Jean Vanier: Portrait of a Free Man

Jean Vanier: Portrait of a Free Man

by Anne-Sophie Constant


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The life of Jean Vanier, founder of l’Arche, who changed the way the world views disability

It’s a crazy story. In August 1964 a thirty-six-year-old Canadian from a famous family – one who has already joined the navy during war at age thirteen, become an officer, earned a PhD, and taught ethics at the University of Toronto -- takes up residence in a little house he just bought in the village of Trosly, France, with two mentally disabled men he has removed from a care home. The house, which he calls l’Arche (the Ark), has neither water nor electricity. His plan? None. He is just convinced he has to do it, touched by the silent cry of these men shut up in the gloomy, violent institution where he found them. His example is contagious; within months the community has grown to over fifty.

Jean Vanier is known and loved around the world for having created L'Arche, those unique communities of people with disabilities and their volunteer caregivers in more than one hundred and fifty sites on five continents. But Vanier is also a philosopher, a spiritual master who touches believers and nonbelievers alike, a tireless messenger of peace and ecumenism, and an adventurer with life full of twists and turns. Anne-Sophie Constant's literary biography paints a rare portrait of this extraordinary man and the events and influences that shaped his destiny.

“The story of Jean Vanier is the story of a free man – a man who knew how to become himself, who knew how to free himself from restraints, opinions, and prejudices; from intellectual, religious or moral habits; from his epoch; from popular opinion. . . . Jean Vanier has transformed the lives of thousands and thousands of mentally disabled people. And he has transformed the understanding of thousands of people regarding the disabilities of their own children and of people with disabilities. Where we see only failure, disgrace, impossibility, limit, weakness, ugliness, and suffering, Jean Vanier sees beauty. And he knows how to open the eyes of others to see it.”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780874861402
Publisher: Plough Publishing House, The
Publication date: 08/04/2019
Pages: 250
Sales rank: 190,125
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

Dr. Anne-Sophie Constant lectured at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers in Paris until 2012. She has been a close friend of l'Arche and Jean Vanier for decades.

Read an Excerpt


Child of War

WHEN JEAN VANIER CALLS himself a child of war, he is thinking of World War II. But the story opens earlier, against the backdrop of tragedy that was World War I. Indeed, his whole early childhood unfolded in the shadow of the Great War of 1914 to 1918. That war determined his father's career, led to his parents' marriage, and shaped a family attitude in the face of adversity and the misfortune of others. The battlefields were far from Montreal, so Georges Vanier could have considered the European drama none of his concern. Yet he voluntarily enlisted in the only battalion of French Canadians, the renowned 22nd. This would determine the course of his whole life. He would become a hero admired by many, including his son Jean.

In 1998, when Maclean's drew up a list of the hundred most important Canadians of all time, Georges Vanier was first on the list. "A man of courage and sacrifice, in war as in peace," the magazine read, adding that he had been "a moral compass for Canada, a man of unquestioned integrity and honor." Jean's mother Pauline had a generosity, courage, ardent faith, and commitment to the poor that made her an exceptional personality too. Though his life would take a different turn, Jean acknowledges how instrumental his parents were in his formation.

It wasn't always easy, however. Because he was the child of a diplomat, his parents were often absent. The family moved frequently, so he was knocked about between Switzerland, England, France, and Canada. Caught between cultures and between two languages and two mothers – his mother and his beloved nanny – he wasn't able to put down roots and feel at home.

Jean Vanier would finally find his home with L'Arche. But strangely enough, as he aged, he associated this home, where he had been able to rediscover the child within himself, with being in the mud. "I finally have my feet in the mud," he wrote in 2011. "Life at L'Arche transformed me, and I finally found a place where I could commit myself – a commitment that gave me life. With my feet in the mud, and with constant difficulties, L'Arche has grown." He repeated this unusual expression in various talks and writings. What is this mud in which one can find life, this mud where blood and dirt mingle? Given his family history, one is reminded of the mud in the trenches of World War I, where his father fought and distinguished himself.

The Crucible of War

WHEN JEAN FRANÇOIS ANTOINE was born in Geneva on September 10, 1928, his father, General Georges Philias Vanier, was the Canadian military representative to the League of Nations. He did things backward: first war, then the Royal Canadian Military College, and finally international peacemaking.

