Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Review: Signs

The back cover of this book summarizes this author, his thinking, and his short (89 pages) book --- and in it I see all that is so wonderful about the book, and so troubling.  I am not sure I have ever so marked up, underlined, and written comments, questions, and exclamation points in the margins of a single book.  I found myself saying aloud: “Yes, you’ve got it!” one minute, and “Oh come on now; you CAN”T DO THAT!!!” the next.  I argued often with the author, and then thinking on it more, felt as if I were arguing with Jesus.  Unlike another book I recently reviewed, Jean Vanier’s looks at the world and does see hope, and his hope lies in a transformation of the Church, and in you and me.  I pray we are up to the challenge.
On the back cover is written:
“Jean Vanier is a Canadian Catholic philosopher, humanitarian, and the founder of L’Arche, an international organization that creates communities where people with intellectual disabilities and those who assist them share life together.”  … “Jean Vanier’s Signs is essential reading for all seeking to bring that sense of hope and renewal into their own lives.  Vanier identifies seven words representing the seven paths of transformation of the heart of L’Arche philosophy:  from humiliation to humility, from normalization to the awakening of conscience, from exclusion to encounter, from power to authority, from isolation to community, from strength to vulnerability, and from secret to mystery.  The same paths should be heeded by the Church if we are to rediscover that vision of a society that grows outward from the poor and disadvantaged.”
The book’s Introduction summarizes how and why the Church and all people need to change.  “L’Arche and Faith and Light have led us to discover something wonderful:  when we enter into a real relationship with people with an intellectual disability, we are transformed.  … If we ‘lower’ ourselves to be with the weakest among us, then we meet the One who humbled Himself for us all.” 
In his chapter on Humiliations, Vanier gives examples of forced humiliations of institutions and people.  He talks of humiliation leading to victimization, or possibly “a true encounter with the other as an equal … and in mutual respect for difference,” whether that difference be mental or physical, or even difference of religion.  He greatly admires the movie Of God’s and Men and its true story of the brothers who were warned to leave Algeria in advance of the marching terrorists, but chose to stay “because they were living a deep and true encounter with their Muslim neighbors.”  And they were horribly slaughtered, but “this could be what we Christians are called to now:  to live true encounters.”  He notes: “We aren’t here either to change or to convert the other.  That is the work of Jesus, … we are here to encounter others in humility.” 
Heady words.
Vanier’s chapter on Awakening talks about various humiliations as awakening our need to change.  He says the Church fears humiliation, and thinks it knows a superior truth.  He talks about parents teaching children to encounter the weak, and form personal consciences about them.  “It is my personal conscience to tell me how to live … the concrete situations of my everyday life.  The Magisterium doesn’t have anything to say about the person in front of me now.”  Vanier focuses on the poor and disabled he sees at L’Arche to generalize: “It isn’t a matter of willingly doing good, but also of helping the other to discover his or her personal value, and in working with him or her to create a more just and loving world.”
And I found myself saying: “And if all the rich work with all the poor, soon all the world will be poor,” and remembering the words: “The poor will always be with you.”  Is the change he speaks of for everyone, I wonder?
There are so many more things I could write about this book, so many challenging examples, so many simplifications on how to live a humble life --- or are they a reality we fear to face?  I hope this book will be discussed by our Bible Study Group in the near future.  In the interim, all its words about humility and focusing on our neighbor deeply resonate within me.


  1. Thanks for reading these books and your willingness to do book reviews.

    I've read some of Vanier's other stuff. I don't buy what he's selling. I can't put my finger on it (and it's been a long time since I started passing over what he has to say but there's something kind of New Age about his thinking, and some very subtle errors. Like Marxism, what Vanier says sounds so good on paper, but in reality, it's a lot of B.S.

    For instance, take the quote you provided, "We aren’t here either to change or to convert the other. That is the work of Jesus, … we are here to encounter others in humility.” Now of course, I don't know the context where he said that, but taken just as a statement standing alone, it isn't true (I don't think). We ARE here to convert the other. "Go forth and make disciples of all men, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son...." To say airily, "[Conversion] is the work of Jesus..." is to me, a little disingenuous. So many "missionaries" nowadays go into villages and never even speak of God or Jesus but do social work (I was watching a program about 2 Jesuit priests who were also doctors who spent 20 or so years in the Amazon regions taking care of people, but had just a handful of converts to Catholicism by the end of their stay. They believe in social justice, not the saving of souls. Contrast that to the Spanish Franciscan missionaries to Mexico in the 1600's.)

