HomePage  Mary Shivanandan

Two Theologies of the Body: Jean Vanier and John Paul II
Ellen Roderick

an encounter is a strange and
wonderful thing
one person to another
one to another
life flowing
one to another
we can be together
and not meet
we can live in the same house day
after day
sit at the same table
kneel at the same pew
read the same books
but never meet
we can kiss
gestures of love
apparent tenderness
but never meet
a meeting is a strange and
wonderful thing

presence one person to another
present one to another
life flowing one to another.

This excerpt of a poem by Jean Vanier bespeaks the fundamental theme of his theological anthropology:  human “presence”. Vanier is the founder of L’Arche, which is a worldwide network of small homes, and communities that welcome the mentally disabled (“core members”) and those who share life with them (their “assistants”). Daily community life springs from the belief that each person has unique gifts inherent in the dignity bestowed upon them by being uniquely created by God, which need to be called forth and shared with others. It is through being “present” to the body of the disabled person that they are able to discover their dignity and their gifts.

For Vanier, this calling forth of and sharing of each person’s gifts within a community is an integral part of what it means to be fully human. His experience of thirty five years of sharing life with the most fragile and rejected in our society, understood within his formation in Catholic theology and doctoral studies in philosophy, has resulted in the development of a unique theological anthropology, which forms the basis of his prophetic vision. In this paper I am arguing that this vision of the human person and the human body, while rooted in the experience of daily life in L’Arche, transcends the parameters of the L’Arche home and has implications for every aspect of life.

It is with a desire to deepen our understanding of both Vanier’s and John Paul II’s theologies of the body that this paper is being written. In this paper the main components of Vanier’s theological anthropology will first be developed and later assessed and compared with the main tenants of John Paul II’s theology of the body. We will conclude with a discussion of the implications of this research, a summary of the main points, and finally, by proposing areas for further study.

In this paper it is being argued that John Paul II’s theology of the body, being rooted in a deep meditation on the Revealed Word, provides the ontological basis, the true roots, for Vanier’s experience of the person and the body, which stem from his lived experience with the mentally disabled. On the other hand, it is being argued that Vanier’s articulation of “gift”, “presence”, and man’s transformation from brokenness to wholeness, are a unique articulation of the foundations of John Paul II’s theology of the body in the realm of all human relationships, in the daily life in a family home or community, and finally, of man in society.

            The following questions will be answered in the presentation of Vanier’s theology of the body: What is his understanding of the body? What does it mean to say that “the body is at the center” of the L’Arche community? What does he mean by “presence” and how does this understanding of the body influence what he writes about “presence”? What is man’s deepest need and how does a “presence” to the body respond to this? What is meant by these other key terms: “communion”, “common humanity”, “belonging” and the “way of the heart”? After these questions have been addressed, a brief example will be given to concretely demonstrate the transformation that Vanier’s theology of the body brings about when lived in community with the disabled.

It is through living in L’Arche that Vanier “discovered a lot about loneliness, belonging, and the inner pain that springs from a sense of rejection.” [2] Let us look briefly at these three principles on which Vanier’s theological anthropology is based: loneliness, belonging, rejection. In Vanier’s experience these are integral parts of the fallen human experience and thus the starting point of his anthropological proposal. It must be noted that Vanier in no way rejects the traditional Catholic theological anthropology; rather he is articulating it by using the language of the human experience. Vanier speaks of two types of loneliness (This is significant for our later discussion of original solitude and rejection of the gift). The first type of loneliness is inherent in our human nature because “there is nothing in existence that can completely fulfill the needs of the human heart.” [3] In this form, loneliness is a source for creative energy, motivating both poets and mystics to seek the absolute.

The second form of loneliness, however, springs from rejection and is a source of depression, isolation and death. It is this later form of loneliness, manifested as apathy and depression that Vanier sees in those with disabilities and in the elderly. [4] In response to this negative form of loneliness, Vanier hopes that in L’Arche people can “experience that deep inner healing that comes about mainly when people feel loved, when they have a sense of belonging.” The community is a place where people can love as well as be loved. [5]This second type of loneliness inhibits you from encountering another while the first type urges you out of yourself towards the other.

