Becoming Human, by Jean Vanier

Jean Vanier founded l’Arche, a network of over one hundred communities for people with intellectual disabilities.  These communities are spread over thirty different countries.  The book, Becoming Human, is written from the experiences that Vanier had over thirty-four years of living in l’Arche communities.

In the l’Arche communities, a volunteer worker makes a commitment to stay with and care for each individual with a mental disability for life.  In the book, Jean Vanier tells some stories of individuals with mental disabilities who were isolated in loneliness and chaos because they had been abused and dehumanized, come to trust their assistant after many moths or years of consistent love and service.  But these relationships aren’t only beneficial for the disabled person.  

Vanier emphasizes that every person has a unique purpose and unique gifts to bring to the world.  People with disabilities are of “no use” to the competitive, commercialized culture that we live in, but in the world of love, they have much value.  In their dependent state, people with massive disabilities are able to trust others fully and love others in a beautiful, simple way that teaches us all how to love better.  

For example, a 20 year old man named Antonio who was weak and fragile and could not walk, speak, or move his hands and needed extra oxygen to breathe, “could not love by being generous, by giving things to people or by doing things for them; he was too needy.  He lived a love of trust.”  An assistant said of him, “Antonio has changed my life.  He led me out of a society of competition where one has to be strong and aggressive to a world of tenderness and mutuality, where each person, strong or weak, can exercise their gifts.”  

After reading this book, I will always be haunted by Jean Vanier’s dedication to and deep love for the poor and marginalized.  At one point, his words about the poor cut me to the heart:

Why do the rich and powerful–you and I, in short–fear so much the Lazaruses in our midst?  Is it not because we are frightened of having to share our wealth, frightened of losing something?  It is easy to give a few coins to a beggar; it is more difficult to give what is necessary to maintain our own standard of living.  We fell so inadequate in the face of poverty…I had this fear of being sucked into a vortex of poverty.  To be open is an enormously risky enterprise…To give food to a beggar who knocks on the door can be quite an easy thing to do.  But if he keeps coming back–with his friends–then what do we do?  …We are frightened that the beggar is calling is to change our lifestyle. 

Vanier’s answer to our fear is “inclusion.”  We must realize that the rich and the poor both belong to a common humanity, that we need each other, and each person–every person who begs, every person with severe mental disabilities, every person with AIDS–has something unique to bring to the human scene.  Every person has a “role to play in the world.”  Once we realize this, once we begin to know the poor and marginalized as individuals, we begin to move from trust to distrust and from closed to openness.    

A critique of this book would be one that my Mom (a grad student of the social sciences) pointed out as she read, “I hate to be this scrutinizing, but where are the sources?  I’m used to evidence and proof.”  Although Jean Vanier has some wonderfully utopian sentiments that we all hope are true, some of the statements that he makes about the human psyche and relationships are based on experience and intuition.  This work is definitely not a scholarly article, but the title after all, is Becoming Human.  From the beginning, we are warned that this book is all about human connections, human experience intuitively felt aside from sciences, hard evidence, mathematics, and practical capitalistic realities.  But maybe this is the great strength of the work; to draw us back to the life of the heart.  We all need to be reminded once in a while that we are not machines–we are indeed, human. 

If you are interested, check out to find out more about l’Arche communities.

L'Arche USA 

May God help us to learn to love from the “least of these.”  May God give us the courage, in the spirit of incarnation, to join the “least of these” in their suffering.

–Heather Kellis