Jean Vanier: “Lessons about Living in Community”

Jean Vanier passed away on May 7th. He was a spiritual mentor and guide for many people, including myself. He was a Canadian theologian and prolific writer, but most importantly he was known as “the savior of the people on the margins.” Jean Vanier founded L’Arche – an international federation of communities in over 37 countries, for people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them. His spiritual impact on the special people he served and the ones he trained to serve them was enormous … and life-changing. Just ask Henri Nouwen, another of my favorite spiritual guides, who finally found his peace with God late in life by serving as chaplain at the L’Arche community outside of Toronto. But the reason I write about Jean Vanier today is because, of all the spiritual topics he was so well-schooled in, building and maintaining spirit-fed and spirit-led communities was at the top of his list. His L’Arche communities still stand as models of how we can live together better – whether in our families, our workplaces, or even our churches. So, Vine Street, as a “community” of Jesus followers going through some spirit-fed and spirit-led changes, I thought I would share some of Jean Vanier’s wisdom about spirit-led community building with you here. What follows is a series of excerpts taken directly from Vanier’s book, “Community and Growth.” I encourage us all to read these with prayerful and spirit-led hearts, and let us find inspiration and hope in his words!  

MEDIOCRE COMMUNITIES DISAPPEAR ~  Pg. 149: Communities are born, flourish, and then often degenerate and die. The enthusiasm … the generosity of their beginnings disappear as they gradually become comfortable; they become mediocre, and rules and law take precedence over spirit. There is nothing attractive about mediocre communities; they disappear.
ENDING UP OSSIFIED ~ Pg. 150: All members of the community have to be watchful that they remain insecure and so dependent on God, and to live in their own way the focal point of fidelity, the essential of the spirit. Otherwise, the community will fall into routine, doing things by the book. It will end up ossified.
GETTING LIFE FROM YOUNGER MEMBERS ~ Pg. 153: So many communities are dead because the people who carry responsibility in them have not known how to encourage their young members to give life in the procreation of new communities. The time of love has passed and they have come to a stage of sterility and frustration. It will then be hard to re-find the forces of love and life.
DEEPENING OUR ROOTS IN GOD ~  Pg. 155: The more a community grows and gives life … the deeper its roots must grow into its own soil. Expansion has to be accompanied by deepening. The more a tree grows, the stronger its roots must be; otherwise, it will be uprooted by the first storm. Jesus speaks of a house built on sand. A community’s solid foundation is in the heart of God. It is God who is at the source of the community, and the more it grows and expands, the more it needs people who stay close to the source.
INVISIBLE INTERNAL GROWTH ~ Pg. 155: There is external growth, which is nearly always in expansion. But there is also internal and secret growth, which is deeper rooting in prayer in Jesus, in greater love and forgiveness between brothers and sisters, and greater compassion and welcome. This growth is not visible but it creates a tangible atmosphere: a lighter joy, a denser silence, a peace which touches people’s hearts and leads to a true experience of God.
OUR ENERGY & OUR VALUES FROM THE HOLY SPIRIT ~ Pg. 166: Cultures in rich societies are inciting people to an easy way of life. The values of wealth, power, and pleasure are seductive. But the gospel values are calling us to love, and to love even our enemies; to be present to the poor and to live poorly, trusting in God; to be peacemakers in a world of war. In order to be able to live these values, we need new energy, an inner force. This energy and force come from the Holy Spirit.
EVERYONE NOURISHED IN LOVE ~ Pg. 166: Each individual person in a community must be nourished in love. If not, he or she will sooner or later find him or herself in opposition to the life of the community and its demands of love and of forgiveness. These people then become like dead weights. They tend to pull the community down; they criticize decisions; they drain away joy.
REACHING BEYOND OUR RESOURCES ~ Pg. 168: Community life demands that we constantly go beyond our own resources. If we do not have the spiritual nourishment we need, we will close in on ourselves and on our own comfort and security, or throw ourselves into work as an escape. It is terrible to see people living sadly in community, without love.   
WISDOM OF THE PRESENT MOMENT & GOD IN THE SMALL THINGS ~ Pg. 170: If we are in community only to “do things,” its daily life will not nourish us; we will constantly be thinking ahead, because we can always find something urgent to be done. Daily life is only nourishing when we have discovered the wisdom of the present moment and the presence of God in small things. It is only nourishing when we have given up fighting reality and accept it, discovering the message and gift of the moment. (I)f we discover that we live with God and (others) through wheat has to be done in the present moment, we become peaceful. We stop looking to the future, we take time to live. We are no longer in a hurry because we have discovered that there is gift and grace in the present of book-keeping, the meetings, the chores and the welcome.
FROM “COMMUNITY FOR MYSELF” TO “MYSELF FOR THE COMMUNITY” ~ Pg. 178: Many people are tense because they have not yet entered into the collective conscience of the community; they have not yet surrendered to its gift and call. They have not really made the passage from the “community for myself” to “myself for the community” – perhaps because their fragility makes them want to prove something to themselves and to others, or because, fundamentally, they have come to the community as a refuge. They will only relax when they have discovered their own gift and put it decisively at the community’s service, when they truly desire to die to individualism and to belong to the community.  
 letting go … letting God … Pastor Bob <><