The second formative principle of Vanier’s theological anthropology is the desire to belong. At the root of this intrinsic human desire to belong is the need to be affirmed, to be welcomed, to be told that “it is good that you exist.” This affirmation springing from belonging is the method through which someone’s “beauty” is revealed. [6] It is his experience with the brokenness of the disabled that come to L’Arche from institutions that has taught Vanier about the process by which this revelation of beauty comes about. He writes that “to reveal someone’s beauty is to reveal their value by giving them time, attention, and tenderness. To love is not just to do something for them but to reveal to them their uniqueness, to tell them that they are special and worthy of attention.” [7]  This revelation necessarily must take place within a committed relationship in order for the gifts of time, attention, and tenderness to be given and freely received.  Vanier argues that modern man suppresses his yearning for belonging behind hyper-activity out of fear of being hurt while the handicapped person cannot hide this yearning to belong, this yearning for relationship. Vanier says that in a way, the handicapped “are only heart: a wounded, open heart.” [8]

The final experience at the heart of Vanier’s theological anthropology is that of rejection. It was the experience of rejection of the disabled person by their parents or by society that illuminated the universality of the effect of rejection for Vanier. The primary place of belonging, and thus the “buffer” to the experience of rejection, is the family. But Vanier cites high divorce rates and the primacy in society given to the individual to the exclusion of the family and community, for the rejection that is almost universally felt nowadays, especially the rejection experienced by children who are either all together abandoned by their parents or whose parents are too busy to fully welcome and affirm them. Vanier argues that the roots of this rejection are almost always found in one’s childhood. The experience of rejection erects barriers around our hearts and we become distrustful of others.

We have seen how loneliness in its two forms, the desire to belong, and the experience of rejection make up the core of Vanier’s anthropology. His proposal for what is needed in order to bring about the movement from anguish to peace within a person is that of “presence.” Vanier’s insistence that presence has an intrinsic bodily dimension is a result of this experience with those with severe disabilities whose most developed sense of communication was through the body. It is here that we find the genius of Vanier’s theology of the body. We will draw on the work of Sr. Timothy Prokes in order to fully develop this theology of “presence” in all its dimensions and implications.

This mystery of true presence, although poetic, bespeaks a concrete reality in his articulation of the community life of L’Arche.  Let us see the many different ways in which Vanier speaks of presence in order to get a better sense of what he is speaking of. In referring to the transformation experienced in L’Arche of Claudia, a young severely disabled girl who had spent her whole life in a crowded asylum, Vanier writes that we can express a person’s inherent beauty through our open and gentle presence, in the way we look at and listen to a person, the way we speak to and care for someone. Gestures can be filled with a respect that reveals to someone their worth, even if that worth is hidden under anger, hatred, or madness. [9]

Presence, then, has a revelatory capacity. Bodily actions alone can reveal to someone their worth and can actually heal another person.

In speaking of the society at large Vanier comments about how society is structured around the “myth of the specialist” so that we never have to be fully present to anyone:

We are always putting things onto someone else, above all when it is a matter of suffering, of misery that demands our total presence. Our immediate reaction to all sad and impossible situations is to shut out hearts, to create a world of excuses to avoid being inconvenienced. [10]

Here Vanier is speaking about a “total presence” and saying that our immediate human reaction when called upon to be fully present is to flee the situation. Society has structured itself in such a way as to facilitate man’s fear of presence. The reason for this fear of vulnerability is man’s experience of rejection as we have seen in Vanier’s theological anthropology.

Vanier also speaks of presence in the sense that it is a being present to reality. He says the greatest gift of those he lives with at L’Arche is that they have the ability to live in the present. They have a well developed capacity to celebrate and live in the moment. He attributes this to the fact that they are people “who’s hearts are more developed than their minds,” and thus they have a better capacity to be present to reality instead of living in the memory of tragedies of their past or their anxieties for the future.

