Jean Vanier’s Ark

Jean Vanier

There’s a program on ABC radio called Encounter. It’s consistently good, and every so often it produces something miraculous. Last Sunday, and replayed during the week, there was a program about L’Arche, the 138 communities spread throughout the world in which

people with and without intellectual disabilities share life and celebrate the gift of difference.

As a member of the public commented on the program afterwards,

Thank you for this warm and beautiful program. My daughter is eleven and has downs syndrome. A friend called me to tell me to listen to this, and so tonight has been a special night for my wife and I, listening to this together. Our sincere thanks.

I too had a special night listening to it, and I invite you to listen to it yourself through the link at the end of the post.


L’Arche was established 46 years ago in a small French village when the Canadian philosopher, Jean Vanier, “invited two intellectually disabled men from a local institution to come and live with him in a spirit of friendship and equality.”  He named their home, “L’Arche”, French for “the Ark.”

In the program, Jean Vanier recalls the beginning, when he met a priest who was the chaplain of a small institution for people with disabilities.

So I discovered a world that I didn’t know anything about … I visited psychiatric hospitals, I visited other institutions, and then I discovered that people with disabilities were amongst the people who are the most oppressed in our world.

Having made this discovery, what Jean Vanier did next was “very simple.”

I got a house and I took two people from this institution and we just started living together. Of course there were all the, what I’d call the legal things that I had to go through … But it just began because I just felt that people with disabilities were being cruelly treated and not listened to, not seen as having a gift to give to society, and the weak were just being crushed.


The program interweaves the stories and voices of Jean Vanier himself, Annelise Jacky, an assistant from L’Arche in Vancouver, Sister Kathy Bourke, the Co-ordinator of L’Arche in Brisbane and some of the members of L’Arche in Brisbane.  It includes the stories and voices of Stanley Hauerwas, Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity School at Duke University in the US, and that of the late Henri Nouwen, former Harvard theologian who left Harvard to join L’Arche and wrote several books about the experience.

Nouwen comes to us via the indescribably beautiful voice of the narrator, Eugene Gilfedder, who reads various passages from Nouwen’s books including Adam, God’s Beloved:

At first I had to keep asking myself and others, ‘Why have you asked me to do this? Why did I say Yes?  What am I doing here?  Who is this stranger who is demanding such a big chunk of my time each day?  Why should I, the least capable of all the people in the house, be asked to take care of Adam, not of someone whose needs are a bit less?’  The answer was always the same: ‘So you can get to know Adam.’  Now that was a puzzle for me.  Adam often looked at me and followed me with his eyes, but he did not speak or respond … I wondered if he even recognised me.  How would I get to know him?

He goes on,

… During the first few weeks, I kept calling from the bathroom, ‘Please help me, please come and give me a hand. I can’t get him in the tub.  I can’t find his toothbrush … ‘Keep at it, Henri’, they kept telling me. ‘You’re just getting to know him, pretty soon you’ll be an old hand.  Pretty soon, you’ll love him.’  I had so much anxiety that I could not imagine what ‘loving Adam’ would mean.

Slowly, Nouwen starts to see Adam for who he is:

My whole life had been shaped by words, ideas, books and encyclopaedias, but now my priorities were shifting.  What was becoming important for me was Adam, and our privileged time together … Being close to Adam’s body brought me close to Adam.  I was slowly getting to know him.

And later,

What was so amazing about all this was the very gradual realisation that Adam was really there for me, listening with his whole being, and offering me a safe space to be.  I wasn’t expecting that, and though I do not express it well, it really happened … Sometimes when I was anxious, irritated or frustrated about something that wasn’t happening well enough, or fast enough, Adam came to mind, and seemed to call me back to the stillness at the eye of the cyclone.

The comments Annelise Jacky and Sister Kathy Bourke make during the program are also very special. Both of them talk of their struggles with the self, the struggle that is everywhere in what this extraordinary radio program and this extraordinary community called L’Arche offers to us all.

Kathy Bourke says,

I can’t forgive quite so easily but it’s the gift that I see men and women with intellectual disability have, so they can be quite angry, be quite hurt, but can go and put the kettle on and come back and immediately accept and welcome you back totally.  And there’s no buts.  I still live the life where I have a ‘but if’, and am not as free.


The program is wondrous, and everyone who listens will be moved.

For me, it’s exciting because what it shows of transformation is consistent with what I’m learning about it through my involvement with Landmark Education.  I know when I talk about transformation and the little glimpses I’ve had about its reality and the conditions of possibility for its occurrence, it sounds didactic and very probably barmy.

That’s why the program is great. It shows without telling.  So my recommendation is to listen to the program yourself.

If however you can stand the didactic, heavyhanded route, here is my take on it.

In living in community Annelise and Kathy and Henri Nouwen have each been called on to confront the self, to come face-to-face with the “I” and its insatiable demand for domination over the other. It is this confrontation that is essential to transformation. To put it in the terms used by Landmark, one cannot just decide to be transformed, to be authentic.  The only route to authenticity is to be authentic about where we have been being inauthentic.  To be authentic about where we have been wanting to dominate another, wanting to win, wanting to be right.  To come, as Annelise and Kathy and Henri do in the program, face-to-face with the “I”.

That one action, and only that action, is the path to transformation.


To go to the Encounter site and listen to the program, click here.


4 thoughts on “Jean Vanier’s Ark

  1. I’ll listen.

    You’ve reminded of an Australian movie that I adore (and I’m sure you know): Cosi.

    Adam, by the way, means “first blood” as in the first man, and that works well with this story.

    I’ll listen. Thanks.


    • Great. Love to hear your thoughts on it.

      Must borrow Cosi. I’ve never seen it. Wondering how a vehicle for the lovely Ben Mendelsohn escaped my eagle eye :)

      I didn’t know Adam meant first blood. Brilliant. You really are quite a philologist … how many languages can you speak/write?


  2. What else has Ben Mendelsohn done? I only know him from this movie. Toni Colette is wonderful in it, too.

    SGC, I just dabble in languages. Russian is my only solid accomplishment.

    Now, I’m realizing that there are organizations here in my own backyard with Ark in their names. Funny how once you learn something it starts to appear everywhere.


    • Russian is a brilliant accomplishment. And what it makes available! How I would like it for myself. My Russian friend got me up to “previiiiot” (my approx) and no further. I’m always intrigued by that very distinctive “iiii” sound. You know the one? Like the “i” in blink, only not quite.

      Ben M’s been in quite a lot of Aust movies. One of my faves is “The Year My Voice Broke” from 1987. He was also in a TV series called “Love My Way” in the last few years which was a huge hit here. He played the dangerous-and-not-quite-sympathique husband.


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