Carolyn WHITNEY-BROWN, editor, Jean Vanier: Essential Writings. New York: Orbis Books, 2008. pp. 174. $16.00 pb. ISBN 978-1-57075-806-5.
Reviewed by John C. MEYER, Bradley University, Peoria, IL 61625

This collection of the essential writings of Jean Vanier, one of the founders of the L'Arche movement in France in 1964, was published to mark Vanier's eightieth birthday. The assortment of Vanier's writings is preceded by a lengthy biography (56 pages) of Vanier from his youth through his time in military service, the winning of his PhD in philosophy and his teaching experience. Since its founding, the L'Arche movement has expanded to more than 132 sites in over 34 countries. The movement integrates people with mental retardation into normal society with everyday people living in loving communities with them. During his travels, Vanier was influenced by people he met such as Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Daniel Berrigan, Pope John XXIII, and Pope Paul VI among others. After September 11, 2001, Vanier was consumed with the task of peacemaking between individuals, communities, and countries.

The first chapter contains excerpts of talks Vanier gave to specific audiences attempting to change the world and transform society. He greatly admired Gandhi's effort to live Jesus' Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes. In his talks, Vanier stresses the need for the world to love even their enemies while addressing the demands of the Gospel to each audience as a fellow Christian. He also wrestles with the dilemmas and contradictions unique to each audience whether it is to the world's powerful or powerless. He especially sides with the broken and the oppressed while offering his own reflections on the urgent task of peacemaking accentuating ecumenism and interfaith friendship.

The next chapter explores transformation through community. As the founder of the L'Arche community 44 years ago, Vanier tells of his own experience of the transformative power of relationships. He points out the dynamics of shared life including the acceptance of reality, forgiveness, celebration and the practical aspects of living in community. He claims that he came to realize that one cannot really open one's heart to God without opening it to others. His meditative writing about the human condition lived with the belief in the presence of God is especially to be found not just in one's own self but in others as well, chiefly in the downtrodden, poor, and disenfranchised such as people who are mentally retarded. This chapter also includes Vanier's eulogy for Henri Nouwen who taught at Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard and was recognized as a prolific and well-known spiritual writer. Nouwen ended up living in a L'Arche community in Canada for the last decade of his life.

The final chapters deal with living the Christian life where Vanier tells about his own faith and practices that sustain him including prayer and retreat, following Jesus, and reading the Gospels. Throughout his writings and lectures Vanier makes great use of human psychology. He has a lengthy passage on the need for people to forgive one another and he affirms the necessity for the development of communities where people accept and love one another for whom they are. This is particularly a need in the world after September 11, 2001. Disasters can become blessings if they are confronted with Christian love and understanding. Vanier's lectures and writings will make excellent spiritual reading for committed Christians.

TO ORDER BOOKS: - Continuum - Crossroad - Eerdmans Publishing - Liturgical Press - Orbis Books