For anyone who had paid attention to his writing and ministry with people with intellectual disabilities, the recent revelations that well-respected philosopher and founder of the L’Arche movement Jean Vanier had used his position to manipulate and abuse women who went to him for spiritual direction is heart-piercing.
I, for one, felt an immediate guilt. I had written about him, even encouraged that he be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. And I was not alone. People called him a living saint and one of the great lay Catholics of the 20th century.
It’s clear now that we weren’t seeing the whole picture. It’s a devastating news story for so many who lived with him and followed him, who were inspired by him.
There’s a point after taking in so much of this kind of scandal and betrayal, that you begin to wonder what everyone who experiences trauma goes through: I can’t trust anyone, can I? I can’t even trust my own judgment? How can I ever know if someone is holy? Surely not because they say so. Usually holy people are the last ones to say or think they are. That might be a start.
Part of our problem is we’re not honest with one another about how hard life is: It can be tortuous with faith, but despairingly nihilistic without it.
So how about being honest with one another? And how about walking with one another more? The call to be blameless as Christians doesn’t mean that we are going to be perfect in every way, every day, but that the journey of our lives is to walk with God’s grace, love with his love in the world, to return to him having loved and served him and his people in the world.
In short, we need to be who we say we are, and as fallen creatures, we need God’s help to get there.
The Vanier revelations also shed light on the problem that is celebrity culture. It’s almost as if we need to find a Jean Vanier in the world and believe he is who he says he is, when really, all we need is Jesus. (Even amid my longtime high esteem for Vanier, I had heard at least one theological critique that perhaps he put the human person in the place of God even in his writing.)
Everyone else is going to disappoint us at some point if we watch too closely or cling too much, because no one is God but God. We want to believe in a charismatic leader, and seeing in them a living saint gives us a sense of comfort, that someone can really live this life of self-sacrifice and reverence of the human person. But we’re not called to be comfortable. We’re called to be stretched out for others. So, it’s not enough to say, “Oh good, he’s doing that great good. Glad someone is.” We need to be doing it, according to his call, according to his Word.
All of this reminds us that even people who live seemingly transparent lives of virtue in community are sinners whose strength depends on God alone. It is a reminder that all our accomplishments in this world mean nothing unless they are in service of him, as a chalice poured out with that which he pours in.
There’s such evil in the Vanier story: using the cover of charity and prayer (and mysticism and spiritual direction) for evil. We’ve seen it before and we will see it again, including in the uncovering of stories that were previously in the dark.
Two years ago, Pope Francis penned a relatively unnoticed apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate (“Rejoice and be Glad”), on “the call to holiness in today’s world.”
In it, he wrote about the “saints next door,” the hidden ones who do not get worldly honor. But there was one passage that jumped out at me during a recent rereading.
“Humility can only take root in the heart through humiliations. ... The holiness that God bestows on his Church comes through the humiliation of his Son. He is the way. Humiliation makes you resemble Jesus; it is an unavoidable aspect of the imitation of Christ.”
He adds that this isn’t “pleasant, for that would be masochism, but that it is a way of imitating Jesus and growing in union with him. This is incomprehensible on a purely natural level, and the world mocks any such notion. Instead, it is a grace to be sought in prayer: ‘Lord, when humiliations come, help me to know that I am following in your footsteps.’ ”
It should probably be a caution to us if a leader looks a little too perfect, if he doesn’t seem honest about his own faults. Especially now, increasingly love and credibility in the Church has to be proven and tested before people can trust.
We needn’t go around being skeptical and cynical about everything, but when we see someone whose words or works help us, let’s pray for them more. Let’s remember that everyone struggles with something and even in crippling ways, but sometimes it’s more hidden than others. And let’s remember that what we see is rarely the whole story. That can make us more patient and merciful.
I don’t think it is any coincidence that we learned about Vanier just before Lent. This is a time to cling to Jesus, reject the false gods of our lives and leave no openings for the Evil One. He doesn’t want the good that we do, so if a ministry or person looks to be doing good, pray for them all the more, because the devil doesn’t want this to bear fruit. Evil will be looking for ways in. And so, it evidently was with Jean Vanier.
In this season that leads us to Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection, we should all take it to prayer: How can the crucified Christ be the focus of my life? If we let his love give our lives its true meaning, then we can be conformed to it.
Taking that decision may not be the popular thing to do, but it’s the true thing for those of us who call ourselves Christians, whatever is going on in politics and culture and the Church and all around us. The world needs this. This is what’s going to generate hope: truly living Christian lives together, loving in the dimension of the cross.