“Let us meet across differences – intellectual, cultural, national, racial, religious” Jean Vanier.
As followers of my blogs know, I try to follow and get to listen to Radio 4’s “Thought for the day”, whenever the opportunity arises and today it arose. Today’s subject was Jean Vanier and his work among those with “intellectual difficulties”, and him receiving the Templeton prize, which happened yesterday, with the speaker in attendance. “Jean Vanier to Receive 2015 Templeton Prize at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 18th May” relates the story and good old Wikipedia gives its customary helpful run down on the man.
While not the main thrust of this blog posting, which I will come onto, Jean Vanier is clearly a fascinating man and one of life’s true heroes that could/should inspire many, and while a little skeptical when it comes to high profile, prestigious prizes (see here for the Templeton write up on the current winner), Templeton does have a remarkable knack of identifying and honouring the right people since it started, clearly fulfilling the criteria: “made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical work”. Like many born into privilege who could have been a high achiever in whatever pursuit he might have set his mind to follow, Vanier has dedicated the last fifty years of his life to the work to with supporting and empowering the lowly and neglected, for which he was being rightly honoured: “L’Arche (the organisation that he founded) encourages people toward mutually transformative relationships, where those who help are transformed by those they encounter. Vanier discovered that those people who society typically considers the weakest enable the strong to recognize and welcome their own vulnerability.” The moving part of today’s Thought for the day was listening to concrete examples of this happening in Vanier’s own life.
I must admit, I began the day feeling a bit sorry for myself, that somehow with all my genius, nous and potential to contribute that I had somehow been cast aside onto society’s scrapheap and wishing I was dead. I realize that this is an unrealistic overall assessment of my own personal predicament even if aspects are true and taking heart from what Vanier had managed to achieve there is scope to make my few remaining years matter. The area that Vanier focused on (if I read aright what has been written) is in what is popularly and politically correctly termed these days as working with those with learning disabilities. It is not an area I have had a lot of exposure to. But I have had more to do people with mental health issues living on the fringes of society, the elderly and especially those with dementia and the homeless whose every day existence is an exercise in survival. Besides doing “stuff” that may be useful to such folk, I can at least do what Vanier did and affirm their worth as human beings, and what they can contribute to wider society is just as important as that of life’s high earners and achievers, and rather than being a burden they have something important to give.
If there is a theological rationale behind all this, it might come from the very first verse in the Bible that I learnt off by heart and for many still the most memorable: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” John 3:16. It doesn’t take much theological unraveling to conclude that if this is true then all of us are of value and are significant. But I thank God for people like Jean Vanier that practically reinforce this truth by the way they live their lives each day, in particular by giving attention to and affirming and honouring those who society tend to discard.