Straddling the tricky secular-religious divide

Straddling the tricky secular-religious divide
Jean Vanier is a spiritual point of reference in the turbulent seas of contemporary discord, writes Michael W. Higgins

Canada is a very secular nation, unlike its neighbour to the south. The face of religion is very much a private one. Canada may not have a doctrine of laïcité in theory, but in practice it painstakingly avoids the public interface of faith and political life.

Canada is a tolerant country, has nothing comparable to the polarisation and culture wars that define the political and social landscape in the US, and is viewed as an ideal place to immigrate to because of its reputation for neutrality, fairness and an impressively peaceful environment.

It is a serious flaw in the Canadian reality, however, that the marginalisation of faith is seen by many as the guarantor of political concord. It is a false peace, an unnecessary arrangement driven by the conviction that religious faith is by its nature divisive and best controlled by excluding it from the public stage. And this in a nation where many of its most prominent political personages – the prime minister, the governor-general and several of its premiers – are people of ardent religious commitment.

No religious community has suffered as precipitous a decline in national influence as Catholicism:  A gutted Quebec church, a staggering rise in the proportion of the country that identifies as “nones” in numerous surveys and polls, composed in great part of lapsed Catholics and the virtual disappearance of any meaningful Catholic presence in the media.

Stellar figures

But by no means is all stark and grim. The Church can boast many stellar figures who have shaped the human quest for meaning:  Marshall McLuhan, the communications theorist; Bernard Lonergan, the foundational thinker; David Stanley and R. A. F. MacKenzie, biblical scholars; Mary-Jo Leddy, social activist and refugee champion; Ronald Rolheiser, spiritual writer of international scope; Charles Taylor, finest political philosopher in the Americas; and the list goes on.

For many, at the top of that list, one can find the storied founder of L’Arche – the global network of communities for and with the intellectually challenged – the formidably charismatic Jean Vanier.

Winner of the Templeton Prize for Religion, close confident of Popes and civic leaders, prolific writer of dozens of books, and a spiritual mentor for countless people irrespective religion, ethnicity, or political persuasion, Vanier is the Canadian figure who can straddle the secular-religious divide, find credibility in circles otherwise hostile or indifferent to religious faith of any iteration, and remind believers themselves that the call of their faith is to lead them outside their tribal comfort zone, to propel them to service, to the creation of genuine community, the most arduous, most noble and most beautiful of human endeavours.

Vanier has once again been showcased in Canada’s premier paper of record and influence, The Globe and Mail, by its award-winning features writer, Ian Brown. Attracted by Vanier’s serenity, luminous intelligence, non-judgemental attitude towards others and searingly transparent recognition of his own vulnerabilities, Brown has been tracking the Canadian resident of France for years now.  He is haunted by his holiness.

Brown is no hagiographer, has little interest in God questions (all his writing is shorn of theological discourse or even familiarity with the language of faith), and seems surprised if not puzzled by Vanier’s Catholicism.

But he does ‘get’ it; he grasps the essential Vanier; he is drawn to Vanier’s deep humanism.

With a profoundly disabled son, Walker, Brown has been on a personal journey of suffering, aching to know how best to squeeze meaning from despair, desperate to find purpose in his son’s broken existence, resolved to discover context and hope where there seems only darkness – in his life, if not that of Walker’s. Vanier has given him solace, questions to feed questions, the primitive purity of personal authenticity.

He has shared with him his own fragility; he has offered him tenderness and understanding. He speaks not to convert but to unite in the redemptive co-sympathy of Christian love. He tells a story, a true story to his earnest interlocutor:

“A young man with disabilities wanted to win the 100-metre race. And he got into the finals. And he was running like crazy to get the gold medal, and somebody in the next lane tripped.  And he stopped and picked this guy up, and they ran together and both of them were the last.”

“That’s a true story,” Mr Vanier confirmed.  “It’s the deepest lesson the disabled have to teach. It’s not that they can become like us – but how can we become like them and have fun together.  And lift up the chap who has fallen on the other lane, and come in last.  There’s in us all an ego we have to conquer.  You kill the ego so the real person can rise up. And the real person is the one who’s learning to love.”

By means of this story, Vanier relays to Brown, and to all who will attend, the simple but revolutionary fact that it is our capacity to love that frees us, that all the decorations, accolades and achievements we can muster, all the tokens of our success we are awarded, are as nothing when compared to the humanising reciprocity that comes from loving and being loved.  The disabled are our teachers in this; their vulnerability is an opening to our freedom.

So in this proudly secular country of Canada, in its most secular news organ, and not for the first time, it sees in the enduring witness of Jean Vanier a spiritual point of reference in the turbulent seas of contemporary discord, an aperture to its own disquieted soul.

There’s a redeeming honesty in this, for sure.

Michael W. Higgins is the author of Jean Vanier: Logician of the Heart which is due to be published soon and will give a talk entitled ‘Jean Vanier and the Year of Mercy’ at The Irish Catholic offices in Dublin on Thursday, January 14.