Faith & Reason: Tall oaks from arks and acorns grow

Mother Teresa's 500 missions world-wide stemmed from one encounter with a beggar in a Calcutta gutter. This is a typical pattern for the great charities, argues Maggie Parham.
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"God has heard our prayers," rejoiced one Missionary of Charity as Mother Teresa returned home yesterday. He will have had many prayers to listen to on Mother Teresa's behalf: her order now includes some 4,000 nuns, running 500 missions in 95 countries.

Looking at these figures, it is easy to assume that when Mother Teresa began to live and work with the poor of Calcutta in 1946, she must have had some grand, well-funded, long-term plan in view. She did not. She was 36, and had no money. She had recently left the Sisters of Loreto, a teaching order which she had joined after school. Walking through Calcutta, she saw a beggar woman lying in a gutter. She decided she must stop and help her. That was how her life's work began.

Yes, one might argue, but Mother Teresa is exceptional. But what is striking, if one looks at other people who have achieved great things for the poor, the sick and the handicapped, is that a pattern emerges. They do not, on the whole, set out either with grand plans or with much money. Often, they are not very young.

Leonard Cheshire, for example, was living on an RAF disability pension when he met Arthur Dykes, an ex-serviceman who was dying and homeless. Cheshire took him in, rang his local district nurse to ask for evening classes in basic nursing, and began to look after him. Dykes died the following year, by which time another patient, an old lady, had joined them. More followed. By the time Cheshire died in 1992, there were 267 Cheshire homes for the sick and disabled in 49 countries, including Russia and China.

Another example, less well-known in Britain, is Jean Vanier, who will be speaking in St Martin-in-the-Fields tomorrow evening, and through whom the lives of thousands of men and women with mental handicaps have been changed.

Vanier first encountered mental handicap in 1964. He was then 36. He had served in the war as an officer in the Royal Navy, and was working as a philosophy teacher at the University of Toronto, when he received an invitation to visit a friend, a Dominican priest, who had been appointed chaplain to an institution for 30 mentally handicapped men in Trosly-Breuil, a village near Paris.

Vanier was deeply moved by what he saw: "Here was something terrifying," he has written, "and yet profoundly of God. I saw in the faces of these men anger and violence, and yet extreme tenderness. Their bodies, their faces, their gestures were filled with a great thirst for friendship."

Troubled by this first encounter, Vanier began to visit psychiatric hospitals and asylums around France. He became convinced that people with mental handicaps are among the most oppressed people in the world. "Not only do they have no voice, but they inspire fear and misunderstanding."

Resigning from his teaching post in Toronto, Vanier bought a small, run- down cottage in Trosly-Breuil and invited two men - Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux - to come and live with him. Both were orphans who had suffered brain damage as a result of illnesses in early childhood, and had been living for many years in an institution near Paris. Vanier realised that in inviting them to come and live with him he was taking an irreversible step, but he had no idea where it would lead.

He now argues, as Mother Teresa would argue, that his lack of long-term plan was an essential strength. The fact that he was not using Simi and Seux to accomplish some great work, or found a movement, enabled him to live with them in a very particular way. They did everything together: the shopping, the cooking, the gardening. He began, gradually, to discover that he was learning and receiving as much from Simi and Seux as they from him. Friends who visited him discovered the same thing. His little community, which he had christened L'Arche - "The Ark" - grew.

There are now over 100 L'Arche communities, spread across every continent, and embracing Christians of every denomination, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Jews. Two years ago, when L'Arche celebrated its 30th anniversary, the village of Trosly-Breuil was filled for a weekend of celebration with visitors from most of the countries of Europe, from America, Burkina Faso, the Ivory Coast, Japan, Honduras, the Philippines and Haiti. It was a powerful argument for small beginnings.

Jean Vanier gives his talk, "From Brokenness to Wholeness", at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London WC2, at 6.30pm tomorrow; no tickets are required. He also appears in a BBC Everyman programme, "Science Friction", on Sunday 15 September.