The war of 1914–18 had been a crucible in which the unlikely destiny of Georges Vanier was forged. He was a deeply religious man. Educated by the Jesuits, he considered the priesthood, but eventually recognized it was not the path he should follow. A boxing and hockey enthusiast and dabbler in art and poetry, he had never shown the least interest in a military career. As soon as war was declared, however, he did not hesitate to leave his career as a lawyer and his comfortable life in Montreal behind. The military offered him a way to serve and commit himself to a higher cause. Such a reaction among Canadians – particularly French Canadians – was not very widespread. Because of a lack of volunteers to feed the battlefields of Europe, a compulsory draft was instated in 1917, and 96 percent of the draftees requested exemption.

After his military training, the twenty-seven-year-old traveled to England before disembarking at Le Havre on September 20, 1915, and heading for the Ypres region – a particularly violent combat zone. Surrounded by the crater-scarred landscape of mud, snow, and icy wind, Georges and his fellow soldiers withstood artillery shells and bombs, entombed day and night in the narrow guts of the trenches. On January 2, 1916, Georges Vanier was commanding a little detachment of volunteers who, crawling at night, penetrated the enemy barbed wire and blew up a German machine gun post that was spraying shells on the Canadian lines.

The Montreal Press reported the exploit, but almost no mention of it appeared in the letters of the young lieutenant. Instead, his correspondence described the dismal landscape and incessant bombings with an air of detachment that was almost comic. On a more serious note, his correspondence manifested his concern for his family. He encouraged his younger brother Anthony in his studies, rejoiced at the marriage of his sister Eva, and teased his youngest sister, Frances. Above all, he was careful not to cause anyone worry.

A scrupulous and upright man, Georges discovered that he had a natural gift for exercising authority. He was promoted to captain, and was the first in his regiment to be decorated with "the coveted Military Cross," wrote Colonel Chaballe, one of his combat comrades, "that was only awarded for heroic armed deeds in the face of the enemy." People loved him because of his respect for others, his great courtesy, and his sense of service.

As company commander on the front lines, Georges was wounded for the first time in June 1916 in the Ypres Salient. He was treated in the French Flanders, at the Mont des Cats monastery, which had been converted into a field hospital, and was repatriated to England. He refused an offer to go back to Canada and returned to combat three months later.

Georges took part in all the great battles where Canadians fought: Vimy, the Battle of Hill 70, and Passchendaele. And, finally, Chérisy – a horrendous slaughter. A defeat. A sacrifice.


The weather was beautiful on the twenty-seventh of August 1918, when the 22nd launched an assault on what historians say was the most dangerous point of the most dangerous sector of the Hindenburg Line. The next evening, in a field of desolation and ruin, only thirty-seven out of seven hundred soldiers had survived. All the officers were either killed or seriously wounded. Georges Vanier, who took command when a major was killed during the assault, was wounded on August 28. He underwent an emergency leg amputation at the Boulogne Hospital and was evacuated to London. He had to undergo a second amputation that cut the femur a little higher on November 11. He was taken to the operating room to the sound of the cannons welcoming the Armistice. It was many long months before he could stand. He suffered through a wooden leg, physical rehabilitation, and phantom pain, but all he mentioned in letters to his family was his favorable progress. He waited three months before telling his mother about the amputation, and never mentioned the appalling hemorrhage that nearly killed him, nor the extent of his sufferings, hinted at only in his personal diary.

Because of his operation on Armistice Day, he did not return to Canada with the rest of the 22nd Battalion. He returned alone because he wanted to return on his feet. The war was etched into him. And yet, as far as we know, he was not bitter. We might dare think, even, that his wounds led to a more intimate encounter with God. Like Jacob, after his night of struggle at the ford of Jabbok, he limped, wounded by the angel. Then, against all expectations, and to the great astonishment of all, especially the Inspector General of the Armed Forces, the young man, now discharged and declared unfit for service, did not return to his career as a lawyer, but requested to become a career officer.

He related the scene in his correspondence with his characteristic mixture of modesty and comedy. "General Currie started laughing, gently, but he laughed. He said to me, 'You have lost a leg.' I answered, 'I know that, but don't you need men with heads as much as you need men with legs?' ... I left without much hope. We had laughed together, knowing (at least that was my impression) that it was impossible, but three weeks later I found myself second in command of the regiment."

After his marriage to Pauline Archer in 1921, the second commander of the Royal 22nd Regiment rejoined the Royal Canadian Military College in Kingston, where the young couple spent their first year of married life. They then moved on to Ottawa, where Georges had just been named aide-de-camp to the new governor general. They left for England together in January 1922, because the brilliant officer had just been appointed to Staff College of Camberley, in Surrey, about thirty miles from London. Strategy, high command, army organization, geopolitics, and two years of high-level training shaped his career as an officer, then as a diplomat.

