Jean Vanier: Portrait of a Free Man

Reviewed by:

G. Connor Salter, Professional Writing alumnus from Taylor University, Upland, IN.

Title:

Jean Vanier: Portrait of a Free Man

Author:

Anne-Sophie Constant (translated into English by Allen Page)

Publisher:

Plough Publishing House

Publication Date:

August 4, 2019 (original French edition published in September 2014)

Format:

Paperback

Length:

250 pages

OVERVIEW

In 1964, sailor-turned theologian Jean Vanier invited two men with disabilities to live with him. He had no real plans, just a desire to give them a better living standard than institutions could provide at the time. A life where they would could grow and be loved. That home became the start of L’Arche, a movement of over 130 communities around the world.

Anne-Sophie Constant, one of Vanier’s close friends, uses information from interviews with Vanier and his associates (as well as official documents and her own experiences) to tell the story of his unusual life. She starts with his family background as a diplomat’s son, then covers his naval career and theological training, all the while noting the particular sense of calling he felt at various times. She goes on to explain how Vanier founded L’Arche and associated initiatives, and how his core Christian beliefs have influenced each one.

The fact this book initially appeared in 2014 gives it an unusual quality. Written while Vanier was still alive, it shifts from past tense to present tense throughout, from talking about his past work to what it’s like seeing him face-to-face. The last chapter, added in January 2019, mentions newer events, including the fact Vanier had thyroid cancer. The cancer finally took Vanier’s life in May 2019, less than two months before this edition was finally published. This makes the book confusing at first, but once readers get used to it the style also feels poetic. It’s as if the author is saying that Vanier is still present even though he’s passed on. Given the Christian doctrine that Christians live on in heaven, this may be appropriate.

Constant does a beautiful job of covering the major events and accomplishments in Vanier’s life. Like many biographies of seminal Christian leaders, she praises him highly and occasionally compares him to Biblical figures or saints. At times the words used to praise Vanier seem a bit too gushing, but that may be due to the translation. She also does an excellent job of taking ideas from the many books Vanier wrote and using them to explain the core principles behind the way he approached ministry. A fascinating book about a man who truly cared for the least of these.

ASSESSMENT

Rating (1 to 5 stars)

4 stars

Intended Audience

Christians interested in Jean Vanier’s life and legacy, people interested in L’Arche and its associated programs, people interested in caring for people with disabilities.

Christian Impact

This book presents a compelling portrait of a man who loved gave his life to helping people that society often discards.

About Cecelia Carey

The Evangelical Church Library Association, founded in 1970, is a fellowship of Christian churches, schools, and individuals.

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