Here's a review of Jean Vanier's book.
BEING HUMAN AND HUMANE IN JEAN VANIER’S BOOK
Fr. Andrew G. Recepcion
Life is a journey. What makes this journey meaningful, liberating and fulfilling is the heart. Jean Vanier captures quite powerfully and vividly the itinerary of the heart in the first few pages of the book: This book is about the liberation of the human heart from the tentacles of chaos and loneliness, and from those fears that provoke us to exclude and reject others. It is a liberation that opens us up and leads us to the discovery of our common humanity. I want to show that this discovery is a journey from loneliness to a love that transforms, a love that grows in and through belonging, a belonging that can include as well as exclude. The discovery of our common humanity liberates us from self-centered compulsions and inner hurts; it is the discovery that ultimately finds its fulfillment in forgiveness and in loving those who are our enemies. It is the process of truly becoming human.
As a newly ordained minister, the book has helped me in my understanding of being human and humane. The first chapter explores loneliness in depth. Loneliness is a painful reality. It can appear as a faint dis-ease, an inner dissatisfaction, and restlessness in the heart. It is part of being human, because there is nothing in existence that can completely fulfill the needs of the human heart. It can become a source of creative energy. It is the fundamental force that urges mystics to a deeper union with God. It can be a force for good. However, loneliness shows other, less positive faces. It can lead to depression and chaos. It can become agony, a scream of pain. It can even become a taste of death.
The antidote to loneliness is love, a love that welcomes, that includes, that makes one feel he or she belongs. There is a need for a passage from disorder to order, a new order comes through the following principles: 1) all humans are sacred; 2) world and individual lives are in the process of evolving; 3) maturity comes through working with others, through dialogue, and through a sense of belonging and a searching together; 4) humans need to make choices and to become responsible for their own lives and for the lives of others; 5) to reflect and to seek truth and meaning. Love transforms loneliness and love has seven aspects that are necessary for the transformation of the heart in those who are profoundly lonely. Love: 1) reveals; 2) understands; 3) communicates; 4) celebrates; 5) empowers; 6) seeks communion; 7) forgives.
The second chapter connects loneliness with belonging. Belonging is an essential need of humanity to be and to share with others. Belonging is important for growth to independence, it is important for growth inner freedom and maturity. It is only through belonging that one can break out of the shell of individualism and self-centeredness that both protects and isolates the self.
From Exclusion to Inclusion: A Path of Healing is the theme of the third chapter. The parable of the beggar named Lazarus tells a lot about today’s world where there’s a huge abyss between those who have and those who have not. Lazarus is a symbol of exclusion. Lazarus is a symbol of humanity that is frightened to enter into a heart-to-heart relationship; a humanity that is afraid to change. This is reason why there is fear to be related with the lazaruses of the world because if one does then one risks being changed. Fear is the root of prejudice and exclusion and it comes in many forms like: 1) fear of dissidents; 2) fear of difference; 3) fear of failure; and 4) fear of loss and change. The way out of fear is the way of the heart, the basis of all relationships, that which is deepest in every person. The heart bonds itself to another heart; it leads humans out of the restricted belonging, which creates exclusion, to meet and love others just as they are. The way of the heart is the way of becoming human. Human being is more than the power or capacity to think or to perform. There is a gentle person of love hidden in the child within each adult. The heart is a place of encounter with others. The heart is not a matter of vague emotion for it is the very core of humanity. Indeed, the path from exclusion to inclusion can only happen when one is free from compulsive needs to succeed, to be powerful and to be afraid. Inclusion entails freedom from past hurts and growth to freedom.