In summary, Vanier’s articulation of presence in his theology of the body has to do with 1)the totality of reality, 2)it is a demanding, vulnerable, and transformative stance to take before reality, one which we as a society continually flee, and 3)it is the only position with which to face another person in order to respect and reveal their inherent beauty. It is evident from the poem above that for Vanier presence is intrinsically linked to the body but cannot be reduced to the body alone (we can be together/and not meet…we can kiss/gestures of love/apparent tenderness/but never meet). The poem further speaks of bodily presence as mysterious; as constituting a true encounter of persons, and as a giving and receiving of life. It seems the body is a symbol for something beyond itself.  Let us now turn to Sr. Prokes and her work Towards a Theology of the Body in order to develop Vanier’s concept of bodily presence.

            Sr. Prokes articulates how the body is a revelatory symbol using God’s self-manifestation in history and the thought of Arthur Vogel, William van Roo, and Karl Rahner. Prokes starting point is Revelation. The “graphic corporality” of the creation of Adam and Eve in the second Genesis account of creation allows Prokes to conclude that “from ‘the beginning’ it is clear that human persons participate in the mystery of Revelation in and through their bodylines.” [11] Bodies are central to how man and woman communicate with the mystery of God and with one another. As man and woman are created in the image and likeness of God, their very bodies participate in God’s Revelation. Further reflection on the Yahwist account reveals that it is through one’s body that one becomes conscious of oneself as a person. [12] It is through bodily actions that we discover that we are subjects, and are capable of being authors of “genuine human activity.” [13]

            Having established the precedence of the bodylines as integral to God’s revelation to man, Prokes develops what it means for the body to be a revelatory symbol. Citing Vogel, Prokes argues that “the lived body is meaningful to us and is the source of our finding meaning in other things because it locates our presence.”[14] And as Vanier’s poem suggests, “personal presence is more than the body, but we are able to know it to be more only through the body and never without a body.” [15] It would seem that the body is integral to presence because it mirrors something beyond itself, or it is a symbol or carrier of a deeper reality.

 This suggestion that the body is a carrier of a deeper reality is found in what Karl Rahner articulate as Real Symbol.  Real Symbol “indicates a basic constitutive quality of being itself.” [16] With regards to the human person, “the body is the ‘Real Symbol’ through which the whole person is self-realized and makes itself known.” There is a Trinitarian basis for this Real Symbol which helps to understand the mystery of presence:

…the incarnate word is the absolute symbol of God in the world, filled as nothing else can be with what is symbolized. He is not merely the presence and revelation of what God is in himself. He is also the expressive presence of what,- or rather, who- God wished to be, in free grace, to the world, in such a way that this divine attitude, once so expressed, can never be reversed, but is and remains final and unsurpassable. [17]

Jesus Christ manifested the ultimate unity between the symbolized and the symbolizer, and all other symbols are derived from this unified symbol. In Jesus, a fullness and integrity is revealed between body and soul. What this means for man is the possibility that “the whole man is somehow present and expressing himself, through the expressive form confined to start with to one portion of the body.” [18]

Our inquiry into the meaning of bodily presence finds its fulfillment when Sr. Prokes develops the idea of bodily gestures truly being acts of self-revelation. This touches the heart of what I think Vanier is getting at, not only in his poem, but in the daily life of the L’Arche community and in his vision for the world. Beginning with the premise that “since the whole person is expressed bodily,” Prokes develops the idea that “human gestures are a preeminent form of self revelation.” [19]  This means that gestures ought to reveal a person’s interior. This is seen wholly when there is a true “integrity of the body-person” when what is going on inside is perfectly reflected in the persons outward acts. Of course, gestures can be emptied of there authentic meaning but the point is that our bodies at their deepest level of being are created to reveal meaning through their gestures.

