At a joyful and moving ceremony last night at St Martin-in-the-fields, the extraordinary Jean Vanier accepted The Templeton Prize. I have heard a number of people say that after meeting him they wanted to become a better person. I now understand why.
Over a half century ago, he visited a horrid psychiatric institution in France, and a resident with intellectual disabilities asked him “Will you be my friend?”.
What would you have done in this situation? I think I would have engaged in an awkward interaction and then moved on. Vanier in contrast invited two residents to come live with him, initiating a movement that now includes 147 communities in 35 countries. In L’Arche communities, people with and without intellectual disabilities share their lives. Perhaps the most striking — indeed radical — aspect of the Vanier’s vision was his expectation that those without intellectual disabilities would benefit as much as those with them. It’s a complete departure from the typical medical model in which designated experts apply clinical techniques to designated helpees.
At 86, Vanier remains a marvelously eloquent, funny and inspiring speaker. This is his answer to the eternal question: What does it mean to be fully human?