To whom shall we go? Jean Vanier and the loss of hope

To whom shall we go? Jean Vanier and the loss of hope

By Br John Bernard Church, O.PThe 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

Br John Bernard, raised a Catholic by an English father and Dutch mother, first encountered the Dominicans at Blackfriars while studying Classics at the University of Oxford, and entered the noviciate in 2018. An attraction to religious life initially grew out of time spent working with the Missionaries of Charity, which then crystallised into a Dominican vocation through a desire to integrate the contemplative life with preaching and study. Based on his recent reading, he looks forward to delving further into St John of the Cross and the Carmelite mystics, as well as combining his preaching vocation with a love of the outdoors.

Comments (5)

  • A Website Visitor

    It is difficult to put into words the sadness we are still digesting… Thank you Br John, good post!

  • A Website Visitor

    St, Paul was the greatest sinner. So, we found out that Vanier is a sinner as well. L’Arche is not Vanier. L’Arche will rot should we continue to define with Vanier. L’Arche as a community of the world will become better without this one legacy of Vanier. The deception is partly us to own for putting a man on a pedestal. No blame, just saying, Focus in how can we support L’Arche.

  • A Website Visitor

    Here in Toronto, especially at St. Mike’s, are deeply saddened by these news. We understand how much people are disappointed by Vanier’s deeds. Personally, I think that it is always not safe to anyone to follow Christ in the shadow of someone. Many thinkers, spiritual masters, etc. have followers who kind of have to go through them to have a relationship with Christ. It is dangerous. The most inspiring people can be deceiving: when I was in Oxford I was among those who cheered for Aung San Suu Kyi as she was awarded a Honoris Causa doctorate. ONly three years after that she disappointed me with her treatment of the Rohingya’s case. I remember how some students at Bfriars were shattered by the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, though it was not even an evil deed, because they had been brought to their then understanding of the right way to be Catholic by that pope. So, maybe the question put to us is: how much do we idolize human beings? How much space do we leave to Christ/God when someone highly gifted invites to an aspect of our faith? Let us pray for those victims and for all victims of abuse who remain silent because they do not believe we will understand their sufferings.

  • A Website Visitor

    Thank you for this, and thank you for noting that we don’t follow Christ alone. We need others to help us stay strong and on the path. Some of the failure is that those who must have known did not confront him and point him to Christ (including his own spiritual director). We should pray for each other and especially for those who help us and are honest with us when we are weak. I pray for all the Dominican priests and brothers who have been helpful to me.

  • A Website Visitor

    I also thank you for this which has helped me greatly. I have also sent it on to a friend whom I sponsored into the Church a few years ago, who had emailed me yesterday asking how to deal with such a blow to our faith. Basically we must not ‘put our faith in princes’ in any field but only in Christ.

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