When the integrity of the body-person is present, bodily gestures are powerful as “the lived body is revelatory and effective in ways that exceed our capacity to contain and manipulate.” [20]  In her concluding statements regarding the effectiveness of human gestures, Prokes gives the example of St.Francis of Assisi. He is attributed to saying that you should ‘preach always and use words only when necessary.’ Walking through the streets of Assisi, the body-person of St. Francis, increasingly attuned to Christ, analogously became a ‘vibrating presence’ for those among whom he walked. Those who were ‘attuned’ began to resonate with that presence: it was a dynamic,     personal presence that was more than body, but never without the body. When         there is an integrity of person the ‘within’ and the ‘without’ vibrate with the same       message; there is a field of ‘morphic resonance’ into which the other can come,         be received and respond. [21]

This example of the mystery of presence corresponds very well to what I think Vanier is trying to say. This presence is a being attuned to the mind of Christ, in other words, a being attuned to the Truth about oneself and about reality. This presence also has a transformative, welcoming power, which draws people into itself. These are the very characteristics that were described earlier, which summed up Vanier’s use of “presence.” Presence, then, is a way of being together that respects the integrity and mystery of the other person in their being-gift. Because this way of being together responds to the depths of our very being, it is transformative.

            An example of the transformative power of this type of presence is recounted by Henri Nouwen, a priest and accomplished professor who spent the last ten years of his life ministering to the L’Arche Daybreak community in Canada. These are a few excerpts from a book written about his friendship with Adam, a severely disabled man with whom he was asked to work with for his first year in the community. I refer to this very well articulated account of one man’s experience at L’Arche because I think through a narrative concepts can sometimes be better expressed in a way that logical argumentation cannot express.

 Be attentive to the “presence” that Adam first offered Nouwen, which Nouwen was later able to reciprocate. This mutual exchange occurred precisely through the body. Notice also the transformation Nouwen undergoes as he discovers his own beauty and true giftedness. Adam teaches him the primacy of being over doing, and doing together over doing alone.

As I “worked” with Adam I began to see myself right in the center of Daybreak. How often Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, had told me, “L’Arche is not built around the word but around the body. We are so privileged to be entrusted with the body of another.” My whole life had been shaped by words, ideas, books, and encyclopedias. But now my priorities were shifting. What was becoming important for me was Adam and our privileged time together when he offered me his body in total vulnerability, when he gave me himself, to be undressed, bathed, dressed, fed and walked from place to place. Being close to Adam’s body brought me close to Adam. I was slowly getting to know him. [22]

While I tended to worry about what I did and how much I could produce, Adam was announcing to me that “being was more important than doing.”[] While I was concerned about my individual accomplishments, Adam was reminding me that “doing things together is more important than doing things alone.” Adam couldn’t produce anything, had no fame to be proud of, couldn’t brag of any award or trophy. But by his very life, he was the most radical witness to the truth of our lives that I have ever encountered. [23]


            Adam’s total dependence made it possible for him to live fully only if we lived in a loving community around him. His great teaching to us was, “I can only live if you surround me with love and if you love one another. Otherwise, my life is useless and I am a burden.”… Although we all want to act on our own, to be independent and self-sufficient, we are for long periods of time dependent on other people’s decisions…We like to keep up the illusion of action as long as we can, but the fact is that passion is what finally determines the course of our life. [24]

Those first fourteen months at Daybreak, washing, feeding, and just sitting with Adam, gave me the home I had been yearning for, not just a home with good people but a home in my own body, in the body of my community, in the body of the church, yes, in the body of God. [25]

It is through the gift of Adam’s disabled and weak human body that Nouwen was able to learn fundamental truths of what it is to be human and accept the mystery of his own embodiment. Through Adam’s integrity of his being- person, through his acceptance of his own vulnerability and by letting those around him help him, he was able to radiate Truth. Through his presence he was able to transform the man who came to “help” him.

