Henri Nouwen and Jean Vanier -- lives of Love and Lessons in Leadership

i continue to be with Jean Vanier  and i am thinking of one of his deep friendships — the companionship he had with Henri Nouwen.

Henri was a Catholic priest and academic who taught at the University of Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard, and spent his last years with L’Arche. 

For some, the letters of Vincent Van Gogh communicate a view the he saw life as a pilgrimage of sorts  This is interesting because Henri was influenced by the great artist — and Henri’s life (as i see it) was a pilgrimage.

In The Wounded Healer, Henri writes that ”the illusion of leadership is to think than man can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.” This view has a long ancestry — the idea that changing the world is rooted in changing oneself. This simple fact explains why it is the practitioners (rather than career-preachers) who are able to genuinely move hearts and galvanise our hands 

A person who has spent time in the desert and seen reality as it is,  (the sages in the Indic region called this darshana) walks out with a deep recognition of the fact that ”at every moment of our life we have an opportunity to choose” and ”the way we respond to circumstances” determines whether we become ”a source of joy” or bitter victims ranting at Fate. (words in quotes from Henri in (Here and Now: Living in the Spirit

This person, the true Leader who has walked the desert and emerged ”radiating joy” , is a ”messenger of hope” — someone who ”keeps speaking about the sun while walking under a cloudy sky.” 

”Wherever he goes, whomever he meets, he is able to see and hear something beautiful, something for which to be grateful.....He is a realist....there is nothing sentimental about him....He doesn’t deny the great sorrow that surrounds him nor is he blind or deaf to the agonising sights and sounds of his fellow human beings, but his spirit gravitates towards the light in the darkness....” Henri Nouwen, like Jean, is Light.

In Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life, Henri exhorts us to move beyond a life where ”we act as if we were simply dropped down in creation and have to decide how to entertain ourselves until we die” and work ourselves  to the realisation that each of us owes Life a vocation.

Viktor Frankl, drawing from chilling experiences of the Nazi pogroms, echoes this when he writes (Man’s Search For Meaning) that ”we need to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk....but in right action and in right conduct.”

The way i spend each day is my answer to Life’s question for me.

Jean Vanier -- a life of Love

In 1963, after spending time with the Navy, exploring the possibility of becoming a priest, and studying philosophy, a 34 years-old man was invited by his spiritual guide to visit a village in France. The visit opened his eyes to the enormous suffering that lies all around us. What particularly moved him was the state of people who have mental challenges and (at that time) were locked up in asylums  The next year, he took up residence in a bare cottage (with no running water or toilet) and invited two men who were challenged to live with him. He was not sure what the road ahead was — but he took this step. In talks and writings later, he would comment that he was changed by them, that they became ”teachers of tenderness.”

The man callled this cottage L’Arche (the Ark)  Today, there are about 150+ L’Arche communities around the world in 35+ countries  In these communities (and many many places elsewhere around the world), people live life with the conviction that ”we are all called to do, not extraordinary things, but very ordinary things, with an extraordinary love” (Community and Growth). They do this by embracing and caring for the sick, the abandoned, the despised — the people, if i may say so, rejected by the practical, conventional world.

In Man and Woman God Made Them, Jean writes — ”A society which discards those who are weak and non-productive risks exaggerating the development of reason, organisation, aggression and the desire to dominate. It becomes a society without a heart, without kindness - a rational and sad society, lacking celebration, divided within itself and given to competition, rivalry and, finally, violence.”

Jean’s response to this reality was not a cynical withdrawal away from a brutish world but to live the life described in sacred texts — a life that demonstrates that ”The response to war is to live like brothers and sisters. The response to injustice is to share. The response to despair is a limitless trust and hope. The response to prejudice and hatred is forgiveness.”

People who have met and spent time with Jean Vanier use words such as humility and phrases such as ”palpable holiness”  i think, at the heart of his life lay a comprehension of what Love means — and a Faith that if each of us grows in Love, ”the prisons of our egoism” will unlock and the world will become a better place 

Jean Vanier passed on yesterday — when i first heard this, my flag moved down half-mast  but as i spent time on my notes about him, i realised that this is an inappropriate response. I think his life is a call to action and, the only tribute of value is for me to re-commit to making myself better every moment — and consequently, perhaps being of some use to the world. 

Mary Ann Evans writes in Middlemarch”What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult to each other?” Jean taught us that the meaning of life lies in this.