To whom shall we go? Jean Vanier and the loss of hope
By Br John Bernard Church, O.P | The recent news about Jean Vanier is particularly sickening. It leaves us praying for the survivors of those abusive relationships, and at a loss to make sense of a life that somehow embodied such an extreme paradox. What hope is left when a hero falls so far?
“Corruptio optimi pessima.” The old scholastic adage comes to mind when reading the recent news about Jean Vanier. Of all the abuse revelations, few have been as stomach churning as what emerged a couple of days ago. A man recounted as a “living saint” in countless obituaries, whose work with L’Arche taught the world what love looks like, has proven why the corruption of the best really feels like the worst: the numbing confusion of squaring the fact that a man who radiated such profound Christ-like good in this world could have been simultaneously hiding such diabolical depravities. If this were the work of Wormwood, Screwtape would be brimming with pride.
The narrative makes no sense, and leaves one lost and bewildered. This is not a man we can just write off as rotten to the core. The pieces don’t fit neatly together and the paradox is extreme. St Paul tells us in the Letter to the Galatians “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience…” and anyone who met Vanier would instantly list these fruits and more as proof of the working of the Holy Spirit in his life. What greater fruits are evident than the 154 L’Arche communities around the world bringing hope to forgotten lives? There is nothing fake or contrived about them. They are good, and Vanier’s work creating them was good.
But how can that be combined with such evil? The six women who spoke out have shown enormous courage. Their pain must have been intolerable at seeing the man who had abused them lauded a saint. It is their suffering we must recognise first, offering our prayers, and expressing our gratitude for leading us closer to the truth.
Yet, as with any tragedy, there is also collateral damage: secondary in gravity, but far-reaching and devastating nonetheless. Vanier’s life inspired and consoled and evangelised millions, and now each of us has to digest the deception we’ve been fed. As the statement from L’Arche said, we “have to mourn a certain image we may have had.” There is something particularly difficult about a fallen hero, especially one who had such heights to fall from. It makes you question anyone you respect, you look up to. What don’t you know? What might lie behind the facade?
It highlights an apparent danger in the Christian journey. The Church encourages us to look up to those who lead exemplary lives, to imitate them, to celebrate their holiness and virtue. The Communion of Saints is integral to our Christian living, united in the mystical body, the Church, and given to us as intercessors and inspiration in time of trial. No wonder the Church has no option but to rely on supernatural support — on a charism — in her canonisation process. Yet at the same time we are not to worship any false idol. No thing or person can ever stand in the place of God, the saints are merely a help along the way. Our praise is due to Him alone. The potential pitfalls are obvious.
But we rightfully rely on others for support. We are a community of faith, not individuals seeking God alone. In that search we need the saints and we need each other. It is what makes it all the more painful when a pretty major team player, universally lauded by all except the survivors of his abuse, one who carried thousands by his example, lets us down so drastically. It is like finding rotting wood in a supporting beam, potentially risking the stability of the entire edifice.
And therein lies our hope. Of course no single piece, no single player, is the key to holding the edifice together. Not even those officially declared saints, who count their place among the blessed in heaven. No one, except Jesus Christ, the stone which the builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone.
The pain, the disappointment, the emptiness when human nature once again proves itself so desperately in need of redemption, let that be the spark that makes the heart grow fonder. Let that be the realisation of our neediness, our brokenness, our desire for Him alone who can never disappoint. His instruments of healing may create wounds, His ways may lie beyond our grasp, but before Him do we stand with restless hearts, firm in the knowledge that our rest is found in God alone.
While the edifice may shake, in the words of Eckhart, “stand still, and do not waver from your emptiness.”
Image taken from WikiCommons