            Vanier himself sums up in his own words this fundamental experience. Notice his emphasis on the transformative power of touch, the discovery of the gratuitous gift of love, and role of the assistant as a sign or symbol through their touch of God’s love for man:

The profoundly handicapped people, who cannot speak nor walk, need essentially a presence of love — not a sentimental, protective love, but a love that is liberating, challenging and respectful; a love that understands and is compassionate and competent; a love that gives security and is commitment. Through touch, for words may mean nothing to them, they realize they are loved and are precious to someone. The assistant who has experienced the gratuitous gift of God for himself, in all his misery and darkness, will be better equipped to be that instrument which reveals to the handicapped person that he too is loved with a gratuitous love. The assistant is thus called to be a sign, a physical sign, of the tenderness and fidelity of the Father for the handicapped person. He is called to reveal to him that he is loved by God.[26]

Here Vanier speaks directly of the “physical sign” that the assistant is called to be for the disabled person, echoing what was said above about the Real Symbol. Presence has as its goal the religious sense that you are loved by God, that you are a precious gift, and that all of reality is a gift of Love bestowed by God to man.

Having developed Vanier’s theology of presence, three additional characteristics must be developed before proceeding to the comparison with John Paul II’s theology of the body. These three points are: man’s “common humanity” or the intrinsic nature of communion, the Trinitarian and Marian dimensions of his theology of the body, and finally, what he calls “the way of the heart.”

Vanier proposes that communion is at the heart of the mystery of our humanity.[27] Communion is anterior to the choice for communion as it constitutes the depths of being. Vanier articulates communion as meaning “accepting the presence of another inside oneself, as well as accepting the reciprocal call to enter onto another.” He acknowledges the challenge of living such a communion because it makes us vulnerable, and we lose control of out lives. He speaks of this communion as a “new form of liberation” which “brings joy because we are no longer alone.” [28]  Such communion is found between parents and child, and husband and wife. [29]God is present in this communion. [30] The weakness and fragility characteristic of man finds its rightful place within communion. Weakness is no longer perceived as something negative and to be hidden away. Vanier is not talking about sinfulness finding a home within communion. Rather he is speaking of the intrinsic vulnerability of man which leads him in the first place to seek communion.

Vanier’s theology of the body has both Marian and Trinitarian aspects. Vanier suggests that it is to Mary that we ought to look in order to better understand what it means to be present, “In order to welcome the gift of the body of Jesus we must look more fully to the woman who conceived him and gave him birth- Mary.” [31] The mutual giving and receiving of a true presence is expressed in Mary’s nurturing her Son and her continuously being nourished in return by His constant presence. Regarding Mary, Vanier writes that “her touch protected him and revealed to him that he was loved; her presence made him sing with joy; the light in her eyes called forth the light in his.” [32] In the context of L’Arche, I think the Mary-Jesus paradigm of presence is the model for the relationship between the assistant and core member, as we saw between Adam and Nouwen.

Vanier’s prayer to Mary, the teacher of the way of “presence”, reveals the deepest foundation of his theology of the body, the Trinity: “O silent woman cloth us in your silence and the silence of the Trinity, where love is presence, communion and gift of self.” [33]   The key concepts of presence, communion and gift in Vanier’s theological anthropology all flow from a profound meditation on the Trinity. The persons of the Trinity are representative of a love which is characterized by their mutual presence, self- gift, and communion. [34]

Finally, the “heart” plays a significant role in Vanier’s theological anthropology. Typically the heart is seen as a source of weakness and sentimentality but for Vanier, to speak of the heart is to speak of the very core of our being. Vanier’s “way of the heart” is an approach to each human being that treats them with gentleness and wonder. A communion of hearts is a powerful force for good, as it is a liberating love. Vanier suggests that this way of the heart is the alternative to the depression, apathy, and war so common in Western society.

