From Brokenness to Community

bv Jean Vanier, Paulist Press, 1992, 52 p.
Reviewed by Jack Heppner.

This short, but insightful book is comprised of two lectures Jean Vanier presented in 1988 at Harvard University to inaugurate the Wit Lecture series on “Living a Spiritual Life in the Contemporary Age.” The first is entitled, Through Their Wounds We are Healed, and the second, Community: A Place of Bonding, Caring and Mission.

As in all of his writings, Vanier draws on experiences he has had with building L’Arche communities for the disadvantaged around the world. He is firmly convinced that God calls each of us, first to an intimate relationship with himself, and then to belong to communities of hope. He states that the greatest fear of physically and mentally challenged people is that of rejection – not being accepted and valued for who they are. However, when they are accepted in a loving, caring community they invariably begin to find healing. And in that process, they challenge us all to discover our own brokenness that prevents us from relating to others in healthy and non-competitive ways. Vanier is convinced that the face of the world could be changed and healed if we could all overcome our fears of connecting with broken and wounded people around us.

In his second lecture he tells the story of Armando, an eight-year-old boy who had been abandoned by his mother. He had severe mental disabilities, could not walk or talk and his small, broken body emanated messages of rejection and despair. After he was taken into a L’Arche community and loved unconditionally, his body began to relax. When picked up his whole body quivered with excitement, as if to say, “I love you too!” When a bishop visited that community he was invited to hold Armando. After half an hour the bishop was asked if he wanted to put the boy down. “No,” he replied, “Armando is ministering to me in ways I have never experienced before.”

Vanier is very much aware that life in authentic community means being willing to confront the darkness, anger, jealousies and rivalries hidden in our own hearts. That is why communities, like families, are places of pain that cries for healing. And as healing begins, springs of life and tenderness begin to flow from the depths of our beings, offering life and hope to those around us. Groups of like-minded people who practice mutual flattery are not true communities, says Vanier, and people in them will not really grow. But those who do begin to grow in the context of true community sometimes become a threat to others as their mediocrity is revealed.

Throughout these two lectures, Vanier stubbornly keeps insisting that the pathway toward community always leads through brokenness. It is a book that will challenge and inspire all persons searching for enduring wholeness in their lives.