JEAN VANIER'S FATHER didn't like to talk about himself, nor about the war. With a great gentleness in his eyes, he maintained an imperceptible and painful distance from the events in his memory. The children did not ask how he got his wound. However, they could not ignore it. They saw their father climbing steps one by one, leaning on a cane. They listened as he told funny stories about one-legged men – his specialty. "We never heard him complain," Jean Vanier wrote in 1967. "He even knew how to laugh at the reason for his fatigue: the loss of his leg. Instead of making a drama out of it to draw sympathy to himself, he liked to make jokes about his hinged leg. When we were children, he would put us on his knee and give us a pin, saying, 'Now you're going to see how stoic I am.' He told us to stick the pin in his leg. Sometimes also, when we were taking a walk, he would strike his leg with his cane, saying, 'You see how hard my leg is.'"

When Jean was born there were already three children: Thérèse, born in England in 1923, and Georges and Bernard, born in Canada in 1925 and 1927. Little Michel, the youngest, was born in 1941, also in Canada. The children were familiar with the name Chérisy. Surprisingly, the couple named their first child Thérèse Marie Chérisy, as though the suffering, heartbreak, and terror of the war was mixed up with their union and the creation of new life. From the beginning, the mystery of suffering belonged to their story.

Chérisy, at the heart of their story, was also the cause of their meeting. The commander-in-chief of Georges's battalion, Brigadier-General Thomas-Louis Tremblay, introduced him to Pauline Archer one beautiful afternoon in September, while he was having tea in the Ritz Hotel in Montreal.

"She is the better half"

PAULINE ARCHER WAS TWENTY-ONE when she met Georges Vanier in 1920. He was ten years her senior. She was very thin and almost six feet tall. She had, in fact, served as a model for the sculptor Alfred Laliberté, representing Civilization in a monument dedicated to Jacques Cartier. Under a crown of black hair, she had very blue eyes and a dazzling smile.

They were not exactly from the same world. Georges's father was a self-made man. Employed by an Irish grocer, whose daughter he married, he rapidly expanded the business and made a fortune, although he had practically no education. Pauline's mother, Thérèse d'Irumberry de Salaberry, traced her ancestry back to the kings of Navarre. She received spiritual direction from Almire Pichon, that Jesuit father who was a friend of the Martin family in Lisieux and had been the spiritual director of the future saint, Thérèse Martin herself. Pauline's father, Charles Archer, was a Quebec Supreme Court judge. He studied at the prestigious Laval University, as did his future son-in-law, and enjoyed a vast fortune, which was built by his forebears in the mine and construction industries.

As a child, Pauline lacked nothing that riches and social standing could offer. She was perfectly bilingual, learned Italian and Spanish, played the piano, and knew how to behave properly. She was educated at a convent, until ill health forced her to leave, whereupon a McGill University professor taught her literature. Because her studies were interrupted, she was left with somewhat of a complex. She could be exuberant and sure of herself, but also fragile and depressive.

She was a passionate soul, animated by a deep faith. She also considered a possible religious vocation, but decided against it. Like Georges, she looked for ways to serve and to find her place in the world. The war opened a crack in her otherwise well-ordered world. She signed up for a program to support soldiers and, as a war sponsor, corresponded with two Belgian officers. When she learned that the Red Cross was looking for nurses, she went to work in the hospital among wounded repatriated soldiers – without informing her mother. She joined in the festivities that marked the return of the 22nd Battalion, making the acquaintance of Thomas Trembley, who later introduced her to Georges Vanier.

GEORGES WAS DAZZLED when Trembley introduced Pauline, and he invited her to dinner the very next day. They talked about France, war, and topography. Very soon, in fact, she was to embark on a long trip to France, where she would tour the battlefields. She was also to meet an officer with whom she had exchanged letters that had become more and more affectionate. Before departing, she waited in vain for a bouquet that she felt she had every right to expect – and that Georges really had sent. Unfortunately, it had been mistakenly delivered to another ship. So she visited the famous places of the Canadian war in France, got engaged to the handsome officer, broke off the engagement, and returned to Canada.

With the help of another regimental friend she got back in touch with Georges, who invited her to Quebec. Several days into a courtship during which they spoke more about philosophy and literature than about love, he asked her to marry him, and she accepted. She wished to marry on August 28, 1921, the anniversary of the day Georges was wounded. However, nothing would have been ready by that date, and so they were married on September 29.

The couple was passionately in love. Later Pauline said, "My life had been fulfilled and I was showered with gifts from God. I married Georges Vanier and that was the greatest of the gifts." They shared the same faith and the same outlook on life. They chose to serve together, too. She accompanied him everywhere, even if she had to leave Michel, her youngest son, in the care of her mother. And Georges always leaned on her, even while supporting her. She spent herself without reserve for the sake of the wounded, refugees, and children, and she accomplished noteworthy tasks in post-war France and Canada. As her husband wrote in 1961: "She overtook me in fulfilling the shared tasks and duties that fell to us. She is the better half of the team!"

