On Jean Vanier, Heroes, Villains and Truth

by Shelley Little Maw

Can we hold two opposing things to be true? At the same time? Can we believe that people can do great things and speak truth to us in newly understandable ways — but also commit reprehensible acts and damage others so much that their lives are changed?

Can we? We have to. We have to, because this way of thinking — more precisely our inability to do this — kept the women abused by Vanier (and others) quiet for so long. It is also, quite possibly, the reason why nobody else noticed any red flags.

I am sorry that Vanier died before this investigation that revealed his crimes could be held and completed. Sorry because I want repentance. I want these women, all of them; to have an admission of guilt from him. I want them to hear him say it in front of the world.

And in that case then, I would feel better about forgiving him (if I could) and moving on with the life-giving part of his legacy intact. Even in that case though, the truth is I personally would have no way of knowing if he was genuine or not. But at least I could have the option of believing he was. I want that option.

But this is not the case. In fact, Vanier (according to the investigation released by L’Arche this weekend) choose to continue to be mentored by Fr. Thomas Philippe even after Philippe was disciplined and sanctioned (in the 1950's!) for his actions and his abusive theology. And in 2016, when one woman came forward and told her story of Vanier’s abuse, Vanier said that the relationship was consensual and since he was not a priest, the matter was dropped.

How could a man whose life’s work is about power, weakness, equality, dignity, human rights, mutuality and respect not see how his actions were abuse of his own power (within the dynamic of a spiritual director/directee relationship)? How could he not see how wrong this was? How could he respond to a victim’s personal impact statement personally sent to him by saying “I thought it was good.”? I could believe he was brain-washed by Fr. Philippe were he not such an independent, culture-challenging thinker in his life’s work.

So it remains just black and white. There is no white-wash available here. Evil and good in one man. I don’t like this. I prefer a person to be evil or good. Then I can reject all or accept all, without having to do my homework necessarily, regarding the merits of their ideas. Then I don’t have to be responsible for what I believe, I only have to choose who I believe, based on what I know and what I am told.

But evil and good in one human? The world is full of examples that prove this is true. In our society today that insists on tolerance, equal rights, and “outing” racism, sexism and negative stereotyping — this dichotomy is evident every day. Do we tear down statues of our founding fathers because they were also racist? Can we agree with someone’s economic policies and disagree with their religious beliefs? Or their misogynistic behaviour? Can we call out a racist act and still re-elect someone? Can we celebrate our country’s victories while lamenting and condemning its staggering history of human rights violations?

Since we cannot ignore this reality with every human and every group of humans, is there sort of an instinctive or collectively agreed upon balance scale- where we can hold both the good and evil together…until…one side carries enough weight and the other side fades sufficiently into the background? or is even catapulted off the pages of history as though it never existed?

In the social media response after Kobe Bryant’s tragic death, people seemed to want to be on one side of the scale or the other, and unable to accept that A) being one of the best ball players of all time doesn’t make you, by default, the greatest human, and neither does being a ‘family man’ and a huge supporter of young athletes, and

B) (and I REALLY don’t like this at all — not even to write it, but…) committing rape doesn’t preclude a person from being gifted, or from ever contributing anything valuable. It just doesn’t. And to me, that’s a sickening truth to admit because I myself have trouble with the idea that this principle doesn’t make RAPE any LESS HORRIFIC than it truly is.

I cannot accept that a quantity of good things can outweigh an evil act or acts. And I would actually like to believe that an evil act outweighs any good things.

But…there it is. Truth is not owned by our goodness, or destroyed by our evil.

This is not rocket science, I realize, once I unpack it. But somehow when someone like Vanier is exposed, it feels complicated, emotional, sickening, unsettling and anything but clear.

There are unlimited examples of this in history. Racism is bad. Slavery is indefensible. Founding a country to provide freedom for its people is good. (and ironic — for only one race of people?) Building a railroad across the country is useful. We appreciate its value every day. Building a railway on another’s land and that cost the lives of a race of people different than your own is horrific. Making great movies is a gift and a skill. Sexually assaulting women while doing that is reprehensible. I am running out of descriptors for evil.

Back to Jean Vanier. He was my hero, if I were to give that designation to anyone. I read almost all his books, tried out his ideas in my life, and I have written about it all in a book I am writing right now. When I apply Vanier’s ideas, my own values and my own experience working with children who are atypical and/or disabled, I see, I know and I experience that his ideas are good, right and true. True for me, and true for those whose lives I support. I owe both my success and much of my personal spiritual growth to those ideas.

And now I am faced with another truth- that the person who I am so grateful for, the person whose ideas have brought life and joy to so many, the person who spear-headed the rescue of the developmentally delayed from the terrible system of institutionalization for crying out loud — this same person destroyed in significant ways the lives of women who came to him for that same, life-giving wisdom. And he did it not by force, and they could draw a clear line between themselves and this evil done to them — he did it by spiritual coercion. He erased lines and crossed spiritual, emotional, sexual and physical boundaries in a way that I can only imagine would take years and tremendous support to figure out and recover from.

Vanier’s most influential book is titled Becoming Human. Ironically, today I feel like this is what becoming human is for me. In addition to Vanier’s ideas about equality, compassion, belonging, forgiveness and mutuality, becoming human is about learning to understand that we are all capable of seeing truth and of committing evil. To put it in terms of my Christian faith: we are created in God’s image, and we are also constantly and regularly choosing evil over good. And with this understanding comes a significant personal responsibility to understand this about ourselves, to remember this about each other, and to accept this reality. We have to do the work this truth demands of us. Because if we don’t, we will both abandon truth and ignore what is evil.

We want our heroes, because if they can be good, maybe we can be as well. And we hate it when they fall and remind us that we are both/and (as Richard Rohr is fond of saying.) We call it a “fall from grace” when our heroes are toppled. I think it could also be called a “fall into grace” if we can accept it, because that is precisely what we all require in this life. A grace defined by acceptance that is clear-eyed, unwarranted and undeserved. Not acceptance of our crimes — never that. But acceptance and forgiveness of our terribly flawed and magnificently made selves. In the Christian faith there is only one who is good — Jesus — and he offers us this grace.

May we have the courage to do the work: to call truth, truth and evil, evil in the life of Jean Vanier. We owe it to the women who saw truth and came to learn from him, and then experienced the evil of abuse. As Vanier himself taught us — may we see in ourselves what we see in the other, accept it, and learn from it.

I am an educational assistant in an integrated, faith-based school system. I write about various topics related to faith, education, & challenging students.

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