We have spent the past few pages developing Jean Vanier’s theology of the body. Rooted in the Trinitarian characteristics of presence, self-gift, and communion, it is Vanier’s experience with both the brokenness and the healing of perhaps the most rejected in society, the mentally handicapped, that helps him to articulate the foundations for his theology of the body. I think there are very significant similarities between Vanier’s and John Paul II’s articulations of a theology of the body. Let us develop a few of these similarities, and then look at their differences.

One of the most striking similarities, of course in an analogous way, is the relationship between the encounter of man and woman in the original unity and the encounter of true presence between an assistant and the core member. In the original unity, man discovers himself with the aid of another human being, the woman. He discovers the other as a gift. Through this experience of sexual difference, man discovers that he is oriented towards a communion of persons, and this brings him joy and peace. In the one flesh union there must be a reciprocal giving and receiving of the gift. Each person discovers himself in being welcomed by the other. John Paul stresses the intrinsic nature of the communion of persons, when he says that man is God’s image primarily as a communion of persons and not as an individual person.

Analogously, Vanier speaks of such a fundamental encounter. Both the disabled person and their assistant participate in this fundamental Edenic experience of discovering themselves to be unique and to be a gift from God through the loving presence of the other. They, too, come to discover through the body that they are oriented for communion, for reciprocal giving and receiving. Vanier speaks of the intrinsicness of this communion, as it lies at the heart of what it is to be human.

Of course, this is an analogous relationship between original unity and an encounter of true presence. John Paul II speaks at the level of the sexually differentiated body while Vanier speaks at the level of the “person” without making reference to the gendered body. I do not think that we can deduce from this that Vanier does not think the body being created male and female is significant. On the contrary, given what he has said about the family, his rejection of artificial contraception, and the communion within difference of the Trinity, a strong argument could be made that he shares John Paul II’s deep appreciation for sexual difference.

The experience of original solitude where man discovers his radical aloneness before God and before creation is also referred to in an analogous way by Vanier. I see this in his discussion of the two types of loneliness. Vanier argues that the first type of loneliness is intrinsic to human nature; it is the stance of man alone before God. This loneliness is not to be overcome by man but to be accepted as God alone can fulfill this longing of man. This seems to parallel John Paul II’s articulation of original solitude, where Adam’ is first created alone with the animals. Here Adam’ experiences himself uniquely as a subject and discovers his unique personal relationship to God.

The Holy Father’s discussion of original nakedness and the discovery of freedom as a capacity to give are analogous to Vanier’s theology of presence. In the later there is a gentle waiting, an awareness that the gift of self from another cannot be forced but must be freely given and received. Both Vanier and John Paul II speak of the person as a “being-gift”, and of the fulfillment and healing that come through the experience of making a true gift of one’s self. Both speak of God the Father as the source of the gift of being.

In John Paul II’s theology of the body the shame and concupiscence which enter as a result of original sin manifest a break between man and woman, and a break between the body and the person. Vanier speaks of man’s fear of rejection and of the many barriers man puts around his heart to avoid facing the pain of rejection by the other. They share the belief that through the body, and through the redemption of Jesus Christ, man will be led in the bodily path to wholeness and fulfillment. The desire for domination that is found in Genesis 3:16 is spoken of by Vanier analogously as the human needs to have power and to be in control. It is this original rupture between man and woman, and between the body and the person that make both a true presence and the full giving oneself in the communion of persons such a challenge. Finally, Vanier and John Paul II both place the heart as the center of the human person. For John Paul II, the heart is what makes man unique and unrepeatable. He likens it to man’s personal subjectivity. [35] For Vanier, the heart is the center of the human person, and it is also linked to man’s discovering himself as “person.”

