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Templeton Prize winner illustrates how a burden can be a blessing

Caring for others less able can challenge even the strongest of us, but the work of Jean Vanier challenges us to view what blessings can be found in unselfed giving.

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    Jean Vanier, the founder of L'ARCHE, an international network of communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together, gestures as he talks during a news conference, in central London, Wednesday, March 11, 2015. Vanier has been awarded the 2015 Templeton Prize. Valued at 1.1 million British pounds (some 1.7 million US dollars, some 1.5 million Euro), the Templeton Prize has been one of the world's largest annual monetary awards given to an individual for over 40 years, according to the organization.
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I was delighted to hear that the 2015 Templeton Prize, widely considered the most important award in the field of religion and spirituality, is being awarded to Canadian Jean Vanier, lifelong advocate for the disabled. Established in 1972, the prize has gone to such luminaries as Mother Teresa, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Billy Graham. 

In choosing Mr. Vanier, the Templeton Foundation celebrates what some fear may be a waning worldview – one which sees the vulnerable as not only deserving of care but also as essential components of the spiritual growth and development of the rest of humanity.

Vanier’s life’s work offers a hopeful counterpoint to the concept of “burden" – a concept we seem to have reverted to in describing the relationship of the vulnerable to those who care for them. The idea, of course, is that becoming or bearing such a burden should be avoided if possible.

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Vanier disagrees. A retired British naval officer, son of a former Governor General of Canada, he is the author of more than 30 books and the subject of many others. In 1964, after seeing firsthand the mistreatment of people with disabilities in France’s institutions, Vanier invited two of these patients to join him in his home outside of Paris, to live and work as peers, and soon his revolutionary notion of living as family – disabled and able-bodied alike – grew into an international organization called L’Arche. 

Today there are 147 L’Arche communities in 35 countries. The able-bodied who assist their disabled housemates are often refugees from an outside world of careerism, success, and ambition, and at L’Arche, it’s thought by some that these assistants – not their disabled housemates – become the true beneficiaries of their time there.  

Vanier’s work suggests that those in need, rather than being burdens, have much to offer caregivers. Without the chance to assist them, the potential helpers of this world miss out on a crucial opportunity for their own spiritual growth and development.  

The late Henri Nouwen, renowned and prolific spiritual writer and Catholic priest, is perhaps the most well-known L’Arche assistant. He left behind a career as respected Harvard theologian, overwhelmed by the stress of academic ambition, and went to live as chaplain of the L’Arche community Daybreak near Toronto. He shared a household of ten – disabled people and their four assistants – and he lived there for ten years, until his death in 1996.

When he arrived at Daybreak, Mr. Nouwen was asked to care for a young man named Adam who had daily seizures, who could not speak, walk, eat, wash or dress himself. It was never clear whether he even recognized Nouwen, who wrote, “In the beginning, I was afraid to be with Adam. He is so fragile that I was always worried I would do something wrong. But gradually I came to know and love this stranger. As I gave him his bath, brushed his teeth, combed his hair, gave him his breakfast, and talked to him as if he could fully understand me, my fears were gradually cast out by emerging feelings of tenderness and care.” (“The Road to Daybreak, A Spiritual Journey” Henri J.M. Nouwen, 1988)

Perhaps, given the choice, Adam would not have elected to ask so much of another. The task of caring for him and others like him is mighty but unsung. Seen in this light you could almost understand how some would want to spare their family and friends the task. 

But Nouwen came to see it differently, writing,

"Adam is the most broken of us all, but without any doubt the strongest bond among us all. Because of Adam, there is always someone home, because of Adam there is a quiet rhythm in the house, because of Adam there are moments of silence and quiet, because of Adam there are always words of affection, gentleness and tenderness, because of Adam there is patience and endurance, because of Adam there are smiles and tears visible to us all, because of Adam there is always space for mutual forgiveness and healing…yes because of Adam there is peace among us…" (“Seeds of Hope, a Henri Nouwen Reader” edited by Robert Durback, 1989) 

Nouwen saw a direct relationship to Scripture, noting that Adam embodied the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians: “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong.” 

Kara Tippetts, a prominent Christian author and mother of four who died recently, offered her own take on burden, in this case, the burden of suffering. In an open letter to Brittany Maynard, the Oregon woman who chose to end her own life through assisted suicide in November 2014. Ms. Tippetts, who was documenting her own struggle with illness at the time said, “Suffering is not the absence of goodness, it is not the absence of beauty, but perhaps it can be the place where true beauty can be known." 

John Swinton, professor at University of Aberdeen, Scotland, Divinity School nominated Vanier for the Templeton Prize. In an e-mail, he explains why: 

"In a world that is obsessed with intellect, reason, power, competitiveness and a very narrow view of 'winning,' Jean and the L’Arche communities speak out and live out a different story ... people are not valued by what they can or cannot do, or by what they do or do not know. Rather they are valued for what they are, and what they are is loved. I think that is a pretty revolutionary message: to be is to be loved. So I nominated Jean because I wanted his work to be acknowledged, but more than that I wanted people to have the opportunity to live it out."

May Jean Vanier’s moment with the Templeton Prize reveal the potential for the true beauty that often comes under the guise of burden.

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