Jean Vanier: Essential Writings

In The Way of the Dreamcatcher Robert Lax highly recommended Jean Vanier: Essential Writings. Since I’d never heard of Vanier, I was intrigued by the recommendation. Also, I’m generally of the opinion that what we read says a lot about who we are, so I thought reading the book might also give me more insight into Lax’s poetry. As it turned out, I got so caught up in Jean Vanier’s book that I never tried to relate it directly to Lax. i don’t really believe in “Saints,” but if I did I think Vanier comes about as close to being a Saint as anyone I’ve ever read about.

I was hooked by Carolyn Whitney-Brown’s Introduction where she briefly describes Vanier’s life and introduces major themes in his works. He served as an officer in both the British and Canadian Navy, left the navy to become a college professor, and left that profession to found the L’Arche Communities.

One of the first themes she introduces is Vanier’s love of Aristotle, the subject of his PhD thesis by quoting from his works:

Aristotle is one of the great witnesses to this quest for happiness. His thinking was not that of an ideologue, but based on human facts and personal experience. That was what led him to propound his ethics of happiness in order to help people to look more clearly into themselves and to find their own fulfillment. He did so twenty-four hundred years ago, but his thinking spans the centuries and is still relevant to us today. . . .

Aristotle does not, however, seek merely to reiterate moral axioms. Nor does he wish to prompt people by external means to be just, to seek the truth, and to obey laws. What he wants to do is lay the foundations of a moral science with thinking that stems from humanity’s deep desires. His fundamental question is not “What ought we to do?” but “What do we really want?” His ethics are not those of law. Rather, they look closely at humanity’s deepest inclinations in order to bring them to their ultimate fulfilment. Aristotle’s ethics are not therefore based on an idea but on the desire for fullness of life inscribed in every human being.

Considering my recent interest in the subject of “happiness” I couldn’t resist putting Vanier’s Made for Happiness: Discovering the Meaning of Life with Aristotle on my Amazon wish list, though it will probably be a while before I can get to it.

Although Vanier nearly became a Catholic priest and is commonly associated with Catholicism, his discovery of Mahatma Gandhi also seemed to play a critical part in his development:

In India, I also discovered the vision and work of Mahatma Gandhi, especially his spirituality. In him I found a prophet for our times, a man of God, a man of prayer, a man deeply concerned about the life of the poor who saw the “untouchables” as harijans, children of God. Gandhi was concerned with peace and unity, a man ready to risk his life in nonviolence, which for him was a spiritual reality rather than a political one. This man had a whole vision of the land, of villages, life, and manual work which was quite different from that of our modem society. Gandhi marked my life deeply: he opened my mind and enlarged my consciousness.

Vanier’s work with the retarded and mentally ill seems to me to clearly parallel Ghandi’s concern for the “untouchables” particularly since during his lifetime retarded and mentally ill people were treated as “untouchables” in Western society.

Even more remarkable than Vanier’s concern for such people is his belief that those who are willing to help them gain more from the relationship than those who are “helped.”

To love is to reveal the hidden beauty in the hearts of all people, to trust them and to call them forth to greater trust. To love is a way of looking, of touching, of listening to all: taking time with them, especially with those who are broken, depressed, and insecure, revealing to them their importance. As we take time with them and enter into communion with them, they in turn reveal to us our beauty. Communion is a to-and-fro of love; we give and receive mutually. We give our hearts bonded in gentle unity as words flow into silence and inner voice, as movement flows into quiet peace and inner rest. Life flows from one to another. . . . As we approach people in pain, they reveal to us our pain and brokenness. We are not an elite. We need help. We need the help of Jesus and of sisters and brothers in community; we need to talk to wise, listening, and compassionate hearts who can help us to assume all that is broken within us and to find wholeness. We become free when we accept ourselves as we are, cry out for help, and use wisely all that we are to build peace.

Even more remarkable than Vanier’s concern for these untouchables is his absolute belief that those who are willing to help them gain more from the relationship than those who are “helped.”

I’ve taken a long time to savor Vanier’s ideas and ended up underlining far more passages than I could ever discuss, but I agree with Robert Lax that the book is well worth reading.

A Quick Trip to Westport

Things have been positively hectic around here lately. I’ve been dropping off and picking up Lael for school which has totally altered my schedule. I’ve really enjoyed the chance to see her regularly, but I’ve had to push my gym workout to after I drop off rather than starting at 6:30. That’s segmented my day so I’m not getting as much done as usual. Worst of all, I haven’t been able to fit in any long day trips, not that there’s been many opportunities with all the rain we’ve been having.

So when last Friday opened up and it was sunny at the beach I was out of here very early in the morning. I headed straight to Westport, hoping to get some shots of Common Loons in breeding colors. Apparently, though, it’s too early for breeding plumage. I got several closeup shots, like this one,

Common Loon

but there weren’t any in breeding colors yet.

I also got some nice shots of this lone Western Grebe

Western Grebe

right outside the harbor.

I even got a nice shot of a Great Blue Heron, something I don’t usually see at Westport.

Great Blue Heron

What I didn’t see, though, were the Pelicans and Pigeon Guillemots I go to see there, not a one. The Godwits weren’t to be found at Tokeland, either. And all I saw at Bottle Beach was a small flock of Dunlin. Guess I haven’t missed much by not getting out there. Apparently Spring migration hasn’t begun yet; I’ll just have to show a little more patience.

Ruby-Crowned Kinglet

Earlier this month I posted a rather blurry shot of a Ruby-Crowned Kinglet I saw at Theler, which may have been my best shot ever of this elusive little bird up to that time even though I’ve seen many of them over the years.

So, I was quite pleasantly surprised when a male Kinglet took up residence in my backyard recently and seemed curious, if not just plain curiously bold. Instead of flying away when I walked out into the backyard, this little guy flew directly at me, and then retreated to either the Butterfly Bush or the fence.

I suspect this is the best shot I will ever get of a Ruby-Crowned Kinglet,

Ruby-Crowned Kinglet

though kinglets actually appear yellow than this in bright sunlight.

Oftentimes birds seemed startled by the loud shutter noise my Canon EOS 1D, but this guy actually seemed attracted to the sound,

Ruby-Crowned Kinglet

at times seemingly staring at the camera downright quizzically.

Ruby-Crowned Kinglet

He seems to have moved on after three or four days in the yard, but while he was here he was the highlight of my day.

A Touch of Frost

We’ve had a really mild winter here in the Pacific Northwest. In fact a recent Seattle Times headline heralded a winter without snow since it’s highly unusual to get snow past January, and even rarer past mid-February. Unfortunately, many weeds continued to grow all winter. and I’ve had to start the Spring weeding. No wonder I jumped the gun and felt Spring in all it’s glory was about to arrive.

Last week’s trip to Belfair quietly dispelled that notion. Although it was 43° and cloudy when I left Tacoma, it was 31° and foggy when I got to Theler wetlands. And it felt a lot colder than that even though I was still carrying some winter essentials in my backpack.

Sheets of ice

Ice on riverbank

covered the banks close to the river, probably the result of a high tide in the coldest part of the night.

Frosted rose hips and

frosted Rose Hips

frozen candelabra lit up the trail,

frozen weed

though they did little to dispel gray skies.

Other than the newly frozen grass along the riverbank, the only green I could find was last year’s lichen


clinging to branches that looked nearly dead but will undoubtably spring back to life when Spring really does arrive. Wishing Spring was here is not the same as Spring being here. Still, it’s hard to complain considering that the East Coast was hit by a major snow storm the same day. There’s winter than there’s Winter!