U.S. Civil War as a patriotic project, with the intent to train civilians in soldiery, in case of need, in this conflict or in some future one. The idea was the one cited in the Constitution, of ensuring a ‘well-regulated militia’.”
Is the NRA today a “well-regulated militia”? I don’t think so.
Steve challenged my support of New York Attorney General Letitia James for calling the NRA “a terrorist organization.” He asserted, “Such an alarming statement demands justification; you give none.”
Apparently Steve has not read any of the columns over the last ten years in which I described right-wing terrorism. In that time, even the FBI has come around to the conclusion that right-wing terrorism is a greater threat to American stability and peace than left-wing terrorism.
Bob Sherman blasted the column as “a ’progressive’ left-wing diatribe damning all things about firearms.” Bob listed a number of programs the NRA has run to promote gun safety, and claimed, “the NRA is the greatest proponent of gun safety in the U.S.”
Bob also criticized Letitia James for calling the NRA “a terrorist organization.” His comment: “She took an oath of office to support the Constitution. The Second Amendment is part of the Constitution. Did she forget that? This leftist politician should be removed from office.”
Bob concluded: “I am a retired American police officer, and legally carry my semi-automatic firearm whenever I am in the U.S.”
There was also considerable support. Vic Sedo (whom I haven’t heard from for a while) wrote, “NRA stands for ‘Not Responsible Association’. Thought all should know.”
Tom Watson shared two experiences from his life: “I grew up on a farm in Southwestern Ontario. Although it was common for farmers to own a long gun, my dad didn't believe in having a gun around. When I was a young teen, I campaigned for a BB gun. It wasn't allowed. My folks thought there was the chance I might shoot my sister...by accident, of course. So I learned at a young age that guns could be problematic; consequently I never owned one.
“When we lived in St. John's, Newfoundland, in the late 1960s, the police did not carry guns. That ended in 1998 when the provincial legislature authorized officers of the Royal Newfoundland to carry sidearms. Until then it was the only unarmed police force in Canada. I doubt, frankly, that the city is any safer now than it was prior to 1998.”
Laurna Tallman wrote, “Like you, I am heartened by the decline of the NRA. It seemed to be molded from the bedrock of American pioneer life, and not only in the Southwest and South because the right to bear arms is enshrined in the Constitution, the hobby horse mounted by some frighteningly irrational people.
“What has surprised me is how quickly the organization is crumbling. From the NRA's revealed weakness I take hope that other atrocities, such as white supremacist groups and local paramilitary organizations, may have similar vulnerabilities that could erode their influence quickly. “
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Ralph Milton’s latest project is a kind of Festival of Faith, a retelling of key biblical stories by skilled storytellers like Linnea Good and Donald Schmidt, designed to get people talking about their own faith experience. It’s a series of videos available on Youtube. I suggest you start with his introductory section: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u6qRclYAa8
Ralph’s “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal -- is still available. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. The website for this project has closed but you can continue to order the DVDs by writing info@woodlake,com
Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. <http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca>
I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom
Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom or twatsonATsentexDOTnet