The mentally handicapped have always made me nervous. They make me nervous still. This is not a road to Damascus story. Nor is it a story about triumph through personal adversity. I have three perfectly healthy young children. But it is, nevertheless, a story about change.
Three days before my oldest daughter, now 14, was born, my cousin and his wife also had a baby, Mary. For no apparent reason Mary was born with Down’s syndrome. After her birth, her aunt, the young writer Maggie Parham, learnt about a man in France who had devoted his (rather unusual) life to the mentally handicapped. She went to see him and was so bowled over by what she experienced that she wrote an article. The piece appeared in Harpers & Queen, a publication more readily associated with charity balls on behalf of the handicapped than the real thing. It was a marvellous piece. But while the man, Jean Vanier, had obviously impressed Maggie, I felt neither the need nor the desire to become involved myself.
However, from never having heard Vanier’s name before, now I was always running into it: little snippets in newspapers; casual conversations; a poster in the back of the church; until one day, I found myself asking the editor of the Glasgow Herald magazine if I could interview Jean Vanier for his 70th birthday. She agreed, and in August 1998 I arrived in the small village of Trosly-Breuil just outside Compiègne, where Vanier lives.
Here, a few miles from the clearing in which the first world war armistice was signed, was born the concept of the L’Arche community. The practical idea is that the mentally handicapped flourish better outside institutions, which are usually uniformly dreary. Living in a more “normal” environment allows them to fulfil their potential. At a L’Arche community (and there are now more than 100 of them around the world), therefore, the mentally handicapped and their assistants live and work together in surroundings and circumstances which resemble, as much as possible, family life. The small village houses have been altered to suit those who now live in them.
But these practical details provide only part of the story. The founder of L’Arche is more than a simple social reformer, or a man for unfashionable causes. Vanier, the son of a governor general of Canada, is also a deeply spiritual man whose path to the…