Nanny Thompson

IN 1931, WHEN JEAN was still a young boy, Georges Vanier was appointed to the Canadian High Commission in London. Life was peaceful in the London home, although the financial crisis that began the Great Depression depleted the family fortune. Georges Vanier hadn't made the best investments, and the family experienced financial difficulties that forced them to move to a smaller house. When Father came home, he would let out a little whistle to signal his presence, and the children would come downstairs to greet him. Mother made them recite their prayers each morning and evening, and the whole family went to Mass on Sunday.

Like the children of good English families of the time, Jean and his siblings were raised by nannies. They lived in the nursery and saw their parents briefly in the evening before they left for various receptions that embassy life required. Isabel Thompson, Jean's nanny, was greatly loved by the family. Nanny Thompson was hired when Thérèse was born and didn't leave the Vanier home until Jean went to boarding school in 1937. He owes the nickname "Jock" to her (Jean was too difficult for a Scottish person to pronounce). More than anyone, it was she who raised him, and whenever he recalls his childhood he always speaks of her with a tender smile. "She saved me," he says. "I loved her more than I loved my mother."

Pauline Vanier was loving but rather distant with her children. Already easily anxious and overwhelmed by her role as a mother, she fell into a deep depression after the birth of her fourth child. The pregnancy had been difficult, and she was bedridden for a long time. She also found it difficult to recover from the shock of a fire in their country home, where they all nearly perished. It's hard to say what else troubled her, but she was sick for three years.

Whenever Jean talks about his mother – and he doesn't do so very willingly – he describes someone who was both exuberant and depressive, someone who oscillated rapidly from despondency to expressions of overwhelming tenderness. He was the youngest child for a long time, and for three years she was either emotionally absent or possessive. Recalling memories of childhood wounds, Jean once wrote, "Some people have had depressive or possessive mothers who did everything to keep them from growing up, so that they would remain 'little' children who were bound to them." Was he talking about their relationship? Curiously, he also maintains that she had great spiritual strength and was a woman with an admirable faith, sure of God's love for her and for every person.


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Table of Contents

Table of Contents:
1--Child of War
2--Navy Officer
3--The Disciple
4--The Founder
5--The Spiritual Master
6--The Pilgrim of the World
7--The Messenger

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Jean Vanier: Portrait of a Free Man 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Carolefort 5 months ago
Jean Vanier: Portrait of a Free Man by Anne-Sophie Constant is a well-written and informative biography of a selfless man who made such a difference in countless lives. Jean Vanier, at the age of thirteen, joined the military and became an officer. during his eight years there. After obtaining a PhD, he became an ethics lecturer at the University of Toronto. In 1964, at the age of thirty-six, the young Canadian established a home for two mentally disabled men in Trosly, France. The cottage, without running water or electricity was named L'Arche (Ark). The reputation of the small endeavour quickly spread throughout the world. It was a simple concept: offer shelter, compassion and protection to the mentally disabled and look after them with the aid of volunteer caregivers. During his lifetime, one hundred and fifty L'Arche homes were opened on five continents. Jean Vanier, a man from a prominent family, gave away all of his possessions in order to help people who were in desperate need of care. His work brought awareness of the plight of the mentally disabled and their families and changed the way they were understood. A humble man with a simple plan changed their world. Thank you to Plough Publishing and NetGalley for the e-ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Achour_2019 6 months ago
“Jean Vanier, Portrait of a Free Man” is an inspiring book. It is about the fascinating life of Jean Vanier (September 10, 1928 – May 7, 2019) a Canadian philosopher and humanitarian who founded networks of communities which house and advocate for people living with intellectual disabilities. From 1964, after discovering the terrible living conditions that psychiatric patients had to endure in asylums in France, Jean Vanier started living with a small group of people with intellectual disabilities who he drew back from psychiatric hospitals. It was the beginning of the L’Arche, a network of communities where both people with and without disabilities and their caregivers live together. This way of dealing with those people has radically transformed the understanding of society regarding mental illnesses and mental disabilities in the world. I have known about the L'Arche communities but not much about the founder and his background. “Jean Vanier, Portrait of a Free Man” is a well-documented book which largely filled this gap. I highly recommend this book.
AMGiacomasso 6 months ago
5* star because I knew little about Jean Vanier and this book helped me to understand him and what he did. A book for of food for thought. Highly recommended! Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for this ARC, all opinions are mine.