Why I nominated French philosopher Jean Vanier for the world’s top religious prize

The man behind the communities. Sharon Mollerus, CC BY-SA

Jean Vanier, the French philosopher who is being awarded the Templeton Prize, stands at around six-and-a-half feet tall. The height of his body reflects the depths of his heart. In 1964 Vanier did a small thing. After spending time in Paris in various institutions for people with intellectual disabilities, he emerged shocked and determined to change things. As he has since put it:

The whole reality of disabilities is scandalous. I have visited many numbers of institutions and found that people with disabilities are the most oppressed people in this world. Why do we reject people that are fragile?

His horror at the violence and oppression meted out to people with intellectual disabilities did not result in a political movement or a heroic act of social justice. Rather he did something very simple, but deeply radical. He took three men with severe intellectual disabilities into his home in Trosly-Breuil, north-east of Paris, and lived with them in community in the spirit of Jesus.

On the first night one of the men, Danny, became so disturbed that he had to go back to the institution. But Vanier and the two other men, Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux, persevered. They lived not as carer and cared for, but as friends who shared their lives in mutuality and vulnerability. From that small gesture emerged the L’Arche movement (the Ark), which now comprises 149 communities across the world.

Inside L'Arche

Within these communities, people with and without intellectual disabilities are welcomed and welcome one another not as carer and cared for, but as friends. Communities usually consist of one or several households, often with a day centre or workshop where members spend their days. The number of inhabitants varies, with the original community in Trosly-Breuil the largest with around 100.

The communities are funded by local authorities in the same way as other public services. The idea is that members live together in an ethos of mutual hospitality, where disability exists but not in the alienating, stigmatising ways in which society views it.

The Templeton Prize is considered by some to be the equivalent of a Nobel Prize for religion. It is presented annually to a living person who has “made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.”

In nominating Vanier I wanted to draw attention not only to his remarkable life and work, but also to recognise the importance of L’Arche and the power of small things. For me, Vanier is a gentle revolutionary. In a world obsessed with intellect, reason, power, competition and a very narrow view of success and winning, Vanier and the L’Arche communities live out a different story. People are not valued by what they can do or what they know, but simply for who they are. In a culture that tends to live by the slogan “I think therefore I am”, Vanier reminds us that to be is to be loved.

Jewellery-making at a L'Arche community in Mexico. Alexi Dagher, CC BY-SA

In his thinking, weak is the new strong. We are all weak, vulnerable and dependant on others. The message is not that the “strong” benefit from exposure to the “weak”, like some kind of self-help device, but that we all benefit from being with one another in all our diversity and difference. By having community at the heart of L'Arche, it means that people come to know one another, which opens up the possibility that we might end up caring about one another. Vanier talks a lot about belonging.

I like to summarise his thinking in this way: to be included, you just need to be in the room. To belong, you need to be missed; someone has to notice that you are not there and to care about that. It’s not difficult to include people with intellectual disabilities. But to offer places of belonging requires another dimension. When we look at the L’Arche communities, we can see that dimension in action.