There is much more that could be said regarding this comparison. However, it was within the scope of this paper to introduce and develop Vanier’s theology of the body and to briefly compare it to John Paul II’s.  Let us make a few concluding remarks. I think these two articulations of a theology of the body are rooted in a common theological vision of what it is to be human. John Paul II developed his anthropology because he perceived that the Church needed an adequate anthropology through which She could better understand and articulate Her rich teaching on the person and on human sexuality. Vanier’s experience living with the most rejected in people in our society gave him special insight into what is most fundamental to the human heart. Vanier developed his theological anthropology out of a conviction that people no longer knew what it meant to be human. They both develop the sacramentality of the body and Vanier articulates what this looks like in everyday life whether in marriage, in the running of a home, or in community life. Vanier’s theology of presence is deeply rooted in the body being a symbol. This he shares with John Paul II theology of the body. [36] Finally, I would argue that Vanier’s articulation of the Marian and Trinitarian dimensions of the theology of the body can also be found at the heart of John Paul II’s analysis. I think Vanier’s articulation of this theology of presence has implications for how we as a Church and society view family life, the care for the elderly and the place of the disabled person in our society as it provides concrete examples from our daily lives for what “being is gift” looks like. [37] I think these are significant areas for further research as we continue to articulate an adequate anthropology of human love.

At the heart of Vanier’s theology of presence lies the personalistic philosophy

developed in the theology of John Paul II. In fact, the embodied experience of the L’Arche community enables the Church and modern man to be more fully “present” to John Paul’s vision of man as developed in his pontificate, and articulated most clearly in the Theology of the Body.

We can kiss
gestures of love
apparent tenderness
but never meet
a meeting is a strange and
wonderful thing.

Works Cited

John Paul II. The Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan. Boston: Paulist             Books and Media, 1997.

Nouwen, J.M. Henri. Adam: God’s Beloved. New York: Orbis Books, 1997.

Prokes, Mary Timothy. Towards a Theology of the Body. Michigan: Eerdmans             Publishing Company, 1996.

Spink, Kathryn. Jean Vanier and L’Arche: A Community of Love. New York:             Crossroads,1991.

The Challenge of L’Arche. Novalis, St. Paul’s University, 1981.

Vanier, Jean. Becoming Human. New York: Paulist Press, 1998.

Be Not Afraid. New York: Paulist Press, 1975.

Community and Growth, Our Pilgrimage Together. New York: Paulist Press,   1979.

Tears of Silence. New York, Paulist Press, 1975.

The Broken Body: Journey Towards Wholeness. New York: Paulist Press, 1988.

Works Consulted

Downey, Micheal. A Blessed Weakness: The Spirit of Jean Vanier and L’Arche. San             Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986.

            Jean Vanier: Recovering the Heart. Spirituality Today. Winter 1986.

Vol.38, pp.337-348.

McCown, Joe. Availability: Gabriel Marcel and the Phenomenology of Human             Openness. Missourri: Montana’s Scholars Press, 1978.

McCloughry, Roy and Wayne Morris. Making a World of Difference Christian             Reflections on Disability. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge,             2002.

Moltmann-Wendel, Elisabeth. I Am My Body: A Theology of Embodiment. New York:                   Continuum:1995.

Prokes, Mary Timothy. At the Interface: Theology and Virtual Reality.Arizona: Fenestra             Books, 2004.

Séguin, Michel. The biblical foundations of the thought of John Paul II on human             sexuality. Communio 20 (Summer, 1993) 266-289.

Shivanandan, Mary. Crossing the Threshold of Love, A New Vision of Marriage.             Washington, DC: CUA Press,1999.

Vanier, Jean. Made for Happiness: Discovering the Meaning of Life with Aristotle.

Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2001.

Man and Woman He Made Them. New York: Paulist Press, 1985.


1. Vanier, John. Tears of Silence( New York: Paulist Press, 1975)

2. Vanier, Jean. Becoming Human. (New York, Paulist Press, 1998) 6.

3. Vanier, Jean. Becoming Human. (New York, Paulist Press, 1998) 132.

4. Vanier, Jean. Becoming Human. (New York, Paulist Press, 1998) 8.

5. Vanier, Jean. Becoming Human. (New York, Paulist Press, 1998) 11.

6. I have put “beauty” in quotation marks to denote that this is not just physical beauty. Rather what Vanier means by beauty is the awareness that, ontologically speaking,  your being is a gift from God, and that you are called to participate in this flow of gift giving and receiving.

