Jean Vanier’s Summer in the Forest: Changing the World, One Heart At a Time

Friday, March 23rd, 2018 is the opening of Summer in the Forest. It is a documentary about the remarkable life and work of Jean Vanier – a champion for individuals with intellectual disabilities. In this piece, CMMB staff member, Laura Manni, talks about why everyone should watch this film. 

My name is Laura Manni and my official title at CMMB is Manager of Community Engagement and Communication. There is so much that I love about CMMB’s work, but if asked about the thing I value most, it would be the focus it places on building relationships. And if any man on the planet can speak to the power of relationships, it is Jean Vanier.

Vanier spent the early years of his adult life serving in the British and Canadian Navy. But it was an unsettling experience in 1964 that ultimately led him to his most important life’s work, the creation of a community called L’Arche. He is “a man with heart, a man of compassion.” He has spent most of his life advocating for humanity and truth. He is a humanist, a philosopher, and a theologian.

Jean Vanier

The Secret of L’Arche? Relationships

In 1964, Vanier visited a psychiatric hospital in a suburb of Paris. What he witnessed there shocked him – the horrible, inhumane living conditions of the committed. It was during this visit that he met Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux. So deeply moved by their distress, he decided to buy a little house and invited the two men to live there with him. It was not easy. The men were extremely broken by years of neglect and abuse, but in this action, Vanier started a movement that has changed the lives of thousands of people – both the notoriously rejected and those who decided not to look away.

Today, L’Arche is a worldwide organization operating in 152 communities, in 35 countries, on five continents. It provides care, compassion, and community for people with intellectual disabilities. These communities are made up of people with disabilities and those without (typically developing people) who want to live in union with them.

The secret of L’Arche is relationship: meeting people, not through the filters of certitudes, ideologies, idealism or judgments, but heart to heart; listening to people with their pain, their joy, their hope, their history, listening to their heart beats. – Jean Vanier

Every once in a while, if you’re lucky, you find someone who changes the way you look at the world, someone who inspires you and pushes you to look at things with new eyes, to listen more and judge less, to question long held assumptions. For me, one such person is Jean Vanier. But there is another person in my life too who has inspired me.

Lose Yourself to Find Your Heart

I have a brother who is intellectually delayed. His name is Frankie and he has cerebral palsy and is on the spectrum. These are the labels that were given to him, so these are the labels I use. In fact, the labels are constantly changing. There were different labels before, but those were used in derogatory ways so new ones were created.

It took me years to realize that these labels exist so that if someone asks me, “What’s wrong with him?” I would know how to answer. But for me, the real problem is the question. It starts from a place of deficiency. A place of judgement.

When I was growing up I felt fiercely protective of my brother. However, unlike my sister who physically and verbally protected him from bullies and people who made fun of him, I retreated. I tried to avoid situations where he might be stared at or laughed at. It is something that I regret today, because if the people you love most on the planet are not willing to stand by you or up for you, what chance do you have?

In many ways, I had to lose myself – my own insecurities and concern about what others think – to find the true beauty of my brother. Looking back, I realize that the best of who I am is because of him. He taught me everything I know about compassion, love, and empathy, and he has never uttered a word. Imagine such a powerful teacher.

Frankie and Lily enjoy a moment. This is what love looks like.

Zio Frankie (uncle) and Lily (niece) having an amazing time, not saying a word.

I think that I can pinpoint the very moment that I came to this realization. It was after the death of my fiance. I remember it was just me and Frankie sitting in a room, watching whatever was flickering on the television screen in front of us. With everyone else gone, and knowing Frankie would never tell a soul, I finally felt free to cry; something I often did when alone in the months (years) following Greg’s death.

And then something happened that I didn’t expect. Frankie leaned over and hugged me, and he didn’t let go. He didn’t let go until I stopped crying. It was at that moment that I finally and fully realized that this beautiful human being understood far more than most of us had ever given him credit for. From that moment on, I started to look for the magic in every human being, no matter what was “wrong” with them.

Those who are not endowed with great intellectual stuff – they are beautiful people. They can teach us to love and break down the shackles for the need for power and lead us into a world where there is a bit more peace. – Vanier

The Preciousness of Others

L’Arche is a community that restores dignity by creating an environment which allows authentic relationships to emerge between the most unlikely of friends.

These relationships take many forms, like those that emerge between members of staff, or with local communities in the countries where we work, or between beneficiaries and volunteers. Ultimately, it all comes down to our need to belong – to be accepted and valued.

I have a not-so-secret wish that my brother could find a place in a L’Arche community. A place where it is not employees and residents – as many institutions and care homes are – but where people come together with a genuine desire to know and love the other.

Jean Vanier film

In his book, Becoming Human, Vanier recalls a visit he once made to a psychiatric hospital, a place he refers to as a ‘warehouse of human misery.’ He goes on to describe this terrible place where, “Hundreds of children with severe disabilities were lying, neglected, on their cots. There was a deadly silence. Not one of them was crying.” He continues “When they realize nobody cares, that nobody will answer them, children no longer cry. It takes too much energy. We cry out when there is hope that someone may hear us.”

It is hard to imagine such a place. When my brother was first born the doctors suggested that my mother put my brother into an institution and try again. It’s hard to imagine what my life would have been like without him, but worse to imagine him in such a place.

Vanier dedicates his life to building relationships by tearing down the “walls” that separate us. The L’Arche communities bring people together. They provide homes and workplaces, where all residents interact as peers, transforming people and lives through relationships that cross all boundaries. What Vanier and all those involved realize is that “people who came to do good discover that the people they came to help are doing them good.” He goes on to say that “as we come together to listen we become, all of us, more human.”

What people are yearning for are to be seen as beautiful.

One project at CMMB that exemplifies this idea is Rehabilitation with Hope, a community-based program in Peru, which assists children with physical and cognitive disabilities by providing them with much needed access to quality therapy. While the therapies are life-changing, it’s the relationships that evolve between children and mothers that is, for me, the most powerful outcome of the program. This all links back to my own childhood and growing up with a brother who is intellectually delayed.

Jean Vanier once said, “The thing that will change us – is if we see the other person as precious.” He went on to say, “We can only really discover what our humanity is when we meet the different.” Imagine such a world? A world where we look at the most vulnerable and instead of seeing weakness, we see strength. Imagine the lessons we could learn.

And that’s where fundamentally joy is. When we meet people, not above them, not below them, but as children of God, together.

Summer in the Forest

The film is called Summer in the Forest. It tells Jean Vanier’s story through the stories of some of the residents of L’Arche. Here is a synopsis of the film:

Like countless others Philippe, Michel, Andre and Patrick were labeled ‘idiots’, locked away and forgotten in violent asylums, until the 1960s, when the young philosopher Jean Vanier took a stand and secured their release – the first time in history that anyone had beaten the system. Together they created L’Arche, a commune at the edge of a beautiful forest near Paris. A quiet revolution was born. Now in his 80s, still at L’Arche and revered by some as a living saint, Jean has discovered something that most of us have forgotten – what it is to be human, to be foolish, and to be happy. SUMMER IN THE FOREST invite us to abandon the rat race and forge new friendships. Amid the ancient trees, Philippe, Patrick, Jean and the others welcome us into their lives. If there are rules to break, they will be broken and if there is a truth to be told, they will tell it. Michel reveals his war torn past, Andre is desperate for a date, and young David will prove himself a hero in the fight against the forces of evil.

If you want to be inspired – to be reminded about the beauty of humanity – watch Summer in the Forest. This is the kind of story that can change the way you look at the world. I would be so bold as to say that it can change the way you live your life.

 Learn more about the film

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