As Jean Vanier confronted death, he wrote of it as a “descent into what is essential, that which is most hidden in me, deeper than all the parts of success and shadow inside me.” He confronted life in much the same way, living in community with the intellectually disabled, his was a life spent in essentials, without pretense. In Vanier’s picture, living in community is a stripping away of the extraneous and confronting human brokenness and poverty. Apart from this openness community, he maintained, is not possible, so that those least prepared to live in community are those who bear the heaviest pretense of importance.
Henri Nouwen describes the move from the heights of academic success to living in Vanier’s L’Arche community where no one cared whether he had written a book: “L’Arche is built upon the body, not the word. Words are secondary.” Holding someone’s hand as they cry, saying “I forgive you for annoying me” and “I will also work on my own patience” – it’s about “a spirituality of love through small things.” It is not about idealized notions of community or love, but a communication reduced to the basics of heart and body.
Living in community and Vanier’s preparation to meet God seemed to consist of the same reduction: “That will be all that remains when the rest is gone: my naked person, a primal innocence which is awaiting its encounter with God.” In community and before God it may be that “our groanings” or our deepest essence exposed is the point of contact with others and the Other.
There is an isolated and suffering part to all of us which, in Paul’s description, is the opening to the deepest communion: “the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Ro 8:26-27, NASB). In Bonhoeffer’s echo of Paul, we cannot live in community apart from the capacity to be alone and we cannot be alone apart from the capacity to live in community. The openness of the one feeds into the opening to the other: the deep spiritual private communion with God which passes beyond articulation, and the human connectedness able to deny self for the building up of other.
Could it be that Paul’s “groaning” (of Ro 8) and his picture of a prayer life which passes beyond intelligible communication (I Cor 13-14) consist of the same exposure Vanier describes in his imagined final encounter with God? The passage beyond “success and shadow” to the deepest part of the self to the isolation of the individual, in Vanier’s description (in his 10 rules for living), is a passage beyond finite language: “We are very different from birds and dogs” as there is a “sort of cry of the infinite within us. We’re not satisfied with the finite.” Paul too, encourages the reach beyond articulate language into communion with the divine. What the “species of tongues” might consist of is unclear, other than that it is unintelligible and, if correlated with Ro 8, it is individual participation in the Trinity; private communion with the infinite.
At the same time, this informs us that the private is not synonymous with being isolated, as if we cannot get outside of ourselves so as to share the deepest part of who we are. This private interiority which passes beneath or beyond the intelligible is the place God meets us, “searches us” (Ro 8:26-27) and communes with us in the Spirit (I Cor 14:14-16). Paul describes this prayerful, unintelligible experience, as the encounter with the Spirit, which he presumes can be made intelligible. This “mystery” (14:2) does not pass beyond the possibility of symbolization, but is to be interpreted. The species of tongues describes private communication with God as, perhaps, everyone’s experience before God is unique. It must be that the Word woven into the fiber of our being is a “species of language” or communication that refracts, reflects, groans, as part of our unique identity. This communion is as specific as the name – the secret name by which God calls us.
Vanier, speaking at Nouwen’s funeral, captured this familiarity, shared anguish, shared yearning and understanding with a simple comment: “Henri was always Henri.” Our name spoken by our closest friends bears a familiarity marked by shared experience, a shared journey. When loved one’s speak our name it comes not only with a knowledge of our identity but as part of a joint identity. When God says our true name, when we have overcome and received the name inscribed upon the white stone (Rev 2:17), we enter fully into the identity by which he conceived us and has known us. When we learn our name, I presume, it will be from out of the private language in which we commune with God. Daily entry into this communion, must be as Vanier imagined it, a continual dropping off, cutting away, being reduced to the essence of who we are.
Noam Chomsky posits the necessity of a universal grammar shared by all languages and built-in to language users such that any particular language lights up a portion of this deep grammar. As image bearers communing with the Logos, perhaps this deep grammar is ignited in the peculiar image each of us shines forth. It is not only that God communes and communicates with us appropriate to who we are but this communication uniquely shapes us. God must reveal himself through our individual hearts and minds but as this revelation flows it refracts differently, shaping the character of the receptor, the reflector, the heart and mind into and through which this revelation passes.
In Vanier’s description of his first experience of living in community he thought that he would come and help those with intellectual disabilities, then he realized it was working the other way around. His paradigm shifted away from separation between the helped and helpers to recognizing all are called to share their gifts – to speak a unique word from God to one another. In the words of George McDonald:
“Each will feel the sacredness and awe of his neighbor’s dark and silent speech with his God. Each will regard the other as a prophet, and look to him for what the Lord has spoken. Each, as a high priest returning from his Holy of Holies, will bring from his communion some glad tidings, some gospel of truth, which, when spoken, his neighbours shall receive and understand. Each will behold in the other a marvel of revelation, a present son or daughter of the Most High, come forth from him to reveal him afresh. In God each will draw nigh to each.”
From out of the peculiar communion with God, the unique tongue, each is to bring a prophetic word from God.
“Come and prophecy” is the call to all of us, not so as to compare to our neighbor, but because the word we bear brings our unique identity before God into the body. In this body we always count the other better, the point, the purpose of our own aspiration to make ourselves intelligible, as our own well-being is tied up with this other. Vanier said, “People come to community because they want to help the poor. They stay in community because they realize they are the poor.” There is no ambition, no competition in the openness of love as each is dependent on the gifts of the other (Paul’s point to the Corinthians). God has made me for the body, for himself, so that my most private groanings and brokenness, which joins me in communion with God, joins me to the body. Life together opens a space and purpose for our private groanings, which made intelligible is our prophetic word.
Jean Vanier – what a marvel of revelation – would that we each could so prophesy.
2 thoughts on “Learning to Prophesy from Jean Vanier”
A moving and fitting Axtonian tribute.
Vanier and Nouwen’s understated work is profound in its earthly and human simplicity and, for that reason, theirs may be the most Christlike of all of our literary influences. I love them for the same reason I love Wendell. But where Wendell’s passion is his oneness with place and people, theirs is with…
you know as I try to finish that I don’t think there’s a lot of difference.
Them and Bonhoeffer, I suppose.
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