7. Vanier, Jean. Becoming Human. (New York, Paulist Press, 1998) 22.

8. Challenge of L’Arche, 273.

9. Vanier, Jean. Becoming Human. (New York, Paulist Press, 1998) 22.

10. Vanier, Jean. Be not Afraid. (New York, Paulist Press, 1975) 15.

11. Prokes, Timothy Mary. Towards a Theology of the Body. (Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996):78.Italics in original text.

12. Prokes, Timothy Mary. Towards a Theology of the Body. (Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996):78.

13. Ibid., 78.

14. Ibid., 79.

15. Ibid., 79.

16. Ibid., 80.

17. Ibid., 81.

18. Ibid., 81.

19. Ibid., 84

20. Ibid., 88.

21. Ibid., 88.

22. Nouwen, Henri. Adam: God’s Beloved. (New York: Orbis Press) 46. Italics added.

23. Ibid., 56. Italics added.

24. Ibid., 90.

25. Ibid., 127.

26. Challenge of L’Arche, 277

27. Vanier, Jean. Becoming Human. (New York, Paulist Press, 1998) 28.

28. Ibid., 29.

29. Ibid., 43.

30. Ibid., 29.

31. Vanier, Jean. Be not Afraid. (New York, Paulist Press, 1975) 63.

32. Ibid., 64.

33. Ibid., 67.

34. “People with handicaps are incredible, because communion is their immediate need. They are not there to be taught or to do things or to evangelize. They are there to live communion. They offer a vision of the whole mystery of the Trinity: not doing things but being in communion with. They are also really at the heart of community and the Church, because their unique need is communion and that is what the Church is in the vision of Jesus: being in communion.” Jean Vanier cited by Kathryn Spink. Jean Vanier and l’Arche. (New York: Crossroads:1991), 191.

35. John Paul II. Theology of the Body (Boston: Pauline Books and Media: 1997)177.

36. In a key passage of the Theology of the Body, John Paul says that “The sacrament, as a visible sign, is constituted with man, as a ‘body’, by means of his ‘visible’ masculinity and feminity. The body, in fact, and it alone is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It was created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden since time immemorial in God, and thus be a sign of it.”  John Paul II. Theology of the Body (Boston: Pauline Books and Media: 1997)76.

37. I think the implications of Vanier’s articulation of the theology of the body are very significant. As his reflections are drawn from the real experience of community life and from real experience with the disabled and elderly, what Vanier articulates about the seeming banality of the every day life can be immediately grasped by his readers when they relate his stories to their own experience. For example, Vanier articulates the implications of his theology of the body for household tasks such as cooking, cleaning, the serving of family members, and welcoming of guests. Our society has been telling families that “quality time” rather than a quantity of time together is what it important. Vanier’s theology of the body reveals the inadequacy of such a view and suggests a different model of family life. However, embodied real time spent together cannot be measured or quantified in family life. Children just need to be with their mothers and fathers. A theology of the family based on “quality time” does violence to the very structure of  the family by ignoring the Real Symbol of our bodies, designed as they are to image forth God’s love and mercy. A theology of presence is a more hopeful model of family life than that of “quality time”.

In the area of caring for the disabled, the elderly, and the dying his articulation of the theology of the body reveals a dimension of personal care that may be too often dismissed in the confines of a hospital, nursing home, or by family members who are too busy to be with their aging relatives. As euthanasia is gaining in acceptance in the West, how do we respond in order to express that weakness and sickness do not impose such a grave burden to our lives? I think Vanier is suggesting that in recovering the beauty and sacredness of every day living and by not fleeing the discomforts of sickness and weakness, man begins to live in such a way that expresses to the weak and vulnerable, “It is good that you exist”, and “I want to be with you.”

Copyright ©
Ellen Roderick 2005

This version: 13th February 2005

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