I first encounter Jean Vanier in the chapel in Trosly-Breuil, in the French village where L’Arche was founded more than fifty years ago. During the exchange of the peace, I turn around and Jean’s hand has reached out to meet mine. I am struck by his tenderness and the ease with which he models the virtue that has, perhaps, come to best symbolise the L’Arche movement.

The following day I sit with Jean in the small house he lives in down the road from his friends in the L’Arche Trosly Community. He is wearing his recognisable blue jacket, and a mass of books and letters surround him. They are evidence of a life lived in deep time, in relationship with others and their ideas. Jean has witnessed great suffering and great love in his life, and I am curious to know what he feels about the current divisions in our societies.

‘We belong to the same immense planet family,’ he tells me. ‘We can love one another, we can be very different because of our backgrounds, our religions, our cultures, our sicknesses and our age, all that … but we’re all human and some people are beginning to sense this.’

His hope is audacious, but it is not borne out of naivety. The son of Georges Vanier, the 19th Governor General of Canada, Jean joined the Royal Navy in 1941 during the Second World War when he was just thirteen years of age. In 1945, on a visit to Paris where his father was the Canadian Ambassador at that time, he visited a recently liberated Nazi concentration camp and was forever affected by the experience.

Jean made a series of profound changes, first leaving the Navy and later his teaching posts in philosophy, to follow Jesus. His life has become testament to the possibility of a radically different way of living and being in the world. Yet it is not, he professes, a way that is easy to live.

‘To be in L’Arche,’ he tells me, ‘isn’t an experience of being transformed and now it’s done. It’s every day. It’s every day of reliving or continuing to accept to live with people who have their ups and downs because each one [of us] has a story and because each one has a story there’s that place of pain.

‘There are times of anguish; there are friends who are dying. There are all the various things that can touch us. We can sometimes have a feeling of closeness to God and then a sense of being cut away … so we each have our story and it’s a story of growth because you begin by being transformed and seeing people, who have been humiliated, as beautiful.’

I reflect on my own journey to L’Arche. I first encountered the words and teachings of Jean Vanier at St Beuno’s Jesuit Spirituality Centre in North Wales. I was on retreat, studying the life and works of Henri Nouwen, the Dutch Catholic priest who spent the last ten years of his life as the chaplain in the L’Arche Daybreak Community in Toronto, Canada. I was moved by Jean and Henri’s teachings. Returning home, I tried to shake off a growing pull to become part of a L’Arche community. I was in my thirties and fairly well established in my career. On one level, by societal expectations, joining L’Arche made little sense. Yet something about L’Arche had compelled me and by the following year I had left London to join the Community in Manchester. Something of my own decision remains a mystery to me and so I ask Jean what he thinks compels people to join L’Arche.

‘I can say for me,’ he begins ‘and I can’t say for anybody else, but somewhere there is the head element and the head element is to be well inserted in a society. Having friends, family, maybe getting married. And so it is a question of success and somewhere winning and, of course, that is a fulfilment.

‘Then there is the heart and the heart is that yearning. Somewhere [our] primal innocence, [our] most intimate need, is to be appreciated and loved. Not for what [we] have done, but for who [we] are. But then there’s something deeper than the heart. It’s somewhere that is the most intimate part where our spirit is and here we are talking about spirituality. Something has been touched, which says ‘this is right’ … I won’t get big marks, I won’t get big money, but somewhere it is what is deepest within me. It’s yes the heart, but somewhere deeper than the heart. That deepest part where somewhere my primal innocence becomes touched and, dare I say it, fulfilled.’

As a society, it seems that we are becoming ever lonelier and I ask Jean what he thinks may be driving loneliness, particularly among young people.

‘There’s a loneliness because they have to be a success,’ he offers. ‘But at the same time they despise success. So there’s that terrible feeling of not knowing where they are, or who they are, and what they could become because nobody has told them about their primal innocence.

‘Nobody has really told them ‘you’re more beautiful than you dare believe.’ And then one day they fall into L’Arche and then it’s the Pauline’s (a core member in L’Arche Trosly) who say ‘you’re special.’ … They are suddenly touched by people who are seen as crazy and are the most beautiful crazy people in the world, because other people are not allowed to be crazy and to reveal their primal innocence.’

It was Jean’s own desire, in his thirties, to find a place of belonging that led him to invite Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux, two men with learning disabilities, to come and live with him in 1964. When Jean met Raphael and Philippe, they were living in an institution for men with learning disabilities. ‘I knew I couldn’t enter that institution,’ he tells me. ‘It just would be impossible. But then on the other hand I wanted to do something and so the idea came to welcome two people.’

I ask Jean what he discovered through living with Raphael and Philippe in those early years together, that he had not experienced before.

‘I can say that in the Navy there was a feeling of success, but never a feeling of home. There’s something special about home. Finding a place where I didn’t have to fight to fit in … this was a world of relationships and so it was much more of a heartfelt sense of wellbeing because they loved me and I loved them, which is very different to the sense of people admiring you, where there is success and [you are] clapped. Nobody clapped because a lot of people thought I was crazy. My parents thought I was crazy. My parents thought I would have done much better if I had kept on teaching at university. So there was a feeling on one side of people not understanding … and on the other side that feeling of finding my place.’

It is this mutuality of relationships that has become a hallmark of L’Arche communities. ‘The mysterious thing is that as I get close to whomever it is, Patrick or Andre, they obviously need me. But somewhere also I need them. I remember Pauline when she was much older — and I was too — I was with her and I remember sitting next to her and she put her good hand … on my head and said ‘poor old man.’ She knew I was tired. And somewhere I needed that. This tenderness … incredible tenderness and that is precious.’

The story acts as a poignant reminder of Jean’s growing fragility. He celebrated his ninetieth birthday last year and, he tells me, is starting to forget a lot of things. I ask him what he is discovering in this season of his life.

‘Something comes about when you get to that stage that I am [in]. I can say that I have no more future. The only future will be loss. Loss of more memory, loss of maybe being able to walk, loss of whatever it is. You move to loss and going down to loss, living the now of the loss, because in the loss you have the now and the now brings you to something which is out of time. The future is time. The now is somewhere where there is no more time.

‘You’re going from the now to the now to the now, and so there’s no more time. So when there is no more time, there’s a sort of moving into something that if the now is important then my death is important because the death will be the final now when everything will be lost, except what is nothing within me. That nothing within me is the most important. It is that primal innocence.’

‘So as you’re stripped away from all that is not the primal innocence, there is something then which is the only thing which is at the heart of the universe, is what brings everything together, and that is love.’

As I leave Jean’s home, my attention is drawn to the kitchen wall next to his living room. Off it hang pieces of dried-out spaghetti, thrown there to test its readiness. I imagine the fun that has been had here and the sight brings a smile to my face. That the spaghetti has been left there by Jean seems to act as a living testament to that early vision of L’Arche. Places that — even in the midst of the pain of one another’s stories — spark joy, uncontrollable laughter and a kindness that can undo you.

Amy Merone works for L’Arche UK and is part of the L’Arche Manchester Community where she was a live-in assistant.