Thinking about Jean Vanier

I have not been feeling well for the last day or so (don’t worry, it’s not a certain highly charismatic disease). This affliction has allowed me to sidestep a few things on my to-do list and contemplate the pattern on the ceiling. As I do that my thoughts keep returning to what we now know about Jean Vanier. It was not long ago that Vanier was being celebrated as a living saint. His work creating community for disabled people around the world was remarkable. To have had such a description used by public media in Canada is remarkable too. News outlets here are so cynical that I had would not have believed them capable of landing on such a description.

To put matters bluntly, we now know that the living saint “sexually and emotionally abused multiple women who came to him for spiritual ‘accompaniment’ over several decades” (Higgins).* What should be added is that the report also tells us that Vanier looked the other way, even facilitated similar actions by his mentor Fr. Thomas Philippe.

The juxtaposition this creates is hard to comprehend. Vanier’s books, interviews and many feature pieces done on his life depicted a very humble, caring, and gentle man. Vanier had obvious intellectual and leadership gifts, and he put them to the service of people who had once been shuttered away and sentenced to loneliness. He created community and showed the world a different way living with the disabled. Vanier and L’Arche, the organization he founded, were widely influential. Henri Nouwen is one person deeply affected by his residence in a L’Arche community.

So what do we make of Vanier now?

To begin with, it is important to acknowledge the courage of the woman who shared their stories and the L’Arche leadership who resisted the temptation to burry this story. I wish the investigation had been carried out twenty years ago, but the one that resulted in the recent report appears to have been careful and serious. For instance, the report is clear about what is known and how confident we can be in that knowledge. My hope is that neither the people involved nor L’Arche itself become a “story” bandied about for our amusement (in the mode of political news coverage).

What is obvious is that Vanier was not only the person that was presented to us by his own hand or the hand of others. In addition to the gentle, caring man, there was a Vanier who used spiritual language and relationships to manipulate others in disturbing ways. This is deeply disappointing.

For those of us familiar with the biography of the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, there is an eerie similarity. Both men used their spiritual/theological expertise, what had made them famous, toward similar ends. In some weird way this seems less surprising in the case of an academic like Yoder. I suppose it’s the result of the academy’s commitment to pushing boundaries and self-promotion. In contrast, Vanier’s vocation would seem to have led him in the opposite direction. But it did not.

Many of us have decided to stop using Yoder’s work, at least for a time. I studied his work quite thoroughly as a graduate student, but have neither read nor written much about it in the last five years. Many people found Vanier’s writing deeply moving and even a key part of their own vocational discernment. My guess is that when we go back and read his work in light of our new knowledge we will notice a pattern in certain thematic threads that allowed him to rationalize his actions. I do not know his work well, but I would guess (based on the report) that there is something about the way he described mysticism, love, and community that was vague enough to create spiritual cover in his own mind for what he did. Until such a study emerges, it will probably be good for us to step away from his work—maybe not forever, but at least for now.

The manipulative behavior described in the report does not mean the whole cloth of Vanier’s life is lost. There is no reason I can see that this new knowledge should slacken our support for L’Arche. Those who the organization serves are not guilty of the founder’s wrongdoing.

Lutherans are fond of reminding the rest of us that we are both sinners and saints. Sometimes this truism is used as an excuse for ignoring inappropriate behavior. We throw up our hands and say, “Well, nobody’s prefect—what are you going do?” And we walk away leaving things as they are. But on the other hand this reminder can make us smart. It can remind us of the importance of accountability and transparency. And it can tamp down our hopes to find or become the “great man” that makes a dent in the universe.

I still don’t know exactly what to think about Jean Vanier. I am sad though. Sad about what he did, and sad because it feels like we have lost a powerful advocate for goodness and gentleness. I do wonder if our desire to make him out as a saint so quickly says something about the influence of celebrity culture in our own spiritual lives. Yet it can’t be just that. We do need examples. We do need inspiration. And maybe Vanier can still function as those things—both positively and negatively, as a saint and clearly as a sinner.

*If you’d like to read something longer on this start with this piece from Commonweal, “A Light Extinguished” by Michal Higgins. It contains a link to the summary report released by L’Arche.

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