    The only thing I have gotten of value from Jean Vanier is a validation of my thinking that God made everybody, even the disabled, and I must treat my fellow human being, no matter how they look to me or seem to me, with respect and reverence because they are God's child, and so am I. If they are severely disabled I must not discount their relevance. They also have a purpose in God's Kingdom.

    Other than that, I'm not sure I'd give Vanier a second look.
    God bless you. ~ Fran

  2. Fran, your words "I can't put my finger on it" perhaps summarizes my thinking. Because God has put 'humility' so much in my focus in recent months, that part of his book stands out with me. Other parts seem somewhat New-Agey, but not nearly as much as the prior book I reviewed by the Czech priest who had little hope for the Church. Vanier's focus on looking at the other, on loving the other, in contrast to society's gross interest in 'selfies', is a good contrast. In my prayer life, I am seeing so many instances where my interests outrank of my neighbor, even those I am praying for!

    We can't toss away all our talents, resources, and blessings from God and say: "I'm going to live with the poor, period." Although that may be a challenge, a greater challenge is to use fully all the blessings God has given us AND love our neighbor. We all have vocations in life; not all are called to live among the poor. I think were I to toss aside the many blessings God has given me and go to live a simple life among the poor, come judgment day He may be most critical: "I gave you all the abilities to help so many, or the particular ones I brought into your life who needed your help, and you chose to ignore Me so you could do what YOU felt good about? That was burying your talents in the sand, not giving Me a return on them." And I don't think I would like the direction He might send me in. I know I need to be more humble, to see and love my neighbor better, AND to be patient that God is using me for His intents, in His own good time.

  3. You have a very good point. In fact, wouldn't it be just up Satan's alley if God gave someone the talent to, say, find a cure for cancer, and made all circumstances point in that direction, but the person instead went to live in a hermitage to be a contemplative? I heard once JPII very much wanted to be a contemplative monk, and before he became Pope prayed for that, and even requested to be released by his bishop so he could join a contemplative order (lucky for the Church, his bishop said no.) JPII would have not really been doing God's will by becoming a monk, just because it is such a good thing.

    You are right also about not everyone being called to go live with the poor. Absolutely! God needs people in every social strata, in every walk of life. Imagine if we had some good solid Catholics (and maybe we do!) in the very high places in our government today. They would perhaps be helping to shape policy that really does bring about God's Kingdom. You probably already know this, but the guy who used to own Domino's Pizza (Tom Monaghan) began Ave Maria University and Ave Maria School of Law (used to be in your neck of the woods but he moved the whole thing to Florida) to educate college age kids and make lawyers seeped in traditional Catholic education and values. I cannot even imagine all the good that has come from his vocation. To me, the key seems to be open always and everywhere to responding to God's will (but oh boy, I just wish sometimes He'd just send me a memo rather than make me discern and tease it out). Vanier is right in many ways, ala St. Francis of Assisi, that self promotion and ambition is really not God's way, but I have often thought, maybe God lets some people do that for a while until they get into a position of power, wealth, or authority, and then He calls them, and if they answer, He begins to use them for His ultimate purpose to build up His kingdom. They probably will have to have a conversion of heart of sorts, but His purpose is for them to do His will from where they are.

    I heard this somewhere (probably from some evangelical!); the order of our life should be JOY. Jesus, others, you. I liked that.

  4. I know Tom, and see him on occasion --- most often at about 3AM when he shows up in the adoration chapel. He certainly is a man trying to be who God made him to be, one of my common prayers for myself.

    I think the flip side of trying to be who God made me to be is trying to be all that I can be, striving for all the earthly (and spiritual?) heights when that is not what I was created to achieve. It is so easy to slip into the mode of thinking what I want is what God wants for me. Which is where humility comes in, and the prayer I pray nightly, and its ending line about praying for others to be holier than me, provided I become as holy as I should be. And in that, I am sure, I will find joy.