An interview with Jean Vanier

I was lucky enough to get to interview Jean Vanier this week, thanks to a friend of mine, Ciaran Foulds, who works as a volunteer at one of the Arche communities which Jean founded. L’Arche, or ‘the Ark’, began in the 1960s, when Jean and a friend moved into a small house in north France, and welcomed in two mentally handicapped people, to see if they could live together and learn from each other.

From that small beginning, L’Arche has slowly grown, to the point where 300 people live together in that village – volunteers and ‘core members’, as the community refers to its mentally handicapped members. There are also some 130 other L’Arche communities around the world, where volunteers live with and learn from the mentally handicapped.

The heart of Jean’s philosophy is that ‘we have something to learn from the weak’ – their simplicity, their ability to connect, their need for belonging, and their vulnerability. In opening up to them, we also open up and admit to our own weakness and vulnerability. He has a vision of society in which the mentally handicapped are at the centre, rather than hidden at the margins, and we celebrate them for their humanity, and what they teach us about our own humanity.

I interviewed him about Greek philosophy – he has written on Aristotle – but really the discussion is about what is left out of Greek philosophy. Jean is a communitarian in a deep sense, emphasizing humans’ need to belong, to commune with each other, to connect and celebrate life together. But ‘communitarianism’ is just an intellectual label, and labels can be divisive. He keeps bringing us back to the simple encounter of one person with another, their openness to each other, and the acceptance of their shared humanity. It was an inspiring encounter.

1: Can ancient philosophy be a guide for life?

2: What makes us human: our intelligence, or our heart?

3: The importance of celebration

4: What can we learn from the weak?

5: How do we become human?

6: How does Jean avoid the ‘guru syndrome’?

7: Do we need a new common set of values in society?

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