"I'M AFRAID you find me feeling rather disorientated," said Mr Jean Vanier when I met him at Euston station. He had travelled down to London from Birmingham and was on his way to Heathrow to catch a flight for Norway. "I very much need my communities," he continued. "When I leave an environment where there has been an interchange of love, in a caring and yet challenging atmosphere, I feel vulnerable until I reach another."
Jean Vanier is the founder of L'Arche, an international federation of communities in which handicapped people and those who help them live, work and share their lives. It was started in 1964 in Trosly in northern France and there are now 50 communities throughout the world: in France. Britain, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Canada, the US, India, Haiti and Honduras and in Africa.
'You can't miss me," Mr Vanier had said on the telephone earlier in the week when we arranged to have a talk over dinner. "I'm 6 ft. 5 in. tall with greyish hair, and I suppose I'm not very well dressed." He had described himself well but modestly. He has the humble appearance of a hill climber or a modern-day monk in "civics".
'I find it hard to come to terms with the indifference and violence in the world.'
In the station restaurant, Mr Vanier asked for a simple meal and thought that a small sherry might help him "perk up a bit." Then he explained the reason for his latest visit to England. He was here for about ten weeks with 30 representatives from 17 L'Arche communities. Their purpose was retreat and renewal: "To pray for new energies, visions and hopes, to look into the parts of our being which prevent energies rising up. When you live in communities such as ours for a considerable length of time you become emotionally and spiritually drained and need a period of retreat for renewal."
In the communities there were many positive experiences: the miracle of witnessing a handicapped person who has spent years in institutions moving from death to life through relationships in a community; or the new assistant who is not frightened by a handicapped person's sudden violent outbreak.
"An unfolding reality" is how Jean Vanier describes the growth of L'Arche communities. "if you're faithful to the present moment everything you need just seems to be there." For example, he says, L'Arche communities never find it necessary to advertise for assistants— L'Arche is a symbol which strikes deep into a person's being, inspiring the conviction: "I must go".
Mr Vanier reads from the Charter of the Communities of L'Arche: "We believe that a person who has been wounded in his capacity for autonomy, in his mind is capable of great love, which can be called forth by the Spirit of God. Because of his Jean Vanier — the humble appearance of handicap and because he feels rejected a wounded person may shock or repel. But given an atmosphere of security where his latent capacities can develop, he welcome, joy and peace." can also radiate simplicity, Many. of the handicapped people are in a very depressed state when they join one of the communities. They have, in Jean Vanier's words, 'a broken self image." In the communities most of them grow out of it, a few, particularly psychotic people, make little progress. "All we can do then is to try to make them more comfortable in their pain."
The communities offer places mainly to mentally handicapped adults, but one in Belgium also takes in physically handicapped people and another in Canada seeks to rehabilitate disturbed people released from prison.
In Africa, Honduras and Haiti the communities are taking in more and more children. Jean Vanier showed sensitive concern for "the many wounded childrn in Africa — young children. five, sif or seven, neglected autistic, orphans." Although pleased that sonic of the communities are taking in children, he emphasised that they rarely took children front known families, as this would encourage abandonment.
"Of course, cruelty to children doesn't take place only in Africa but in all countries.
"1 find it so hard to come to terms with the indifference and violence in the world." he said.
Members of the communities strove to remove as many barriers as possible. "I remember on one occasion I took a group of handicapped people from one of the communities to Lourdes, they didn't pray to be cured but that 'normal people' might better understand their handicap."
Jean Vanier distrusts people who would change the world. "I'm sure that the people in L'Arche communities are not better than people in other communities.
Mr Vanier was going to Norway on an ecumenical retreat. He was returning earlier this week to take part in another ecumenical retreat — at Carmarthen, Dyfed, from Wednes
day until this Sunday. Ecumenical Dear CAFOD retreats, he feels, reveal the yearnings common to Christians of differing denominations and are inspiring experiences. The theme or the Wales retreat is: "Followers of Jesus". Jean Vanier is sure to be "tending towards" the title.
* A book by Jean Vanier, "Community and Growth," is due to be published on October 8 by Darton, Longman, and Todd.