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Repentant Reflections on Jean Vanier

For those who know (of) Jean Vanier, the recent disclosures by six women of his alleged sexual relationship with them, is profoundly distressing, to say the least. For those who don’t know of him, it might not be a big issue. It is, however, a HUGE issue. Especially for the women. And sadly, once again, for all spiritual leadership and God’s integrity in the eyes of the world.

My reflections explore WHY? What can we learn from this?

Yesterday morning before leaving for our church service I read a tweet about this breaking news, which led me to the statement released by L’Arche International, reported in The Guardian. Read L’Arche’s official report of its credible investigation. It is harrowing.

What a shock! I felt so grieved and gutted that I could hardly sing. My worship was an inner lament, “O God! O God! Have mercy! Christ have mercy!” The whole day of Sunday I felt a heaviness of spirit, a dark mourning in my soul. It took me another day to get to the point of reflecting and processing in writing before God.

I repeatedly asked why I felt so strongly about this? So broken and repentant? Was it for Jean Vanier, a (now) fallen hero of the faith? Was it for the shattering of my own deep respect for him? Or was it for the women who were abused by him, spiritually manipulated into a sexual relationship with him? They are the ones for whom God weeps – they carry this shame. Probably more will come out into the light of truth, as always happens in such cases.

The brief story.

Jean Vanier was founder-leader of L’Arche (The Ark). Started in 1964. He died 7 May 2019. It was a ministry to care for folk with (develop)mental disabilities. This remarkable charity has communities in 38 countries that care for thousands of people. I heard about Vanier while reading Henri Nouwen – who, in his later years, went to live and work in a L’Arche community. I read all I could of Vanier’s life, work, and writings. A profound lived “reality of love” in selfless service, intentional community, healing and spirituality.[1] Vanier and Nouwen, among others, were formative for me in my years in Soweto, as we worked for Kingdom reconciliation under Apartheid, and set up an intentional inter-racial Christian community. I held Vanier in as high regard as Henri Nouwen. Many who knew him in his Catholic circles considered him “a living saint” – as Mother Teresa. He was a layman, not an ordained priest. He never married.

After investigating the women’s accusations, L’Arche International reports: “Evidence shows that Jean Vanier engaged in ‘manipulative sexual relationships’ from 1970 to 2005, usually with a ‘psychological hold’ over the alleged victims.” They came to him for spiritual direction. His pattern was similar to that of Rev Thomas Philippe, a Catholic priest Vanier called his “spiritual father”. Philippe, who died in 1993, was banned from exercising any public or private ministry in a trial led by the Catholic Church in 1956, for his theories and the sexual practices that stemmed from them. Several women accused him of sexual abuse.

Why is this such a big issue? What can we learn from it?

Here is my repentant reflection before God:  

Why is this disclosure about yet another respected spiritual leader so dismaying for me?
Is it a time for sackcloth and ashes?
Who knows the (dark) thoughts and (devious) motivations of the human heart?
Ultimately only you, Lord.
Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is ANY offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

Our hearts seduce and deceive us in its slow but sure moral corruption.
If we allow it.
Only ruthless self-honesty with God and significant others, to our own hurt (even death), will save us from ourselves.
S/he who thinks they stand, TAKE HEED, lest you fall.
It’s the little foxes that destroy the vine.
Each little temptation, deviant thought, “white lie”, corrupted appetite, self-justifying belief, must immediately be brought to the light of community with God and significant others.
It’s called confession, living a fully disclosed life.

If left unattended, or excused, malformation of moral character sets in.
Corruption of sexual character – in fact, the Big Three: Money, Sex and Power.
It gives power to evil in self-deception, in the silent prison of guilt and shame.
The lie of self-preservation: “whatever happens, don’t let anyone know, don’t be caught out”
So, we progressively live a double life, sworn to secrecy.
We are as sick as the (dark) secrets we keep.
It remains unseen for years till the fruit pops out in certain attitudes, words and behaviour.
Often when we least expect it. Others see and notice it.
Disintegrates our integrity of being into other “selfs”, sick “parts” that we compartmentalise and accommodate and live with – for 35 years in Vanier’s case.
These “identities” then drive us, eventually with tormenting demonic energy.
Which seek to deceive and destroy – through us – those around us, those to whom we minister.

Who we really are, our true character, is known ultimately only to God.
Will be fully revealed when we die and appear before The Judgement Seat of Christ.
Then all will be known.
Lord, have mercy!
Better to come clean NOW, disclose our dark secrets and devious thoughts.
And get help, so that we don’t deceive ourselves and destroy others.

Paul says: watch your life – your believing, teaching and behaviour – very closely, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers (1 Timothy 4:15-16)
What will it profit you to gain the whole world’s respect by admirable selfless service in the Name of Jesus, and yet lose your own integrity and personhood while doing so?      

This might appear selfish. It’s not.
The real concern is the women and others, “the hearers” who were left spiritually manipulated, sexually abused, deeply damaged.
At the hands of a male Christian spiritual leader… again. Again. Again. Again.
When will it ever end? Only in the age to come.
As part of this spurious specie of (male) pastors/leaders, all I can say is, “God forgive us! Women and children, please forgive us!”  

Do I now disrespect and throw out all Jean Vanier has done? No, not at all. Do I discount what he’s written? Not at all. I now read it with clearer discerning lenses. We honour the good work that has been done – God uses broken people, we’re all wounded healers – while honestly facing the loss of integrity that has now tarnished his legacy (the first sexual abuse he engaged in, if disclosed at the time, should’ve disqualified him from leadership). Above all, however, we pray for the healing restoration of these women.

What can we learn?

Be radically honest with yourself. Be in touch with your needs, with your brokenness. With what drives you in certain contexts with certain people. And get help.

Do not remain unmarried if you are not “gifted” with celibacy, as Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 7:1-7. The doctrine and practice of celibacy of the priesthood has caused untold pain for many victims of abuse. It should be re-examined, even abandoned.

Do not over-react with generalisations (“don’t trust leaders”, “Catholics are bad”, “mystical spirituality is spurious”). Don’t under-react with excusing or minimising it all in the name of “love” or “mercy” or “good works” (that enhances the pain of the abused. We forgive sin, even patterns of immoral character, but that doesn’t mean the perpetrator must not be held accountable).

Be careful of (exclusive) one-on-one relationships in spiritual companionship or direction, in discipling, mentoring, fathering and mothering.

Be discerning of any spiritual manipulation, of any emotional pressure, relational dependence, deceptive beliefs, character failure.

Never idolise human leaders. We only have one human-God, Messiah Jesus. The rest of us are merely servant leaders in recovery all the way to heaven!

Don’t follow or entrust yourself to leaders who are not in touch with their brokenness. Who are not led or do not allow themselves to be led. Who are not genuinely accountable to others. Who do not work in team. They are dangerous.

Above all else, guard your heart, keep your integrity, grow your character, for it’s the fountain from which we all live, whether we know it or not, for better or for worse, with eternal consequence.
In other words, model the real deal of life to the full, due to godly character formation before the audience of One – Who sees all, knows all, and gives us the grace we need when we need it.

[1] “L’Arche is founded on love for people with mental disabilities. If we keep our eyes fixed on them, if we are faithful to them, we will always find our path. We are constantly called to draw this love from the heart of God, and from God’s mysterious presence at the heart of poor people.” Jean Vanier, From Brokenness to Community (Paulist Press, 1992), p.7.