With the death of Jean Vanier at age 90 on May 7 we are again reminded of his blessed vocation to the disabled. It was a visit to a psychiatric hospital that led him to give up his career both as a Naval officer and as a philosophy professor to take on the challenge of caring for the developmentally disabled. Jean Vanier founded L’Arche communities which are an alternative living environment for the mentally and physically disabled because he saw the suffering of the most vulnerable and saintly among us. His first community was in France and there are now 154 communities in 38 countries that form the network of L’Arche International.
Vanier found his life’s calling amid the powerless of society. It was not an easy charism. It required patience and much love, yet he followed it with a lifetime of spiritual liberation and joy. Most certainly he was inspired by St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).
Whenever someone implied that he was a “saint,” Vanier quickly eschewed the thought. He knew the real saints were his “children” marching together beyond time and place in thought and in song. Because life often interferes, we are in need of reminders—as I quickly and soberly learned.
I spent a number of years at a school whose theme song was sung with a robustness that only the young could muster, which reflected the song’s saintly sentiments. Sometime in the latter part of the nineteenth century it was a Christian hymn, but later it gained popularity as a part of the Negro Spiritual canon. “When the Saints Go Marching In” achieved its height of popularity when Louis Armstrong and his orchestra recorded it in 1938. It is often played by jazz bands and is associated with New Orleans. One has only to think of the New Orleans Saints football team. As the lyrics go: “When the saints, when the saints go marching in, I want to be in that number, when the saints go marching in—” Not on the football team, not on Basin Street, but marching into heaven. It may seem a little startling, but in truth we are all called to be saints with the hope of marching in.
Recently I attended a neighbor’s funeral Mass. There’s nothing surprising about that; it is what neighbors do. What was different is that he happened to be a close relative of someone I knew in early childhood but hadn’t thought about for a very long time. One common but little-known verse of “The Saints” is “I used to have a playmate / Who would walk and talk with me,” and indeed I did. Her name was Irene, and she was my first playmate. Sometime around the age of three or four her mother came by and asked if I wanted to play with her little girl who was about the same age. I was thrilled; being raised essentially as an only child, the thought of sharing dolls and things with someone was just so exciting.
We remained friends into the first grade. She would always seek me out to be her partner and I was so pleased to have a friend. I learned a lot from her. Coming from a different culture and speaking another language there were many “American” things I didn’t know. I learned how to “pin the tail on the donkey,” how to eat a birthday cupcake with a prize inside, what pancakes and maple syrup were, and the names of various objects in my new language.
This lasted until we were in about the third grade. It then became obvious that Irene could not keep up with the rest of us. She was taken out of our local school and sent to a school for children with special needs. We still remained friends but not in the same way. She had different friends now but I still attended her birthday parties and played games for prizes.
Shortly after that Irene could no longer attend school. She tried but just couldn’t make it. She was diagnosed as suffering from a neurological disorder which made all activities impossible for her. Exactly what it was I don’t know, but thinking back on the symptoms it could have been Juvenile Huntington’s Disease. In children the syndrome develops differently than in adults and progresses quite rapidly, but life is not necessarily shortened. Irene became totally bedridden and lost her ability to speak. It is not certain if she was able to understand anything because she could not communicate. Her aging mother took care of her for many, many years as one would a newborn babe until Irene died.
As things go, my life went on but her life remained a shadow of existence. Much to my regret I did not much think about her except if I went past her house and even then it was just in passing. Sadly, I do not even know when she died.
If my memories had not been jarred by that funeral I regrettably would never have realized that my playmate was a saint. She was incapable of doing anything bad and that is what makes a saint. We know that for Christians there are no coincidences. God willed that I would have a saint to “walk and talk” with me, and, unlike Jean Vanier, for many years I never gave it a thought.
It has been written that General Charles de Gaulle’s daughter, Anne, to whom he was passionately devoted, suffered from Down Syndrome. When she died he said to his wife, Yvonne, at Anne’s grave: “Maintenant elle est comme toutes les autres.” Now she is like all the others—marching in with the saints where every tear is wiped away.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is Jean Vanier with Mother Teresa in India in 1974. (Photo credit: L’Arche International)