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 founding of L’Arche took him through the Royal Navy, a doctorate on Aristotle and a Trappist monastery. He is, I suppose, a charismatic Christian.
Now charismatic Christianity makes me as nervous as mental handicap. Yet here I was, trapped for three days with both. At mealtimes, with neighbours as disconcerting as you could find, everyone held hands to say grace. Afterwards there was much “sharing” and singing, then prayers. Despite being there only for research purposes, there was no alternative to joining in. I despised myself for my squeamishness. Nevertheless, squeamish I was.
Then, in a last minute preparation for my interview, I exchanged my book about Jean Vanier for a book of his own words. I had expected his message to be that we must all do more for our less fortunate brothers and sisters. But I was wrong. Vanier’s message was not about what we could do for the handicapped but about what they could do for us. The mentally handicapped, he says, reflect through their incapacities and suffering our own limitations and mental darkness. They are a mirror through which we can see and accept ourselves better. This is their great, if uncomfortable, gift and why they are of such value. I felt the ground under my feet begin to shift.
Vanier teaches a simple lesson-that friendship with someone with mental handicap is a difficult but rich, two-way experience. He speaks without preaching, listens without patronising and inspires without histrionics. No bleeding-heart liberal, Vanier does not pretend that L’Arche has all the answers or that his approach does not encompass some great difficulties. Nevertheless, he believes that it is through living with the handicapped rather than just “looking after” them that we find the true key to living with ourselves.
It is a serious message. Yet the man who delivers it is full of mischief. We met first at one of those disconcerting lunches. After saying grace, Vanier bit into some bread and one of his teeth flew out. He roared with laughter and, the ice being broken, I asked how he thought Aristotle, not famed for his sympathy with the halt and the lame, would view his work. “I see you are a Platonist,” he replied with a twinkle in his eye. “Aristotle was concerned with reality. He looked to see how things are, then explained them.” We went on from there, to enjoy as joyful an hour as I have ever spent.
As I said, this is no road to Damascus story. My squeamishness did not vanish overnight. I did not return home a different person. But I did come back looking at things in a new light; my ideas of perfection have been subtly altered. My notions of how the world ought to be have been shaken into a different pattern. I still find mental handicap disconcerting but, having met Vanier, I no longer wish it was not there. n