Jean Vanier is pictured during a visit with members of the L’Arche coummunity in March 2011. CNS photo/courtesy Jean Vanier Association

Glen Argan: A lesson for us all in Vanier’s downfall

  • February 26, 2020

The news that Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche homes for people with mental handicaps, engaged in decades of sexual misconduct and falsely denied knowing about similar abuse by his mentor, Fr. Thomas Philippe, is shocking. Vanier was a saint in the eyes of many and also an icon for the future direction of the Church.

How do we make sense of Vanier’s sexual exploitation of the six women who testified to a L’Arche internal inquiry? What hope do any of us have of attaining sanctity if Vanier, who lived a prayerful and humble existence, fell so badly? What are we to make of Vanier’s prophetic vision which he passionately spelled out in so many books and public addresses?

Vanier began ongoing sexual relationships with the six women during spiritual direction. His actions bore a similar pattern to those of Fr. Philippe, who justified his own abuse by saying “he sought to uncover and communicate a mystical experience.” 

To its credit, L’Arche International began an investigation into Vanier’s actions shortly before his death last May 7. Other religious organizations have swept similar allegations against their founder or other members under the carpet until forced to come clean by the glare of publicity. L’Arche’s reputation appears to be untarnished by its founder’s sins.

Of course, Vanier is dead and cannot defend himself. However, the independent testimonies of the six women revealed a similar pattern in Vanier’s advances.

Can we make sense of Vanier’s actions? It is clear that he found himself and his mission in life through his encounter with handicapped people. He discovered laughter, belonging and freedom through community with the marginalized. 

Yet, it is not too much to believe that he also saw himself in the lives of the handicapped. His own life had meandered and seemed to be without purpose until he encountered Fr. Philippe and later launched L’Arche. He saw the loneliness of handicapped people and perhaps saw their loneliness as similar to his own experience of aloneness.

In his 1998 Massey Lecture series, published as Becoming Human, Vanier defined “the fundamental meaning of loneliness: a cry, often a painful cry of anguish, for some respect and love of others, to be even more enfolded in truth, held in God.” Did this allude to Vanier’s own “painful cry of anguish”? Was it the anguish of loneliness that moved him to exploit the women to whom he gave spiritual direction?

If so, this does not whitewash Vanier’s actions. But it may help us better understand the man.

Earlier in the book, he wrote, “Frequently, it is the lonely man or woman who revolts against injustice and seeks new ways. It is as if a fire is burning within them, a fire fuelled by loneliness.” This sounds autobiographical, describing Vanier’s own “fire fuelled by loneliness.” One can begin to see how the loneliness which gave rise to Vanier’s prophetic vision was also the source of his sexual exploitation of women.

How can we who are not Jean Vanier achieve sanctity? Crucial is the realization that those qualities which are the source of our greatest strengths are typically the source of our greatest sins. The person who is the source of fun and laughter because of their spontaneity may also spontaneously run afoul of the law or fail to carry out their basic duties. So, know your greatest strength and know that it is also your greatest weakness. Doing so gives you the option to avoid acting out of that weakness.

Does Vanier’s prophetic vision remain true? Yes. He spent long, long hours reflecting on Scripture and how it connects with life in our times. That vision does not become invalid because he was unable to live up to it. Indeed, all of us fail to consistently live up to our ideals. 

Vanier’s variance from his vision was perhaps greater than that of others because it was so clearly articulated and so strongly felt. But the vision of seeing Christ in the poor and making friends with the marginalized remains unsullied.

Vanier can no longer be seen as a hero or a saint. His sins were large and they have been exposed. But he was a great man, one for whom the root of his greatness was also the source of his downfall. Perhaps we who lack greatness can discover our own qualities which bring us success while refusing to act out of their inevitable dark side.

(Argan is program co-ordinator at Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, Alta.)

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