Jean VANIER, Befriending the Stranger. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005. 130 pp. pb. ISBN 0-8028-3134-6 $15.00.
Reviewed by Ruth Poochigian, 3112 Forest Run Way, Madison WI 53704

This slim volume is deceptive and, even, dangerous. Containing the talks from a six-day retreat given by its author, Jean Vanier, it appears to be simply a volume of spiritual reflection. As is often the case with such a spirituality, it is much more radical than that.

Vanier is the founder of a truly counter-cultural community movement. For more than forty years,L’Arche has brought into intimate daily encounter persons with severe mental and/or physical disabilities, the elderly and the dying with other, able-bodied individuals who have, for the most part, successfully kept their own wounds and emotional disabilities hidden. Therein lies the power of the encounter in L’Arche communities: each day the “weak” are offered tenderness and genuine respect; and each day they, in return, offer a powerless presence to the “strong,” their able-bodied care-giving companions whose hidden wounds are revealed, brought into the light and allowed to be healed.

Like many more scholarly books on scripture, ecclesiology or liberation theology, Vanier challenges the reader to examine the radical nature of Jesus’ words and deeds in the gospel. Vanier himself has scholarly credentials, including a doctorate and a teaching career. His life dedicated to prayer, community and encounter with others has grounded his theology and spirituality in ways that abstraction cannot. It is practical and simple: Christian life demands that the believer befriend others, to simply be with them in their humanness, rather than to simply do for them – though do for them, they must. In particular, those who are perceived as strong in this world are challenged to reach out to the margins where those whom the world most readily dismisses and rejects struggle to survive and be noticed. Here is where the reader is apt to be taken by surprise, and disarmed by the power of the stories Vanier tells.

Who might make use of a small book like this? Campus ministers who prepare, accompany and then listen to students debrief from the currently “popular” mission trips; spiritual directors who listen to the apparently successful reflect on the exquisite pain they feel in their human struggle to live with integrity; professors in undergraduate theology courses or programs that prepare students for careers in human services or the helping professions; any whose ministry involves preaching. Twentieth-century preachers were often urged, to quote theologian Karl Barth, that preaching would more likely be authentic if the gospel were read side-by-side with the newspaper. In a century where much of the media is driven by entertainment and distraction, it is perhaps more telling to say “the gospel must be read side-by-side with the stories of human struggles to be free.”

What Vanier proposes is a very concrete, lived expression of faith and a profound understanding of human psychology.

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