The path to healing brings one to the path to freedom. Chapter four shows the way to freedom. The way to freedom is a matter of choice. Compulsions that come in the forms of needs and fears are at the root of un-freedom. However, behind compulsive needs, one discovers anguish. The road that leads to freedom is never easy for it involves a real struggle. Embarking on the road to freedom is possible when one is no longer governed by compulsions or passions. Authentic freedom has its signs, viz., truthful acceptance of self and others, capacity to love and to be compassionate, liberation from masks that hide people from themselves and reality, that is, the death of the false self. One needs to make decisive steps on the road to freedom: 1) to learn that fear can be a good counselor; 2) to become aware of one’s limits and blockages; 3) to look for the wisdom that comes from unexpected events; 4) to have a companion, to have somebody to stand beside with, somebody who loves and understands; 5) to have a role model who are witnesses to truth and have a clear vision; 6) to recognize that the road to freedom is also a struggle; 7) to recognize that the liberation of the heart comes when we live in communion with God.
Freedom leads to forgiveness. The last chapter continues the experience of freedom through and in forgiveness. Forgiveness is asphesis, that is, to liberate, to release from bondage. Forgiveness is freedom from inner hurts that govern behavior and acts of inhumanity towards others. Hurts cause guilt and guilt leads to self-hatred and anger towards those who inflicted those hearts. Forgiveness is the experience of being released from one’s preferences. There are three basic principles underlying forgiveness that brings reconciliation: 1) there can be no forgiveness of oneself or others unless we believe that we are all part of a common humanity; 2) to forgive means to believe that each of us can evolve and change, that human redemption is possible; 3) to forgive means to yearn for unity and peace. Nevertheless, these principles can be concretized through five steps: 1) refusal to take revenge; 2) genuine heartfelt hope that the oppressor be liberated; 3) desire to understand the oppressor; 4) recognition of our own darkness, we too have hurt people and perhaps have contributed to the hardness of oppressors; 5) patience for it takes time to change, to be free and to evolve. Forgiveness leads to reconciliation. The journey to becoming fully human is indeed an exodus from bondage to freedom. Jean Vanier ends his book by beginning the journey: If each one of us today begins this journey and has the courage to forgive and be forgiven, we will no longer be governed by past hurts. Wherever we may be—in our families, our work places, with friends, or in places of worship or of leisure—we can rise up and become agents of a new land. But let us not put our sights too high. We do not have to be saviors of the world! We are simply human beings, enfolded in weakness and in hope, called together to change our world one heart at a time.
One can easily perceive that the book was a series of talks because Jean Vanier’s style is personal and dialogical. One can also argue against the validity of Jean Vanier’s assumptions but his experience on becoming fully human is clearly drawn from his very life and mission in the l’Arche Community. This is enough proof of the weight of his words.
The significant merit of the book is that it inspires and lifts up the human spirit. Every point of the book is enriched and illustrated by stories of persons, particularly with those with intellectual disabilities, who have embarked on a journey to becoming fully human. In other words, the book is a celebration of the wonders of becoming fully human in spite of the tedious and sometimes painful process that this entails.
Vanier’s message gives hope to those who are weighed down by the darker, heavier and gloomier side of life. It makes one feel that there is a serene spring of water flowing through the human heart despite the mud of weakness and failures that can fill it up. The book deserves its acclaim as an international bestseller not only for its worldwide readership but also because its language has universal validity for humanity. It has the language of our destiny as redeemed humanity.
Jean Vanier’s spirituality gleaned from the way he wrote the book is an experience of an authentic missionary spirituality. In Vanier’s experience spirituality involves the whole human person with his or her past, present and future. In other words, missionary spirituality is an embodied spirituality and the dynamics of spiritual life entails a continuous unfolding of the grace of redemption already at work in every human being notwithstanding the limits, the bondages, the hurts and pains that accompany this process of growth towards freedom, maturity and fullness.
Spirituality is humanity fully realized. Sanctity is becoming fully human. Spirituality is not a flight from our wounded, sinful yet redeemed humanity but it is a loving and free acceptance of God at work in us and in others and the constant union with God through a genuine experience of liberating love with and for others.
I have experienced many times that the more I love others without expecting anything in return the more I find myself closer to God and the more I experience the presence of God the more I find myself free to serve any person that God places beside me at the present moment.
Missionary spirituality is not primarily a matter of doing but an experience of being, of becoming fully human.
There are no two humanities. We have a common humanity redeemed yet continually moving towards fullness.